Menu

Ray Charles Dies at 73

 As Ray Charles (search) played and sang, his stiffly swaying shoulders suggested some invisible tug of war between a devil and an angel. Charles, who died Thursday at age 73, was a musical innovator who combined the rollicking "bad boy" free-spiritedness of rock 'n' roll with the pious aching of gospel and soul to create a new style in such hits as "What'd I Say," "Hit the Road Jack," "Georgia on My Mind" and "I Can't Stop Loving You."

"There will never be another musician who did as much to break down the perceived walls of musical genres as much as Ray Charles did," said music producer Quincy Jones (search) who described Charles as a "brother in every sense of the word."

Charles died of acute liver disease at his Beverly Hills home at 11:35 a.m., surrounded by family and friends, said spokesman Jerry Digney.

Blind by age 7 and an orphan at 15, the gifted pianist and saxophonist spent his life shattering any notion of musical categories and defying easy definition.

One of the first artists to record the "blasphemous idea of taking gospel songs and putting the devil's words to them," as legendary producer Jerry Wexler once said, Charles' music spanned soul, rock 'n' roll, R&B, country, jazz, big band and blues.

Over the course of a 58-year career, he put his stamp on it all with a deep, warm voice roughened by heartbreak from a hardscrabble childhood in the segregated South. Smiling and swaying behind the piano, grunts and moans peppering his songs, Charles' appeal spanned generations.

Aretha Franklin (search) called Charles "the voice of a lifetime."

"He was a fabulous man, full of humor and wit," she said in a statement. "A giant of an artist, and of course, he introduced the world to secular soul singing."

James Brown recalled, "He was just a sweet and gorgeous and wonderful person ... He was a role model for all people that got to know him and his music. I respected the genius ... What set him apart? He was Ray Charles — just that!"

Billy Joel (search), a fellow piano man, said he and others started out by imitating Charles. "Ray Charles was a true American original ... Ray Charles defined rhythm & blues, soul, and authentic rock 'n' roll," Joel said Thursday.

Charles' health deteriorated rapidly over the past year, after he had hip replacement surgery and was diagnosed with a failing liver. But he kept on working on what would be his last CD, "Genius Loves Company."

"There were a couple of times where he would say, 'I'm not feeling well today but I'll take a stab at it ... I can come back to it later.' And he never had to come back to it later," said John Burk, who worked with Charles as producer of the upcoming duets album.

The Grammy winner's last public appearance was alongside Clint Eastwood on April 30, when the city of Los Angeles designated the singer's studios, built 40 years ago, as a historic landmark.

Charles won nine of his 12 Grammy Awards between 1960 and 1966, including the best R&B recording three consecutive years ("Hit the Road Jack," "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Busted").

His versions of other songs are also well known, including "Makin' Whoopee" and a stirring "America the Beautiful," which he sang for the late President Reagan at his 1985 inaugural ball.

"I was born with music inside me. That's the only explanation I know of," Charles said in his 1978 autobiography, "Brother Ray." "Music was one of my parts ... Like my blood. It was a force already with me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me, like food or water."

Charles considered Martin Luther King Jr. a friend and once refused to play to segregated audiences in South Africa. He was one of the legends receiving Kennedy Center Honors in 1986, cited as "one of the most respected singers of his generation ... the pioneer who broke down barriers between secular and sacred styles, between black and white pop."

Charles was no angel. His womanizing was legendary, and he struggled with a heroin addiction for nearly 20 years before quitting cold turkey in 1965 after an arrest at the Boston airport. Yet there was a sense of humor about even that — he released both "I Don't Need No Doctor" and "Let's Go Get Stoned" in 1966.

His ups and downs are chronicled in an upcoming biographical movie set for release in October, titled simply "Ray" and starring Jamie Foxx.

Charles, who was divorced twice and single since 1952, was survived by 12 children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A memorial service was planned for next week at Los Angeles' First AME Church, with burial afterward at Inglewood Cemetery.

Ray Charles Robinson was born Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga. (He later dropped his last name for the stage, in deference to boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.)

He lost his sight and was sent away from his impoverished family, heartbroken, to the state-supported St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind. Glaucoma is often mentioned as a cause, though Charles said nothing was ever diagnosed.

Before that, he began dabbling in music at 3, encouraged by a cafe owner who played the piano. The knowledge was basic, but his early influences and inspirations included the classics of Chopin, country and western stars he heard on the Grand Ole Opry, the powerhouse big bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, jazz greats Art Tatum and Artie Shaw.

By the time he was 15 his parents were dead and Charles had graduated from St. Augustine. He wound up playing gigs in black dance halls — the so-called chitlin' circuit — and exposed himself to a variety of music, including hillbilly (he learned to yodel) before moving to Seattle.

His first big hit was 1959's "What'd I Say," a song built off a simple piano riff with suggestive moaning from the Raeletts. Some U.S. radio stations banned the song, but Charles was on his way to stardom. He was called "The Genius" and was playing at Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival.

His last Grammy came in 1993 for "A Song for You," but he never dropped out of the music scene until illness sidetracked him last summer.

"The way I see it, we're actors, but musical ones," he once told The Associated Press. "We're doing it with notes, and lyrics with notes, telling a story. I can take an audience and get 'em into a frenzy so they'll almost riot, and yet I can sit there so you can almost hear a pin drop."