Every really good band is made up of certain elements that give it a unique, recognizable sound. For The Doors, Ray Manzarek’s keyboards were the thing that made you know right away who you were listening to. A while back I pondered the question of which rock and roll drummer was the first to make the drums an important piece of the band’s sound. The drums have always been necessary in rock and roll, but Keith Moon really made them necessary for The Who to sound like The Who. Ray Manzarek did this for The Doors.
Since The Doors had no bass guitarist, Ray used his keyboard magic to provide that heaviness and it made all the difference in their music. Of course, Jim Morrison was an amazing performer (even when he was fucked up), and his dramatic interpretation of each song was made more incredible and intriguing when accompanied by Ray’s electric keyboard licks. His blues- and jazz-based style gave The Doors just what they needed to break out of obscurity and become legends.
“Light My Fire” is their best known song, and it houses one of the best keyboard solos of all time. Very few can compete with its power, its perfect placement in such a brilliant song, and though that solo has been called indulgent, boring, or simply far too long, resulting in it being significantly shortened for the single and for radio, I find it perfect and necessary. It’s a long, beautiful trip. I shout Fuck yeah! whenever I hear it.
Their version of Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man” also showcases some sweet-ass keyboard action. It just makes sense here. Jim’s moaning and Ray’s keyboard fingering work together perfectly to reach a satisfying climax that makes you want a cigarette when it’s finished. In “The End,” Ray’s haunting music allows Jim to freestyle his way into incoherent brilliance. “When the Music’s Over,” which is one of my favorite Doors songs and is on my favorite Doors album, Strange Days, requires those keyboards as much as it requires Jim’s foreboding lyrics. The opening of “Touch Me” is exciting proof that The Doors still had it goin’ on, despite the lounge act feel of The Soft Parade.
And what the hell would “Hello, I Love You” be without Ray? That song is made for an organ specialist (nudge nudge, wink wink). And “Five to One”? “Roadhouse Blues”? “Love Her Madly”? Forget about it. Fucking genius.
“L.A. Woman” and “Riders on the Storm” were their two last epic songs, and Ray did them justice. He brought the speed in “L.A. Woman,” and mellowed us out in “Riders on the Storm.”
As I said, all members of a band are necessary to sound like the band. But Ray Manzarek’s superior keyboard talents gave The Doors that extra je ne sais quoi. He made The Doors sound like The Doors.
RIP Ray Manzarek.