Ray Manzarek, a Los Angeles music legend, has passed away. Best known as the keyboard player for The Doors and, later in his career, the producer of X, I feel incredibly lucky that I got to perform on stage with this enormous talent. Please allow me to relate how that all came about.
I discovered The Doors before most kids in L. A. I was an avid fan of Arthur Lee‘s band Love, who were the quintessential cool, hip L. A. group in 1966. Love were the house band at Hollywood’s famous music spot, the Whisky A-Go-Go. When their popularity made them too big to continue on in that small club, Arthur recommended his friends The Doors to take their place. They filled the slot well and were signed to Elektra, the same label as Love.
The first song I heard by The Doors was in early 1967. “Break On Through” was getting some local airplay, I loved its intense, driving rhythm and bought the band’s first LP. That was unusual at the time; it was still the tail end of the singles era. LP purchases were still somewhat of a rarity and didn’t usually come much later until the band had racked up a lot of hits.
Lurking within the first Doors LP, of course, was their signature tune, “Light My Fire”. There was no way a pop radio station — even in Los Angeles — was going to play the full 7:05 album version on the radio, so a shortened (2:52) version was issued by Elektra as a single.
“Light My Fire” quickly surpassed “Break On Through” in sales and popularity. Underground radio was just beginning; it was the only place on the dial where you could hear the long version played. We music hipster snobs sneered down on the Top 40 stations for only playing the edited version.
The song became unavoidable. It seemed like it was played every fourth song. It indeed became (and still is, along with Led Zep‘s “Stairway to Heaven”) one of the most played rock singles in music history.
I first saw The Doors at their own first large gig, the Fantasy Faire and Magic Music Festival in July 1967 at Devonshire Meadows (aka Devonshire Downs) fairgrounds in the San Fernando Valley. It was $3.00 in advance and $3.50 at the gate. The line-up included The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, The Grass Roots, Country Joe and the Fish, The Mothers of Invention, Iron Butterfly, Kaleidoscope, The Sunshine Company, Solid State and many, many more bands. It was an important festival, occurring just after the Monterey Pop Festival. It’s not as well known because it wasn’t filmed.
I shot the pictures accompanying this post with my little Polaroid. As you can see, I was able to get fairly close to the band. As I recall, they played nearly everything from their first LP and a few numbers from their as-yet-to-be-released second album.
The infamous Kim Fowley emceed the event. After Solid State set up on stage, it was discovered that their drummer was still caught in traffic. Kim Fowley stepped up to the microphone.
“Is there a drummer in the house?”
I leaped up on stage and took the drum stool, the first and only time I’ve ever played before several thousand people. It was quite a rush!
Flash forward to 2002: I had become a semi-regular guest at the biggest monster convention on the planet, the Chiller Theatre show in New Jersey. I had really hit it off with Chris Palmerini (the lead guitar player for The Dead Elvi) after he discovered I sang and played harp (harmonica). Chris invited me to join the Dead Elvi on stage for some songs (the band headlines a three band show each Saturday night at Chiller). It worked out well and became a tradition whenever I was a guest at Chiller.
Chris contacted me a couple of months before their spring show that year and asked, “How would you like to sing and play harp (harmonica) on “Roadhouse Blues” with Ray Manzarek on keyboards?”
I practically booked my flight on the spot!
Chris had approached Kevin Clements (Dead Elvi rhythm guitarist and the producer of the Chiller Theatre show) regarding the possibility of having musical guests in addition to their usual horror and sci-fi celebrities. Chris had discovered Ray Manzarek had a new book out and thought he might be convinced to attend the show to promote his book.
“Go for it,” was Kevin’s response. “The worst he can do is say ‘No’.” Chris did, and he was successful in getting Ray to agree to attend — and play.
Chris approached me on Saturday afternoon.
“Are you ready? The Elvi are going on first.”
This was unusual. As the headliners, The Dead Elvi always went on last to close the show.
“Ray has been running hot and cold about this gig. First, he said he would do it. Then a half hour later, it’s ‘No, I don’t think so.”, then ‘OK — but just one song.’ He’s been like that all day long. He just agreed to to do the one song again, ‘Roadhouse Blues’, so while he’s in the mood, we’re going to go on first. Grab your harps.”
On stage with Ray on keyboards, the Dead Elvi kicked into the Doors’ classic bar band number, “Roadhouse Blues.” The response from the crowd (we were playing in a packed outdoor tent) was incredible. I looked over at Manzarek and saw a complete change in him. I suddenly realized he had not played before a live audience in decades. He had forgotten the unique sensation of what it was like to play and receive all of that incredible energy from the crowd in response to his music. We finished “Roadhouse Blues” to thundering cheers, applause and even screams.
Ray leaned over toward me and asked, “Do you want to do ‘Light My Fire’?”
Chris overheard the question. We looked at each other and beamed in response. Seasoned players all, it was a no-brainer even though none of us had rehearsed “Light My Fire”. It was a song every band, hell, even every garage band, knew by heart, Growing up in Los Angeles meant thousands of hours of exposure to that song. As weak as I am with remembering lyrics (and I’m notoriously so), I could sing that number in my sleep.
We launched into “Light My Fire” and I thought the roof was going to come off the place. Ray looked like he was in a state of pure bliss. Certainly the Elvi and I were!
You can watch us here: http://www.ovguide.com/video/dead-elvi-ray-manzarek-light-my-fire-922ca39ce10036ba0e1156e22bba4dc0
The crowd response to “Light My Fire” was even bigger than it was for the first song; I’ll bet they heard us in Manhattan.
The following week, back in L. A., Ray Manzarek reformed a touring version of The Doors with Ian Astbury of The Cult on vocals. I think The Dead Elvi, Kevin Clements and Chris Palmerini should get credit for being the true seed of inspiration for that tour.
So, my own personal cheers go out to Mr. Manzarek for creating the iconic music of one of L. A.’s greatest bands, for being a class act and for providing me with the opportunity to share one of the greatest nights of our lives with my dear pals The Dead Elvi. Your mortal form may have passed, but your music and the memories of the people you touched will last forever.
Rest in peace, my friend.