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Best Ray Manzarek Doors Performances: 10 Iconic Keyboard Parts
Gijsbert Hanekroot / Alamy Stock Photo
List & Guides

Best Ray Manzarek Doors Performances: 10 Iconic Keyboard Parts

Elegant, melodic and always innovative, the best Ray Manzarek performances played a decisive part in The Doors’ otherworldly music.

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Jim Morrison himself said “I’ll always be a word man”, and while he provided The Doors with their voice, their sex appeal and some of the best lyrics in rock history, he needed his bandmates’ decisive musical input when it came to realising their collective vision – something which the best Ray Manzarek performances delivered in spades.

The Doors had a significant head-start with Manzarek. Their tall, imposing and studious-looking keyboard maestro made his name in the rock idiom, but he had a dexterity which left most of his peers reeling. Able to play basslines with his left hand while performing magical organ and piano melodies with his right, Manzarek drew upon boyhood influences from jazz and classical music, as well as the tough urban blues that blasted from his native city of Chicago, and he adroitly blended them to create a distinctive and highly innovative sound all his own.

Here we salute this singular musician by selecting the best Ray Manzarek performances of all time.

Listen to the best of The Doors here, and check out the best Ray Manzarek performances, below.

10: Break On Through (To The Other Side) (from ‘The Doors’, 1967)

The opening track to The Doors’ immaculate self-titled debut album, and also the band’s debut single, Break On Through (To The Other Side) is the ideal point of entry to The Doors’ darkly seductive oeuvre. Spurred on by some of Jim Morrison’s greatest lyrics – inspired as much by William Blake as they were Aldous Huxley – the band’s three musicians worked up a brooding yet highly accessible backdrop which drew upon their own eclectic influences.

Drummer John Densmore’s bossa nova backbeat was a response to Stan Getz and João Gilberto’s crossover jazz album, Getz/Gilberto, while Robby Krieger’s guitar parts tipped a hat to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s take on Elmore James’ blues standard Shake Your Money Maker. Crucially, Break On Through also introduced Ray Manzarek’s hallmark, churchy Vox Continental organ sound, with the musician later confessing that his neat R&B-tinged riffs and stylish solo were inspired by another pioneering keyboard maestro. “It’s Ray Charles,” Manzarek told Classic Albums, admitting his keyboard part lifts from the soul pioneer’s classic 50s cut What’d I Say. “But I play ‘break on through to the other side’. We’d steal from anybody.”

9: Touch Me (from ‘The Soft Parade’, 1969)

Replete with strings and a brass section, The Soft Parade is something of an outlier among the best Doors albums. Nonetheless, the record still contains some of the band’s most spirited performances, not least its lead single, Touch Me, which provided the group with a huge No.3 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Here the sweeping orchestration helps elevate the group, though it’s still The Doors’ three core instrumentalists – led by Manzarek’s urgent, Motown-esque organ riffs and neo-Elizabethan harpsichord runs – which ultimately gets this dashing love song over the line among the best Ray Manzarek performances.

8: Love Me Two Times (from ‘Strange Days’, 1967)

Arguably the most psychedelic of The Doors’ albums, their second outing, Strange Days, offered the band the chance to experiment, as their chosen studio (Los Angeles’ Sunset Sound) had upgraded from its original four-track set-up to a then groundbreaking eight tracks, allowing the group to add fresh colour and textures to their palette of sound. The upgrade also meant Ray Manzarek was able to fold Moog synthesiser, marimbas and harpsichord into his traditional arsenal of organ and piano, and his selections were always inspired and imaginative, leading to no shortage of contenders among the best Ray Manzarek performances. Most keyboardists would naturally gravitate to organ on the infectious, bluesy Love Me Two Times, yet Manzarek’s choice of weapon – harpsichord – allowed him to add a jarring and percussive edge to the song’s verses and to weigh in with one of his most imperious, jazz-inflected solos.

7: Soul Kitchen (from ‘The Doors’, 1967)

Jim Morrison’s vivid tribute to both his favourite late-night soul-food diner and also the “neon groves” of the Los Angeles night is brilliantly equalled by his bandmates’ dynamic performance on Soul Kitchen – one of the many highlights from the group’s debut album. Capturing The Doors at their most swaggering and anthemic, the song features one of Krieger’s most confident and expressive guitar solos, but it’s Manzarek’s insistent, Morse code organ riff which ensures it stays on the rails throughout. A future garage-band staple, Soul Kitchen was later covered by Echo And The Bunnymen and LA punk pioneers X, the latter of whom also drafted Manzarek in to produce their initial quartet of albums.

6: You Make Me Real (from ‘Morrison Hotel’, 1970)

After the ornate The Soft Parade, The Doors stripped away the orchestration and got back to their rip-roaring roots on their fifth album, 1970’s Morrison Hotel. The record contained some of the Californian quartet’s earthiest rock’n’roll songs, among them Roadhouse Blues, Peace Frog and the exuberant You Make Me Real, with the latter song later described by Rolling Stone’s David Fricke as “garage-blues napalm”. He had a point, for while You Make Me Real isn’t necessarily first in line among the best Doors songs, it’s surely one of the band’s most explosive moments on record. Reputedly inspired by Morrison’s long-term partner, Pamela Courson, and brimming with sexual innuendos (“So let me slide into your tender sunken sea”), it’s not subtle, yet the interplay between Densmore’s spinning drums and Krieger’s scattergun guitar is highly potent, and Manzarek’s fiery, Jerry Lee Lewis-esque honky-tonk piano is simply jaw-dropping, demanding inclusion among the best Ray Manzarek performances.

5: Unhappy Girl (from ‘Strange Days’, 1967)

The Doors openly admitted they were influenced by The Beatles’ use of the studio as an additional instrument on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and they were determined to experiment with new sounds during the Strange Days sessions. One of that record’s key tracks, Unhappy Girl, received an especially kaleidoscopic makeover, with its melancholic undertow enhanced by backwards masking and Manzarek’s trippy fairground organ and dreamy Moog motifs. On top of that, the keyboardist added a piano part which simply astounded his bandmates.

“For Unhappy Girl, [producer Paul] Rothchild actually had Ray overdub the chord changes backward on piano while listening to the song backward, and then played it back forward,” Densmore recalled with wonder in his book Riders On The Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison And The Doors. “The backward piano track sounded like some melodic percussion instrument – a rattle or shaker – playing the correct chords!”

4: Love Street (from ‘Waiting For The Sun’, 1968)

Waiting For The Sun highlight Love Street reflected the period of (relative) domestic bliss Jim Morrison experienced with girlfriend Pamela Courson in 1968, when the couple moved into a house on Rothdell Trail, in Laurel Canyon, just outside of Los Angeles. Most of Morrison’s lyrics for the song related to the young couple’s life (“There’s the store where the creatures meet” being a direct reference to the nearby Canyon Country grocery store), and the song’s bucolic mood was matched by one of The Doors’ most languid and restrained performances. Ray Manzarek’s stately, slightly chromatic piano solo is surely the song’s pièce de résistance, with Densmore later observing that “his phrasing is so strong, precise and simultaneously relaxed”.

3: The Crystal Ship (from ‘The Doors’, 1967)

Accurately described as “a glittering, stately, gem” in a 2011 BBC Music retrospective, The Crystal Ship is one of The Doors’ most accomplished set pieces. Often misinterpreted as a relating to drug use, its lyrics actually came from a place much closer to Jim Morrison’s heart, as the singer’s William Blake-tinged wordplay was inspired by the breakup of his relationship with his then girlfriend, Mary Werbelow. Accordingly, The Doors treat Morrison’s words with kid gloves on this glorious, baroque-flavoured ballad, with their keyboardist’s graceful, panoramic piano solo more than earning a spot among the best Ray Manzarek performances.

2: Riders On The Storm (from ‘LA Woman’, 1971)

Though it wasn’t designed as such, Riders On The Storm ended up supplying the perfect full-stop to The Doors’ classic line-up. Entering the Billboard Hot 100 the week Jim Morrison died in Paris, in July 1971 (it would eventually peak at No.14), the final single issued by the original Doors quartet exuded an especially otherworldly allure, with much of its filmic atmosphere emanating from Ray Manzarek’s shimmering keyboards. Rather than use his trademark Vox Continental organ, Manzarek switched to Fender Rhodes piano for the LA Woman album’s closing track, and it proved the ideal choice. Indeed, his rippling introduction, his subtle interplay with Kreiger’s vibrato guitar and his intuitively jazzy solo are all absolutely breathtaking; any one of these elements could have earned the song a spot among the best Ray Manzarek performances.

1: Light My Fire (from ‘The Doors’, 1967)

While it contains one of Jim Morrison’s most charismatic vocals, The Doors’ signature song, Light My Fire, also reveals that the band were about more than their singer. Though it was famously edited down for bite-size single consumption, the group’s first US No.1 was an absolute tour de force in its original seven-minute guise, with Ray Manzarek’s contribution at the very heart of its success. Using John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things as his jumping off point, the fluid solos he trades with Robby Krieger are sensational, while his intricate introductory organ motif (reputedly inspired by Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions) also provides the song’s hook – though it was producer Paul Rothchild who insisted Manzarek repeat it to serve as the song’s conclusion.

“If you listen to our live recordings from The Matrix in San Francisco, you can hear the [song’s] original arrangement and you can wonder, like I do sometimes, how different life would’ve been for The Doors if Paul hadn’t made that formative suggestion,” Krieger later reflected in his book, Set The Night On Fire: Living, Dying And Playing Guitar With The Doors. Topping this list of the best Ray Manzarek performances, Light My Fire not only reveals everything about the keyboardist’s remarkable skills, but it also contains that made The Doors one of the greatest rock bands of their era.

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