Ray Manzarek, best known for his signature organ sound as keyboardist and co-founder of the Doors with Jim Morrison, died at age 74 today at the RoMed Clinic in Rosenheim, Germany, after a sustained battle with bile duct cancer.
Manzarek formed the Doors in 1965 with fellow UCLA film school student Morrison after a chance encounter at Venice Beach. They would recruit drummer John Densmore and Robbie Krieger, which became a fixture on the Sunset Strip in 1966.
The band’s eponymous debut album, released in 1967 on Elektra Records, produced the hit single “Light My Fire,” which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song, cut down from seven minutes for radio play, fully epitomized the Doors’ music, with Manzerek’s swirling Vox Continental combo organ and Morrison’s almost cryptic baritone setting the band apart from the Summer of Love psychedelia of the day.
Their recordings — alternately rough-and-tumble rock, jazz-inspired improvisation and Brechtian, existential musings — were so exotic that no group could be mistaken for the foursome. The band, whose name hailed from the title of Aldous Huxley’s book “The Doors of Perception,” would release six studio albums by the time of Morrison’s death in 1971. Because the band lacked a bassist, Manzarek usually played the bass parts on a Fender Rhodes piano. They would sell more than 100 million albums worldwide, producing 19 Gold, 14 Platinum and five multi-Platinum albums in the U.S.
Although Manzarek — a thinking man’s musician more attuned to the extended jams associated with jazz than the three-minute statements of the rock and pop realm — kept the Doors’ and Morrison’s flame alive with a number of related projects after their frontman died, he continued to be instrumental in the L.A. music scene, principally as a producer of the seminal L.A. punk band X. Of Morrison, Manzarek told Variety in 2011: “He was a poet. A Dionysus to my Apollo. A great performer, a shaman. And a damn good friend.”
He wrote a memoir, “Light My Fire: My Life with The Doors,” that was published in 1998, along with a novel, “The Poet in Exile” (2001), which explored the urban legend that Morrison might have faked his death. Manzarek’s second novel, “Snake Moon,” a Civil War ghost story, was released in 2006.
His illness “was ongoing,” according to his manager Tom Vitorino. He had been undergoing therapy in Germany, and “feeling better,” but his condition took a turn for the worse as recently as Thursday.
A longtime L.A. resident and impresario, Manzarek had been living in Napa Valley for about 10 years before his death, and had played with a number of local bands in the area. Over the years, he collaborated with artists like Echo and the Bunnymen, Iggy Pop and the San Francisco poet Michael McClure.
Up until his death, Manzarek was playing with Krieger, performing Doors music.
“I was deeply saddened to hear about the passing of my friend and bandmate Ray Manzarek today,” said Krieger in a statement through Manzarek’s publicist. “I’m just glad to have been able to have played Doors songs with him for the last decade. Ray was a huge part of my life and I will always miss him.”
Adds Vitorino: “He was a vibrant, exciting artist. Regardless of his age, he was still creative and at the height of his powers.”
His wife Dorothy Manzarek and his brothers Rick and James were with him at the time of his death.
Manzarek is also survived by his son, Pablo Manzarek, Pablo’s wife Sharmin and their three children Noah, Apollo and Camille. Funeral arrangements are pending.