A tribute to rock's best keyboardists

May 26, 2013 

Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist for the Doors, always insisted that he wasn't a very good keyboard player.

He should know, and he probably wasn't a virtuoso by any objective reckoning. But the Doors sounded like no other band, and Manzarek's distinctive playing was a big reason.

Manzarek's opening keyboard line in "Light My Fire," the riff on "Break on Through (to the Other Side)," and his spooky meanderings on "The End" were just as essential to defining the sound of 1960's rock as Eric Clapton's guitar. When the Doors played longer songs or improvised in concert, Manzarek's playing had a way of leading the audience on a journey of mood and thought.

Manzarek died last week. As a tribute, here are some of the other great keyboard players of rock music. They don't get to jump around like the lead singers and the guitarists so they often get less attention than they deserve, so it's good to give them a nod.

We'll assume for this week that Manzarek is No. 1 on the list and start with:

2. Steve Nieve. He's been content to be Elvis Costello's sidekick for 35 years, both with the Attractions and the Impostors. Incredible technical expertise and range, and he's had to follow (or maybe lead) Costello into punk, country, jazz and country. He used to be married to a woman from St. Petersburg, for what that's worth.

3. Neil Larsen. Sarasota's own, familiar to long-time local music fans but most familiar to the rest of the world as Leonard Cohen's keyboard player. Exquisitely understated, virtuosic and evocative.

4. Ian Stewart. He co-founded the Rolling Stones then got fired, reportedly for being ugly. But he remained with the band as a sideman, on stage and on record, for years. The Stones wouldn't have been the Stones without him.

5. Felix Cavaliere. One thing that set the Rascals apart from other bands was that no two songs sounded alike, but Cavaliere's organ is what tied their sound together.

6. Johnnie Johnson. He was Chuck Berry's piano player and probably wrote the melodies for most of their hits together. And if you saw "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" you know that working with Berry all

those years couldn't have been a lot of fun.

7. Gregg Allman. Obviously, another local. Besides wielding that phenomenal voice, he's one of the greatest organ players in rock history, and with his bandmates created an entire subgenre of music.

8. Garth Hudson. The other members of the Band actually paid him to act as their music teacher at first. He deserves to be on the list simply because of "Chest Fever" and "Up on Cripple Creek" alone.

9. Keith Emerson. Sure, you can, and should, object to the pomposity of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, but they had their moments. And Emerson's always been respected by the keyboard pros of any genre.

10. Leon Russell. Classically trained, and it shows, even in his good-timey, Louisiana-laden blues-rock.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411. ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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