From left, Ray Manzarek and Roy Rogers combined their talents encouraged by their agent Stephen Gordon.
For music lovers with any sense of history, particularly those with a taste for the blues, the pairing was cause for celebration.
Encouraged by their common agent, Stephen Gordon, to take a stab at combining their talents, Ray Manzarek, whose keyboards and classical musical training were crucial elements of ‘70s legends the Doors, and Roy Rogers, whose slide guitar had been instrumental to the success of such artists as blues great John Lee Hooker and his own Delta Rhythm Kings, hooked up at a club in Portland and gave it a shot.
The chemistry was immediate.
“Our common agent had suggested that we get together, and I was playing a solo show at the Raven Theatre in Portland when Roy showed up,” Manzerek said in an exclusive conference call with Rogers and The Albany Herald. “I asked him to sit in, and there was an immediate level of communication between us.”
Rogers picks up the story: “There was pretty much no prompting between us. There was a smoothness there that showed Ray and I were thinking along the same lines. Everything clicked from the get-go.”
Things went so well, in fact, the pair went into the studio with drummer Kevin Hayes and bassist Steve Evans and started work on songs that would become “Translucent Blues,” an amazing first effort for the Manzarek-Rogers Band.
“I actually had lyrics from some of my poet buddies — Michael McClure, Jim Carroll, Michael C. Ford, even the late Warren Zevon — and Roy and I set those to music,” Manzarek said. “The plan was to put a 21st-century spin on the blues. We’ve been reprimanded for ‘not playing the real blues,’ but our idea was to expand the format.”
Rogers, who has played and produced some of the all-time blues greats, was happy to search for a new blues-based sound with Manzarek.
“We didn’t really plot the songs out,” he said. “It was actually a very organic approach. What we were looking for was to achieve a ‘sound’ through the two of us playing. I think we were able to do that.”
Indeed, songs like “Fives and Ones,” “Tension,” “Hurricane,” “Kick” and “River of Madness” provide disparate elements that give “Translucent Blues” its compelling mix of blues stomp that would play well in the seediest roadhouse wrapped around the observations of poets far removed from such venues.
And yet it works, remarkably well.
“It’s the way I worked with (late Doors singer/icon) Jim Morrison,” Manzarek said. “He read some of his poetry to me, and I said, ‘I can put music to that’.”
Manzarek and Rogers, who will perform with their band at the April 19-21 Wanee Festival in Live Oak, Fla., talked with The Herald about their past and future plans before a West Coast recording session.
ALBANY HERALD: This is quite an honor to talk with musicians with the track record you both have. A lot of people say the two of you together is an odd pairing. How did it come about?
RAY MANZAREK: Our common agent had suggested that we get together, and I was playing a solo show at the Raven Theatre in Portland when Roy showed up. I asked him to sit in, and there was an immediate level of communication between us. It went swimmingly, perfect. I’m playing a B-Flat note, and with a nod, Roy came right in on that. There was that unspoken communication.
ROY ROGERS: The kind of music Ray plays can be complex, but there was a smoothness there that showed Ray and I were thinking along the same lines. We talked with each other and decided we’d see where the music would take us.
AH: Listening to “Translucent Blues,” I was struck at how fluidly the music flowed. There was this “boom” right from the first note. Was the process as smooth as it comes across on the album?
RR: There was this attitude we had of taking the music in whatever direction it might go in. We had these ideas, and we’d run them back and forth by each other, and we responded to those ideas musically.
RM: With this album, I had lyrics from some of my poet buddies — Michael McClure, who’s still walking the Earth, Jim Carroll, Michael Ford and even from my late friend Warren Zevon — and the idea was to take these pieces and set them to music. What we wanted to do was start out with a blues foundation and work through chord changes that aren’t really standard. We wanted to expand the format.
RR: We didn’t really plot the songs out. It was actually a very organic approach. What we were looking for was to achieve a “sound” through the two of us playing. I think we were able to do that.
RM: We wanted these songs to grow. It’s springtime, and we planted little seedlings that turned into plants through organic growth.
AH: You guys have such amazing musical histories. Did your pasts, what you each have achieved, ever get in the way?
RR: None of that even entered the fray. Ray is a rock icon, but through our interaction I quickly discovered he’s also a great guy. Our past did not influence how we interacted; we just put one foot in front of the other and decided if this works in a context that makes sense, we’ll do it.
RM: Yeah, we were like a couple of Zen monks playing the blues. (To Rogers) Actually, I wouldn’t mind seeing that: You in a lotus position playing your guitar. Let’s look at that in the studio.
AH: I was told you guys are back in the studio. I know Ray still performs with (former Doors guitarist) Robbie Kreiger and Roy still plays with the Delta Rhythm Kings. Was the first album intended to be a one-off, or are you actually planning another album?
RM: We have more ideas, and “Translucent Blues” worked so well, we decided we’d continue until we had no more material. The door’s still open; I’ve got enough material in the bucket that we’ve only begun to probe the surface.
RR: As long as there’s still something to say and we’re having fun, why not continue? The fun factor is important. We’ve both been doing this a fairly long time, so it becomes a matter of if a project is fun for us.
RM: It doesn’t hurt that Roy has such wonderful musicians to work with, and we’re here in northern California in the Napa Valley. Roy’s teaching me the finer things.
RR: I’m trying to help Ray learn how to hold a wine glass.
AH: Roy, what you do with a guitar is rare. There just aren’t many great slide guitarists around. Where did that inspiration come from?
RR: I’ve been playing guitar for a long time, and because of my voice the slide just fit into a lot of places. I think it’s an interesting mix with Ray’s keyboards and his classical training. Fortunately, the music we make is about communication, and it’s become a product of the sum of our parts.
AH: Ray, you mentioned using the words of poets on “Translucent Blues.” That’s an interesting parallel to your relationship with Jim Morrison in the Doors. I’ve always tended to think Morrison’s “rock-god” looks and antics might have taken away from the incredible music you, Robbie and John (Densmore) played.
RM: It was supposed to. We knew from the first time we met Jim that he was supposed to be a star. God, was he handsome. We didn’t really care what people thought as long as they were listening to our music. We were OK with the worship of Jim as a deity, a Greek god come back to life. It didn’t matter to Robbie, John and me; the music was the only thing that was important. We had no idea Jim would only make it to 27. He was a very sensible guy, but he decided alcohol was more important than the art he was making. It was a tragic loss.
RR: I think it’s true, though, that Ray and those guys created a sound that was so unique, so influential to pop culture.
AH: What was the process that allowed you guys to write these songs around the words of your poet friends?
RM: I’ve always been inspired by words. What I do is come up with stuff to go with the words, then Roy takes what I’ve done and adds to it. It worked.
RR: I kind of work both ways: the way Ray and I did it and the more traditional way. Ray is such a literate guy, and it turns out we have similar interests. He’s more the wordsmith, but I can be moved by grooves.
RM: I’m going to have to bow out now. I’ve enjoyed talking with you and hope I see you at the Wanee Festival. I haven’t even brushed my teeth yet, and we have to be in the studio in an hour and a half. Roy can take this home; I’ll see you at the studio.
AH: One of the most interesting collaborations on the album is the song with words by Warren Zevon. He’s one of my favorite artists. How did that come about?
RR: That’s Ray’s story, but I know it first-hand. Ray ran into Warren in a restaurant in LA and asked how he was doing. Warren said, ‘I’m OK ... actually, I’m not. I’m dying. My doctor has given me six months to live.’ Ray was devastated. He told Warren he’d wanted to get him to write some lyrics that he could use but given the circumstances, that was out of the question. Warren said he wanted to do it for Ray, and he came up with an embryonic version of “River of Madness.” Our agent, Steve Gordon, took that idea and finished the lyrics with his writing partner, David Gionfriddo. It’s very cool that we could have a collaborative effort on the song; it was a beautiful thing to do.
AH: There’s so much music and musical history that you guys have been a part of. Is that process a constant or does it ever run dry?
RR: We haven’t hit the bottom of the well yet. I think this project has been a pleasant surprise for a lot of people who didn’t know what to expect. Ray still tours with Robbie, and I tour with the Rhythm Kings, so we don’t have all of our musical apples in one basket. It’s fun, though, to open up to musical styles. Right now we’re looking at this as two guys and a great band with different ideas, and we’re going to pursue it as long as we can, as long as it’s fun. Wherever it goes is wherever it goes.
AH: Do you ever stop and look at what you and Ray have done in your careers and are impressed from a historical perspective?
RR: I think what we have done and are doing is cool, but I’m not enamored with myself or anyone else. Ray played with the Doors; I’ve played with John Lee Hooker, Keith Richards, Van Morrison. Life’s too short to dwell on this stuff from any kind of historical perspective. I’ll leave that to you guys.