Ray Charles, a talent who erased musical boundaries between the sacred and the secular with hits such as “What’d I Say,” “Georgia on My Mind” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” died at age 73.
Charles died of acute liver disease at his Beverly Hills home at last night, surrounded by family and friends, said spokesman Jerry Digney.
Blind by age seven 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 gospel, R&B, soul, rock ’n’ roll, country, jazz, big band and blues.
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 called Charles “the voice of a lifetime”.
“He was a fabulous man, full of humour and wit,” she said in a statement. “A giant of an artist, and of course, he introduced the world to secular soul singing.”
Billy Joel, a fellow piano man, said many artists tried to emulate Charles, “among them myself, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Steve Winwood and countless others. Ray Charles defined rhythm and blues, soul, and authentic rock ’n’ roll”.
“People remember the big hits and the visual image of him, but they forget what an innovator he was in the 1950s as a jazz musician,” said country music singer Marty Stuart.
“He made inroads for all of us when he did ’I Can’t Stop Loving You.’ It took country music to places it hadn’t been before.”
His 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.
“There were a couple of times where he would say, "I’m not feeling well today but I’ll take a stab at it, and I can come back to it later". And he never had to come back to it later,” John Burk, who produced Charles’ last album, the upcoming “Genius Loves Company”, said.
Charles’ 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.
“I lost one of my best friends and I will miss him a lot,” Willie Nelson said in a statement. “Last month or so, we got together and recorded ’It Was a Very Good Year’, by Frank Sinatra. It was great hanging out with him for a day.”
Charles won nine of his 12 Grammys 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 Ronald 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”.
Charles considered Martin Luther King Jr a friend and once refused to play to segregated audiences in South Africa. But politics didn’t take.
He was happiest playing music, teaming with such disparate musicians as Chaka Khan and Eric Clapton.
Charles was no angel. His womanising 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 humour about even that - he released both “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and ”Let’s Go Get Stoned” in 1966.
He later became reluctant to talk about the drug use, fearing it would taint how people thought of his work.
Ray Charles Robinson was born Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia (He later dropped his last name for the stage, in deference to boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.)
The singer’s father, Bailey, was a mechanic and a handyman, and his mother, Aretha, stacked boards in a sawmill. “Talk about poor,” Charles once said. “We were on the bottom of the ladder.”
Charles saw his brother drown in his mother’s laundry tub when he was about five years old as the family struggled through poverty at the height of the Depression. His sight was gone two years later.
His early influences were myriad: Chopin and Sibelius, 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 years old 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, which was banned by some radio stations.
Producer Wexler, who recorded “What’d I Say”, said he has worked with only three geniuses in the music business: Franklin, Bob Dylan and Charles.
“In each case they brought something new to the table,” Wexler told the San Jose Mercury News in 1994. Charles ”had this blasphemous idea of taking gospel songs and putting the devil’s words to them”.
His last Grammy came in 1993 for “A Song for You”, but he never dropped out of the music scene.
He continued to tour and long treasured time for chess. He once told the Los Angeles Times: “I’m not Spassky, but I’ll make it interesting for you.”
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.