During the lifespan of The Doors, Ray Manzarek managed the impossible. He fashioned an instrumental voice that stood out in a band fronted by one of the most outrageous singers of his day. Such was the duality that made Doors music so compelling.
Jim Morrison may have been the rock star, the one who fascinated and confounded as the band’s focial point. But Manzarek was its musical conscience. Designing keyboard melodies that owed as much to classical and jazz as they did to pop, he often anchored Doors songs with a groove that would hold fast as Morrison raged.
On any number of Doors hits, it was Manzarek you heard first. Soul Kitchen, When the Music’s Over, Strange Days, Touch Me, Light My Fire and, most profoundly, Riders on the Storm, all began with a keyboard prologue that pinpointed a mood and motive before Morrison sang a note. And on two of the band’s wildest works – Crystal Ship and Unknown Soldier – Manzarek and Morrison began in unison, engaging in a quiet but pronounced musical communion.
Many forget that The Doors went on to cut two albums after Morrison’s death – 1971’s Other Voices and 1972’s Full Circle. While paling understandably in contrast to the Doors’ heyday records, both are still worth seeking in second hand stores out for keyboard colors that remain distinctive even without Morrison’s dark poetics.
A few post-Doors delights peppered Manzarek’s later career. As a producer, he was at the helm for Los Angeles, the 1980 debut album by the vanguard punk band X. And during the mid ‘80s, the keyboardist struck up a curious alliance with Brit pop stylists Echo and the Bunnymen. Together they cut a highly faithful cover of the Doors’ People are Strange, which was buried on the soundtrack to The Lost Boys, and a fun, Doors-like original, Bedbugs and Ballyhoo.
Is there one essential Doors album to commemorate Manzarek with? Let’s sign off with two. Try any of the band’s many anthology sets, but augment your pick with 1971’s L.A. Woman, Morrison’s swansong album. It remains an alternately sleek, serene and deliriously earthy monument to a rock troupe riding out the final tide of a majestic storm.