Ray Manzarek, keyboardist and founding member of the Doors who performed and lived in Napa Valley in recent years, has died at age 74.
A musician who had a dramatic impact on rock ‘n’ roll, Manzarek died Monday at the RoMed Clinic in Rosenheim, Germany, surrounded by his family, after battling bile duct cancer for several months, said publicist Heidi Robinson-Fitzgerald.
Manzarek founded the Doors after meeting then-poet Jim Morrison in Los Angeles. The band went on to become one of the most successful rock ‘n’ roll acts to emerge from the 1960s and continues to resonate with fans decades after Morrison’s death brought an effective end to the band.
Manzarek, a Chicago native, continued to remain active in music. On the local scene, he performed with blues guitarist/vocalist Roy Rogers in early January this year at the Napa Valley Opera House and appeared with the Napa Valley Symphony as a guest artist for its September 2010 Napa River Festival.
In the summer of 2011, Manzarek participated in a question-and-answer session following the screening of a documentary about the Doors at St. Helena’s Cameo Cinema. He played in other bands over the years, produced other acts, became an author and worked on films.
“I played Apollo to Jim Morrison’s Dionysius, the Greek god of madness and craziness, the dying and resurrecting god, the fecundity of the earth,” Manzarek said of his association with the Doors’ renowned vocalist during a 2006 interview with the Napa Valley Register.
The keyboardist was already playing in bands when he met Morrison, better respected at the time for his poetry than his weak vocals.
“He wanted to be a rock star,” Manzarek said of Morrison. “He wanted to be like one of the Beatles or Rolling Stones. He was handsome enough to do it. In two-three months he had transformed himself ... from 165 pounds of baby fat ... to 135 pounds with bone structure that was just gorgeous.”
As a Door, Manzarek never claimed the spotlight. “When you have a lead singer like Jim Morrison, the band recedes into the background,” he said.
Remarkably, Doors recordings sell nearly as well today as they did back in the day, Manzarek noted during the Register interview. “The Doors’ royalties allow me to indulge my fantasies.”
The Doors were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Manzarek is among the most notable keyboard players in rock history. His lead-instrument work with the band at a time when the guitar often dominated added a distinct end-times flavor that matched Morrison’s often out there imagery and persona.
The Doors were best known for hits like “L.A. Woman,” “Break On Through to the Other Side,” “The End” and “Light My Fire” and came to symbolize the decadence of Los Angeles as the counterculture grew in the U.S.
Morrison and Manzarek met at UCLA film school and ran into each other in Venice a few months after graduation, Manzarek recounted in a 1967 interview with Billboard.
Outwardly the two seemed so different. The strikingly tall, dark and handsome Morrison looked the part of rock star, while Manzarek, with glasses and comparatively close-cropped blonde hair, retained a more professorial look.
Inwardly, though, they were kindred spirits, as Manzarek discovered when Morrison read him the lyrics for a song called “Moonlight Drive.”
“I’d never heard lyrics to a rock song like that before,” Manzarek said. “We talked a while before we decided to get a group together and make a million dollars.”
The band would make far more than that. The Doors, which also included guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore, has sold more than 100 million albums and their music has been re-released and repackaged multiple times over the years, been featured prominently in movies and holds an oft-debated place in rock history.
While Morrison, with his proto-celebrity lifestyle and tragic end, forever will remain the face of The Doors, you could argue Manzarek’s keyboard work was every bit as important and helped balance some of the singer’s more over-the-top moments.
His creepy organ line on “Light My Fire” adds a weirdo menace to what outwardly is a rock ’n’ roll pick-up song. And his after-hours, lounge style on “Riders On the Storm” transforms that song into an epic unlike anything else the band ever did.
The Doors’ catalog is filled with Manzarek's intuitive, often psychedelic music. After Morrison's death in 1971, it was Manzarek who kept the band's legacy alive, offering releases of the Morrison’s poetry set to new musical backings. A decade ago, he formed the Doors of the 21st Century with Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger and singer Ian Astbury of the Cult. In between those efforts, Manzarek released a series of solo recordings. He also played a key part in a second wave of poetic California rock noir by co-producing the first four albums by L.A. punk band X.
Manzarek is survived by his wife, Dorothy, his son Pablo and two brothers, Rick and James. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.