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Ray Manzarek, 1939–2013

The keyboardist whose sound made The Doors

Ray Manzarek’s most famous keyboard solo was inspired not by rock ’n’ roll, but by John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” The keyboardist riffed on the jazz tune to fill out “Light My Fire,” the 1967 hit that launched The Doors into rock superstardom. “We loved that we were getting Coltrane played on AM radio,” he later said.

Chicago-born Manzarek moved to Los Angeles in 1962, said the Los Angeles Times, and soon met fellow UCLA film student Jim Morrison. The pair formed a band “built around Morrison’s poetry” with guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore but no bass player. Manzarek “wound up pulling double duty,” playing a keyboard bass with his left hand and his signature Vox Continental organ with his right. “It kept The Doors as a four-side diamond,” he later said, “rather than an evil pentagram.”

The Doors recorded nine studio albums and sold over 100 million records, said the Associated Press. Manzarek’s multifaceted sound was their signature, from the “sleepy, lounge-style keyboards” of “Riders on the Storm” to the “barrelhouse romps” of “Roadhouse Blues.” The band kept going for two years after Morrison’s early death in 1971, but it wasn’t the same. “The Doors was the perfect mixture of four guys, four egos that balanced each other,” Manzarek said. “[Without Jim,] the whole dynamic was screwed up.”

Manzarek found middling solo success in the 1970s and ’80s, said Spin.com, but also “kept the band’s legacy alive.” In 1977 he convinced the surviving Doors to record backup tracks to poetry recorded by Morrison, and in 2002 teamed up with Krieger and singer Ian Astbury to perform as The Doors of the 21st Century. Densmore refused to take part, however, and along with Morrison’s family he sued to prevent his former bandmates from using the band’s name.

Manzarek acknowledged that Morrison’s posthumous mystique had given The Doors extra longevity, but always said he’d prefer to still be playing with his friend. “If you’re going to become a legend—one of the immortals, a god, then you have to die,” he once said. “That’s the tragedy.”

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