Ray Manzarek
By Beppe Colli
May 22, 2013

There's a song which, while still quite familiar to the multitudes of today, starting with that impossible-to-mistake organ intro that'll stick in one's mind after just one listening, was the undisputed soundtrack of Summer '67, and a #1 smash all over the world. I'm talking about the Procol Harum song titled A Whiter Shade Of Pale, of course, and that Bach-influenced intro composed and performed by Matthew Fisher on his Hammond organ. Alas, the gigantic success did not benefit the group: with the usual "dubious contract" depriving them of even a slice of those enormous profits, the group was left without any trace of credibility, given the fact that the song had been recorded by a diverse group of musicians, a fact which in the opinion of many made Procol Harum a "fake", and quite dubious, entity; directionless, and left without a recording contract by a management trying to capture the proverbial "best offer", the group lost momentum, ultimately becoming a perfect for instance in the "one hit wonder" category. Hence, Procol Harum's destiny is to be remembered for their one hit, or to be forgotten. There's also a third possibility, of course: the group being forgotten, while their song lives on.

The biggest explosion in the US charts of Summer '67 was the new single by a new group from California, The Doors. In July Light My Fire reached #1. The song sounded fresh, starting with its Bach-influenced intro penned by the group's organ player, Ray Manzarek. But the song's big success - radio stations broadcasting Light My Fire more than once every hour - turned into mass hysteria as soon as an unexpected factor appeared on TV screens all over the nation - let's not forget the group's performance on the Ed Sullivan Show - and all over the press: an "erotic politician" going under the name Jim Morrison.

It was not Light My Fire, but Jim Morrison which ultimately proved to be The Doors' A Whiter Shade Of Pale (it's been reported that after the death of their lead singer the remaining Doors half-joked about going on as a group under the name And The Doors).

It was an intense journey. While Riders On The Storm, the book by drummer John Densmore, though obviously written with the benefit of hindsight, is a well-balanced account, full of acute observations, the one written by Ray Manzarek, obviously titled Light My Fire, doesn't amount to much, its first goal being to perpetuate the myth of the deceased singer; but it has to be said that this was the first time one could read in full about Manzarek's rich and complex musical apprenticeship, which makes for a very interesting read.

Funny to see how diverse the Doors' attitude when looking back at their shared past - how strange to spend one's life looking backwards in order to raise money! Manzarek was the formidable "raconteur", with the passing of time those tales increasingly resembling the ones told by one's grandfather. Densmore always oscillated between cool memories and those eyes still wide open in amazement for what he had seen from his drum stool - and let's not forget that John Densmore's drums were The Doors' "nervous system". Robby Krieger, the prodigious guitarist who penned many of the group's hits, starting with Light My Fire, often adopted a "neutral" tone, but sometimes his inscrutable smile spoke volumes.

The best source here is the DVD-V from the Classic Albums series about the group's first album, The Doors. While the scenes showing the group in the studio while rehearsing the track Wild Child in the movie by Tom DiCillo titled When You're Strange are a perfect picture of the group's dynamics, and the role played by Manzarek in the recording studio.

As it's widely known, Light My Fire sacrificed those long organ and guitar solos on the altar of AM radio. Both Manzarek and Krieger were very fine instrumentalists, but it was their being part of the "backing band" of a singer that spared them the sad destiny of becoming members of one of those "jam bands" which sound so dated today, or becoming part of a "folk-rock" band (Krieger) or a "Blues jam in Chicago" collective, à la Paul Butterfield Blues Band (Manzarek). And while the group's live concerts often turned into happenings, so creating a legend, it was the studio dimension that best suited the group.

The sound of The Doors performing in the studio is always clear, limpid, meticulous. It goes without saying that the group's producer, Paul Rothchild, and their sound engineer, Bruce Botnick, deserve their ample share of credit here. But not a little part of a song sounding "uncluttered" has to be ascribed to something called "arrangement". Here it's obvious that it's the skillful combination of chords, voicings, timbres, and melodic lines that those musicians - the drummer included, thank you - carefully chose that gives those tracks that sense of clarity.

The Doors had a very individual sound, and keyboards were a big part of that. But let's not mistake the sound of an instrument for the sound of a style: while it's true that in one's mind one can listen to many instrumental sounds as being one and the same, listening will tell a different story, so revealing the individuality of a player: Ray Manzarek.

The organ solo in Light My Fire is without a doubt the most famous organ solo in the history of rock music. But what about the song intro? A single shot on the snare drum, then it's that joyful phrase, which then leads to a held chord, and the song proper.

It's widely known that in the early stages of the group's life Jim Morrison announced his intention for the group's royalties to be equally split four ways: a very generous offer, given the fact that up to that point all the original songs the group played had been penned by him. While we know that it was only due to matters of "identification" that starting with the album The Soft Parade the contributions of the individual composers were listed as such on the group's albums.

It's in his "dressing" those songs penned by others, starting with the ones penned by Morrison, that one can immediately see the importance of Manzarek's contribution when it comes to chords and transitions. As a first "for instance" one doesn't need to go too far: just turn over the Light My Fire single and (carefully!) drop the stylus on The Crystal Ship. A look at the group's catalogue will give a fine list of "piano songs": People Are Strange, Love Street, Yes, The River Knows, The Spy...

A fine, impossible-to-mistake trait of Ray Manzarek, keyboard player, is his stating a motif, on which he later elaborates: listen to his "minimal"-sounding organ solo on Break On Through (To The Other Side); his piano solo, both hands running parallel, on People Are Strange; his "tack piano" solo on L.A. Woman...

Manzarek is also at his best when "filling" a picture: Hello, I Love You, obviously, also Waiting For The Sun, the Wurlitzer electric piano with tremolo on Queen Of The Highway, the above-mentioned L.A. Woman...

And what about his intros? Here are just a few: Light My Fire, of course, the organ intros to Strange Days, When The Music's Over, Hello, I Love You, and Touch Me (that funny Brazilian samba which has Densmore's drums as its perfect counterpoint, the drum figure getting progressively more complex, with a fine use of the half-open hi-hat), the Hammond organ at the start of The Changeling, the Fender Rhodes electric piano on Riders On The Storm: two phrases over a bass ostinato, then that descending figure which sounds as it's never gonna end, played on an "endless" keyboard.

This is an era that's long past we are talking about, full of tiny things that nowadays have all but disappeared. Listening to those old albums by The Doors tells us of craftsmen's skills applied with great care, and of a studio work which had the best results as its goal. With the group featuring those elements which made for a better appreciation of the music, even when not consciously perceived - something which takes for granted an undivided attention when it comes to listening to music.

Which is even more laudable when it comes to The Doors, given the pandemonium the group faced in their live concerts.

This could sound a bit vague, so here are two specific examples - readers are invited to find their own.

The main character when it comes to keyboards on Hyacinth House is a Hammond organ, with a generous dose of vibrato. But check the timbre on the "bridge" section, where the lyrics start with "I see the bathroom is clear". Here the Hammond has a function called "percussion" in operation, and its backing, the notes now played "staccato", perfectly mirrors the feeling of "walking on eggshells" which is painted in this section.

As we all know, the main ingredient of the song Waiting For The Sun is the dramatic opposition of "full" and "empty". Given this framework, the thin, sinister vibrato of the organ part - played on what I believe to be a Gibson G-101 - that appears under the line "Is this the strangest life I've ever known?" gives the line a strong feeling of tension, fear, and unknown that perfectly complements it.

Going back, I seem to remember that among those who thought Jim Morrison to be a questionable character there were a lot of people who didn't even consider "those other three" as being living, breathing, creatures. And I'm certain that having a look at those reviews from way back, more than a few penned by illustrious names, will prove this. It's not that things as seen ex post necessarily benefit from a clearer vision, and for the same reason: there's Jim Morrison... And The Doors. And I know I'll never understand those who said/say that The Doors released only three good albums: those first two, and their last one. (How an album like L.A. Woman can be described as being "live in the studio" - no ears left? - I'll never know.)

In fact, the group's last studio album shows their great versatility when playing with aplomb and finesse so many styles.

The intro to The Changeling has the Hammond with vibrato, in some ways reminiscent of, say, Les McCann (there's also an echo of Tramp, by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, which gives a funny aftertaste to something which could potentially sound a bit too dramatic). Listen to the guitar solo - three guitars! - with the organ as their backing.

The "tack piano" on Love Her Madly reminds one of Blues/Barrelhouse parts on tracks such as Roadhouse Blues and You Make Me Real - also L.A. Woman. Here the "thin"-sounding organ sounds just like the Vox Continental from the group's first two albums.

Listeners already know the pairing of Fender Rhodes with "tack piano" of the title track.

The tense mood of L'America starts with the organ arpeggios with echo - which sounds like the Gibson to me - at the start of the track. Listen to the way the sound and the chords change ("Come on, people"...), then the solo.

I've already talked about Hyacinth House. But pay attention to the "polonaise", as an "incongruous" organ intermezzo (after "... left to play").

Check the fine contrast between the tense guitar solo by Robby Krieger and the somnambulant, narcoleptic, posture of the Wurlitzer piano on Crawling King Snake.

The Wasp (Texas Radio And The Big Beat) is a perfect specimen of what a fantastic Hammond player was Manzarek, though his name was never synonymous with that brand.

For many years Riders On The Storm was made passé by too much listening. Let's listen now to that Fender Rhodes solo.

Raymond Daniel Manczarek, Jr., known as Ray Manzarek (February 12, 1939 – May 20, 2013)

© Beppe Colli 2013

CloudsandClocks.net | May 22, 2013