Manzarek was of Polish descent, born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, as were his parents, Helena and Raymond Manzarek, Sr. Growing up, he took private piano lessons from Bruno Michelotti and others. He originally wanted to play basketball, but he only wanted to play power forward or center. When he was sixteen his coach insisted either he play guard or not at all and he quit the team. Manzarek said later if it was not for that ultimatum, he might never have been with the Doors. He went to Everett Elementary School on South Bell Street and attended St. Rita High School in Chicago. He graduated from DePaul University with a degree in economics and played in many shows at the school.
From 1962 to 1965, he studied in the Department of Cinematography at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he met film student Jim Morrison. At UCLA, he also met Dorothy Fujikawa, whom he married. At the time Manzarek was in a band called Rick and the Ravens with his brothers Rick and Jim. Forty days after finishing film school, thinking they had gone their separate ways, Manzarek and Morrison met by chance on Venice Beach in California. Morrison said he had written some songs, and Manzarek expressed an interest in hearing them, whereupon Morrison sang rough versions of “Moonlight Drive”, “My Eyes Have Seen You” and “Summer’s Almost Gone”. Manzarek liked the songs and co-founded the Doors with Morrison at that moment. Manzarek met drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger at a Transcendental Meditation lecture. Densmore says, “There wouldn’t be any Doors without Maharishi.”
In January 1966, the Doors became the house band at the London Fog on the Sunset Strip. According to Manzarek, “Nobody ever came in the place…an occasional sailor or two on leave, a few drunks. All in all it was a very depressing experience, but it gave us time to really get the music together.” The same day the Doors were fired from the London Fog, they were hired to be the house band of the Whisky a Go Go. Their first performance at the Whisky was with the group Them. The Doors’ first recording contract was with Columbia Records. After a few months of inactivity, they learned they were on Columbia’s drop list. At that point, they asked to be released from their contract. After a few months of live gigs, Jac Holzman “rediscovered” the Doors and signed them to Elektra Records.
The Doors lacked a bassist, so Manzarek usually played the bass parts on a Fender Rhodes PianoBass. His signature sound is that of the Vox Continental combo organ, an instrument used by many other psychedelic rock bands of the era. He later used a Gibson G-101 Kalamazoo combo organ (which looks like a Farfisa) because the Continental’s plastic keys frequently broke, according to Manzarek. Manzarek occasionally sang for the Doors, including the live recording “Close To You” and on the B-side of “Love Her Madly,” “You Need Meat (Don’t Go No Further).” He also sang on the last two Doors albums, recorded after Morrison’s death, Other Voices and Full Circle. Additionally, he provided one of several guitar parts on the song “Been Down So Long.”
Manzarek played in several groups after the Doors, including Nite City. He recorded a rock adaptation of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with Philip Glass, played with Iggy Pop, backed one track on the eponymous 1987 album Echo & the Bunnymen, backed San Francisco poet Michael McClure’s poetry readings and did improvisational composition with poet Michael C. Ford. He also worked extensively with “Hearts of Fire” screenwriter and former SRC front man Scott Richardson on a series of spoken word and blues recordings entitled “Tornado Souvenirs”.
Manzarek produced Los Angeles, the 1980 inaugural album of the punk band X, also contributing on keyboards. His memoir, Light My Fire: My Life with The Doors, was published in 1998. The Poet in Exile (2001) is a novel exploring the urban legend that Jim Morrison may have faked his death. Manzarek’s second novel, Snake Moon, released in April 2006, is a Civil War ghost story. In 2000, a collaboration poetry album entitled Freshly Dug was released with British singer, poet, actor and pioneer Punk rocker Darryl Read. Read had previously worked with Manzarek on the Beat Existentialist album in 1994, and their last poetical and musical collaboration was in 2007 with the album Bleeding Paradise.
Also in 2000, he co-wrote, directed the film Love Her Madly, which was credited to a story idea by Jim Morrison. The film was shown at the closing night of the 2004 Santa Cruz Film Festival, but otherwise received limited distribution and critical review. In 2006, he collaborated with composer and trumpeter Bal. The album that resulted, Atonal Head, is an exploration in the realm of electronica. The two musicians integrated jazz, rock, ethnic and classical music into their computer-based creations.
On August 4, 2007, Manzarek hosted a program on BBC Radio 2 about the 40th anniversary of the recording of “Light My Fire” and the group’s musical and spiritual influences. In April 2009, Manzarek and Robby Krieger appeared as special guests for Daryl Hall’s monthly concert webcast Live From Daryl’s House. They performed several Doors tunes (“People Are Strange”, “The Crystal Ship”, “Roadhouse Blues” and “Break on Through (To the Other Side)”) with Hall providing lead vocals. After living many years in Hollywood, Manzarek moved to Napa County, California, to a house that he remodeled extensively. In his last years he played with local bands in the Napa area.
In 2009, Manzarek collaborated with “Weird Al” Yankovic, by playing keyboards on the single “Craigslist”, which is a pastiche of The Doors. On the day of Manzarek’s death, Yankovic published a personal video of this studio session which he said had been an “extreme honor” and “one of the absolute high points of my life”. Manzarek was a co-producer on a few tracks for Universal Recording artist Michael Barber. A track appeared on the Internet, titled “Be Ok”, on Barber’s Universal Records debut. In May 2010, Manzarek recorded with slide guitarist Roy Rogers in Studio D in Sausalito. Their album, Translucent Blues, released in mid-2011, was ranked No. 3 on the Top 100 Roots Rock Albums of 2011 by The Roots Music Report. In February 2012, Manzarek recorded Breakn’ a Sweat with DJ Skrillex and his fellow members Robby Krieger and John Densmore.
Manzarek married Dorothy Aiko Fujikawa in Los Angeles on December 21, 1967, with Jim Morrison and his long time companion, Pamela Courson, as witnesses. Manzarek and Fujikawa remained married until his death. They had a son, Pablo, and three grandchildren. On May 20, 2013, Manzarek died from bile duct cancer at a hospital in Rosenheim, Germany, at the age of 74. Robby Krieger said, “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.” John Densmore said, “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.”
Greg Harris, the CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said in reaction to Manzarek’s death that “The world of rock ‘n’ roll lost one of its greats with the passing of Ray Manzarek.” Harris also said that “he was instrumental in shaping one of the most influential, controversial and revolutionary groups of the ’60s. Such memorable tracks as ‘Light My Fire’, ‘People are Strange’ and ‘Hello, I Love You’ – to name but a few – owe much to Manzarek’s innovative playing.”
- February, 12, 1939
- Chicago, Illinois
- May, 20, 2013
- Rosenheim, Germany