Ray Manzarek was best known as the keyboard player or ‘keyboard bass’ player for The Doors, which he co-founded with Jim Morrison in 1965. He was present on all of the eight albums made by The Doors until they disbanded in 1973.
Family life and influences
Ray Manzarek was born in Chicago, Illinois, as Raymond Daniel Manczarek Jr. to Polish parents Helen and Raymond Manczarek in 1939. Originally, Ray wanted to be a basketball player, until he received an ultimatum from his coach that he could only play defence, or not at all. Ray swiftly proceeded to quit basketball, and learnt to play the piano instead.
He spent a brief time in the army, but refused to sign the security clearance which would have allowed him to have a role as a ‘spy’, analysing intelligence and transmissions that came through on a radio. This was because, after signing himself to secrecy, he would have been forever barred from visiting Poland, although he was of Polish descent, as, at the time, Poland was part of the Soviet Union, and was therefore considered an enemy to the US. After a few months, he was discharged as a PFC (Private First Class) and went to study cinematography at UCLA in 1962, where he met Jim Morrison.
Musically, Ray Manzarek was drawn to the Blues sound which he heard in his late teens, and was a fan of jazz, like his band-mate, John Densmore. This musical style was perfectly complementary to the darker, more brooding personality of Jim Morrison, and helped The Doors to access their own unique sound.
Early Career and The Doors
After a chance encounter with Jim Morrison on Venice Beach in California, the two co-founded The Doors. Ray then met the next band members, Robby Krieger and John Densmore, at a lecture on Transcendental Meditation, and proceeded to recruit them for the band.
Ray Manzarek acted as the keyboard player, and also played the baselines for songs written by The Doors, as they had no bass player. Such was his skill at this role that he is considered by USA Today as “one of the best keyboardists ever.”
Ray also sang backing vocals for the band, but was occasionally lead vocalist, for instance in covers of ‘Close To You’ or ‘You Need Meat’. After Jim’s death in 1971, he and Robby Krieger shared lead vocals on subsequent albums, such as ‘Other Voices’ and ‘Full Circle’.
Career after The Doors
After The Doors disbanded in 1973, Ray Manzarek played in other bands, such as Nite City, who released two albums in 1977 and 1978. His memoir (Light My Fire: My Life with The Doors) was published in 1998, and after a collaboration with trumpeter Bal in 2006, he produced the ‘electronica’ album ‘Atonal Head’, which incorporates elements of ethnic, classical, jazz and rock music. With these and many other publications and albums from 1973 to 2013, Manzarek has been on the music scene for a long time after his depart from The Doors.
Ray met Dorothy Aiko Fujikawa at UCLA, marrying her soon after in 1967, with Jim Morrison and Pamela Courson as witnesses. This relationship was comparatively lacking in melodrama, and the happy couple stayed married until Ray’s death in 2013.
In March 2013, aged 74, Ray Manzarek was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare cancer found in the bile ducts which drain bile form the liver into the small intestine. He reconciled with estranged John Densmore before his death, and after his passing, Densmore and Robby Krieger performed a tribute to Manzarek, reuniting for the first time in 15 years in 2016. That day would have been Ray’s 77th birthday.
After Ray’s death, both Robby Krieger and John Densmore had great words for Ray Manzarek.
“I was deeply saddened to hear about the passing of my friend and bandmate Ray Manzarek today. 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.” – Robby Krieger
“There was no keyboard player on the planet more appropriate to support Jim Morrison’s words. Ray, I felt totally in sync with you musically. It was like we were of one mind, holding down the foundation for Robby and Jim to float on top of. I will miss my musical brother.” – John Densmore
In terms of a musical legacy, that has most certainly been left behind by Ray Manzarek, as his highly innovative playing gave The Doors the unique sound which they are known for, and also allowed him to have continued success after he left the group.