An Archival Interview With Ray Manzarek, Keyboardist For The Doors

Jul 28, 2017
Originally published on August 1, 2017 1:10 pm
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. This weekend it will be 50 years since "Light My Fire" by a rock group called The Doors hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard singles chart. To celebrate that anniversary, we'll listen back to an interview Terry Gross recorded in 1998 with Ray Manzarek. He played keyboards for The Doors alongside guitarist Robby Krieger, drummer John Densmore and singer-songwriter Jim Morrison. Jim Morrison as lead vocalist was the most iconic member of The Doors. But as Manzarek told Terry, coming up with the song arrangements was a group endeavor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RAY MANZAREK: Somebody would bring a song in and then everyone would go to work on it. So Robby came in with a song. He said, I've got a new song called "Light My Fire," the first song Robby Krieger ever wrote. What a genius he is. He's just the greatest guy - great guitar player and great songwriter. He plays the song for us. And it's kind of a Sonny and Cher kind of (imitating song) light my fire. And I was like, OK. OK. Good chord - what are the chord changes there? And he shows me an A minor (playing piano) to an F sharp minor (playing piano). And that's like, whoa, that's hip (playing piano). That's cool (playing piano). And then (playing piano).

And that's when he went into the Sonny and Cher part. (Playing piano, imitating song). And we said, no, we're not going to do a Sonny and Cher kind of song here, man. And that was popular at the time. Densmore says, look, we've got to do a Latin kind of beat here. Let's do something in kind of a Latin groove (playing piano). And I'm doing this left-hand line. So John's doing (playing piano, imitating drums). And we set up this Latin groove and then go into a hard rock four of (playing piano).

And Robby's only got one verse. He needs a second verse. And Morrison says, OK, let me think about it for a second. And Jim comes up with the classic line, and our love becomes a funeral pyre. You know, you know that it would be untrue. You know that I would be a liar if I were to say to you, girl, we couldn't get much higher is Robby's. Then Jim comes, the time to hesitate is through. In other words, seize the moment. Seize the spiritual LSD moment. The time to hesitate is through. No time to wallow in the mire. Try now, we can only lose. Whoa, that's kind of heavy. Try now, we can only lose meaning the worst thing that can happen to you is death. And our love becomes a funeral pyre. Our love is consumed in the fires of agony. And it's like, God, Jim what a great - great verse, man.

So we've got verse, chorus, verse, chorus. And then it's time for solos. So anyway, the verse goes (playing piano) time to - you know how that goes. You've heard it a million times. (Playing piano). And then into the chorus. (Singing) Come on, baby, light my fire. (Playing piano). So it's time then for some solos. We've done a verse, chorus, verse, chorus. Now what do we do? We've got to play some solos. We've got to stretch out.

Here's where John Coltrane comes in. Here's where The Doors' jazz background - John's a jazz drummer. I'm a jazz piano player. Robby's a flamenco guitar player. And we all said, you know, we're in A minor. Let's see. What do we do? (Imitating song, playing piano). And it ends up on an E, so how about (playing piano) "My Favorite Things"? John Coltrane. It's "My Favorite Things" except Coltrane's doing it in D minor (playing piano), but the left hand is exactly the same thing. (Playing piano). It's in three. One-two-three, one-two-three. A minor. The Doors' "Light My Fire" is in four. We're going from A minor to B minor. (Playing piano). So it's the same thing as (playing piano).

And that's how the solo comes about. And then we just go. (Playing piano). So it's John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" and Coltrane's "Ole Coltrane." And then (playing piano). That's the chord structure. Then I would solo over it. (Playing piano). Robby would solo over it. And at the end of our two solos we'd go into a (playing piano), a three against four. (Playing piano) And I'm keeping the left hand going exactly as it goes. That hasn't changed. That's the four. On top of it is three. (Playing piano). And into the turnaround. (Playing piano). And we're back at verse one and verse two. And we're back into our Latin groove.

So it's basically a jazz structure. It's verse, chorus, verse, chorus, state the theme, take a long solo, come back to stating the theme again. And we said, now, how do we start the song? Do we just jump on an A minor to an F sharp? You know, we going to do that? Some - vamp a little bit? I said, no, no, no, we need something more than - we can't just vamp a little bit. And I started this. I put my Bach back to work, put my Bach hat on, and came up with a circle of fifths. (Playing piano).

So I started like this. (Playing piano). Like a Bach thing, like (playing piano). So same kind of thing. (Playing piano). Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, B flat. I'm on - so I'm in G, D, F up to B flat, E flat, A flat to the A, to A major. A major, yeah, that's it. And then we'll go to the A minor. I'm thinking all this to myself. So that's how the introduction came about. (Playing piano) F, E flat, E flat, A flat, A and and the drums and everything. Jim comes in singing. And the Latin-esque test and then into hard rock. So that's how "Light My Fire" goes. That's the creation of "Light My Fire."

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: And you come up with this great organ solo in the middle.

MANZAREK: Oh, that was just luck.

GROSS: Which is, of course, cut out of the single (laughter).

MANZAREK: Right, exactly (laughter).

GROSS: Because your producer figured, we've got to get this on the radio.

MANZAREK: Right.

GROSS: So we've got to do a singles version. And it was - what? - a six- or seven-minute track...

MANZAREK: Seven minutes. We had to cut down seven minutes to two minutes and under three minutes. You know, two minutes and 45 seconds. 2:50 would be ideal.

GROSS: So he calls you into the office, plays you his version, his edited version...

MANZAREK: Paul - Paul Rothchild, brilliant, genius producer. And Bruce Botnick was our engineer. Those two guys were - those were the Door number five, Door number six. Paul said, I'm going to - I'm going to make an edit here. I'm going to do some edits. I'm going to cut "Light My Fire" down from seven minutes to 2:45, 2:50. I said, good luck, man. I don't see how you're going to do it. I figured he's going to have to do little bits and cuts in here and there. And two days later Rothchild calls and said, OK, man, I got it. I said, you've got it. How did you do it so fast? You got a thousand cuts.

And he said, no, no, no. I'm - just come on in. I'm not going to tell you what I did, how I did it. I just want you to listen to it. So the song starts. We're all in the control room on the big speakers at Sunset Sound. The song starts. (Playing piano). We're at the regular introduction. And then it's into (playing piano). And it's going along. And then (singing, playing piano) come on, baby, light my fire. And that's going along.

Now we're into the second verse. (Singing, playing piano) The time to hesitate is through, no time to wallow in the mire. Try now, we can only lose, our love becomes a funeral pyre. Everything's going exactly - come on, baby, light my fire. Nothing has changed. Everything is exactly the same. Come on, baby, light my fire. Try to set the night on fire.

Now it's time for the solos. I think, where's the edit, man? And we're into the solos. (Playing piano). And I thought, I don't know where he's going to cut. This is insane. And all of a sudden, where I'm supposed to go (playing piano), you know, playing my organ solo, what happens? It goes (playing piano). It goes to the end of the solos (playing piano) and then back into the turnaround. And there's like not a solo. There's no solos.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MANZAREK: I'm out. I've got three minutes of solo. Robby's got two and a half minutes of solo. It's all gone. And then verse number four - (playing piano) the time to hesitate. No time to wallow in the mire. Try now, and our love becomes a funeral pyre. (Playing piano) Come on, baby, light my fire. Come on, baby, light my fire. Try to set the night on fire. Try to set the night on fire. Try to set the night on fire. And that's the end of the song. And that's it. It's two minutes and 45 seconds long. And there are no solos in the entire song. And I thought, I'm going to kill this guy. And Paul said, hold it. Hold it. Listen. I know the solos aren't there. But just think. You don't know the song. You've never heard the song. You're 17 years old. You're in Poughkeepsie. You're in Des Moines. You're in Missoula, Mont. You've never heard of The Doors. All you know is a two minute and 45 second song is going to come on the radio. It's called "Light My Fire." Does that work? And we all looked at each other and said, you know what, man? You're right. It does. It works.

BIANCULLI: That's Ray Manzarek of The Doors, recorded in 1998. He died in 2013 at the age of 74. "Light My Fire" hit the top of the singles charts 50 years ago this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIGHT MY FIRE")

THE DOORS: (Singing) You know that it would be untrue. You know that I would be a liar if I was to say to you, girl, we couldn't get much higher. Come on, baby, light my fire. Come on, baby, light my fire. Try to set the night on fire. The time to hesitate is through. No time to wallow in the mire. Try now. We can only lose. And our love become a funeral pyre. Come on, baby, light my fire. Come on, baby, light my fire. Try to set the night on fire.

BIANCULLI: That's "Light My Fire" by the doors, the most popular song in the country 50 years ago this week. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new movie "Detroit." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUNG-HOLT UNLIMITED'S "SOULFUL STRUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.