Ray Charles, the Grammy-winning crooner who blended gospel and blues in such crowd-pleasers as “What’d I Say” and ballads like “Georgia on My Mind,” died Thursday, a spokesman said. He was 73.
Charles died at his Beverly Hills home surrounded by family and friends, said spokesman Jerry Digney.
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 in central Los Angeles, as a historic landmark.
Blind by age 7 and an orphan at 15, Charles spent his life shattering any notion of musical boundaries and defying easy definition. A gifted pianist and saxophonist, he dabbled in country, jazz, big band and blues, and put his stamp on it all with a deep, warm voice roughened by heartbreak from a hardscrabble childhood in the segregated South.
“His sound was stunning – it was the blues, it was R&B, it was gospel, it was swing – it was all the stuff I was listening to before that but rolled into one amazing, soulful thing,” singer Van Morrison told Rolling Stone magazine in April.
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.” Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell wrote “Georgia on My Mind” in 1931 but it didn’t become Georgia’s official state song until 1979, long after Charles turned it into an American standard.
“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. But politics didn’t take.
He was happiest playing music, smiling and swaying behind the piano as his legs waved in rhythmic joy. His appeal spanned generations: He teamed with such disparate musicians as Willie Nelson, Chaka Khan and Eric Clapton, and appeared in movies including “The Blues Brothers.” Pepsi tapped him for TV spots around a simple “uh huh” theme, perhaps playing off the grunts and moans that pepper his songs.
“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.”
Charles was no angel. He could be mercurial and his womanizing was legendary. He also 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.
He later became reluctant to talk about the drug use, fearing it would taint how people thought of his work.
“I’ve known times where I’ve felt terrible, but once I get to the stage and the band starts with the music, I don’t know why but it’s like you have pain and take an aspirin, and you don’t feel it no more,” he once said.
Ray Charles Robinson was born September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia. His father, Bailey Robinson, was a mechanic and a handyman, and his mother, Aretha, stacked boards in a sawmill. His family moved to Gainesville, Florida, when Charles was an infant.
“Talk about poor,” Charles once said. “We were on the bottom of the ladder.”
Charles saw his brother drown in the tub his mother used to do laundry when he was about 5 as the family struggled through poverty at the height of the Depression. His sight was gone two years later. Glaucoma is often mentioned as a cause, though Charles said nothing was ever diagnosed. He said his mother never let him wallow in pity.
“When the doctors told her that I was gradually losing my sight, and that I wasn’t going to get any better, she started helping me deal with it by showing me how to get around, how to find things,” he said in the autobiography. “That made it a little bit easier to deal with.”
Charles began dabbling in music at 3, encouraged by a cafe owner who played the piano. The knowledge was basic, but he was that much more prepared for music classes when he was sent away, heartbroken, to the state-supported St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind.
Charles learned to read and write music in Braille, score for big bands and play instruments – lots of them, including trumpet, clarinet, organ, alto sax and the piano.
“Learning to read music in Braille and play by ear helped me develop a damn good memory,” Charles said. “I can sit at my desk and write a whole arrangement in my head and never touch the piano… There’s no reason for it to come out any different than the way it sounds in my head.”
His early influences were myriad: Chopin and Sibelius, 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.
He dropped his last name in deference to boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, patterned himself for a time after Nat “King” Cole and formed a group that backed rhythm ‘n’ blues singer Ruth Brown. It was in Seattle’s red light district were he met a young Quincy Jones, showing the future producer and composer how to write music. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
Charles developed quickly in those early days. Atlantic Records purchased his contract from Swingtime Records in 1952, and two years later he recorded “I Got a Woman,” a raw mixture of gospel and rhythm ‘n’ blues, inventing what was later called soul. Soon, he was being called “The Genius” and was playing at Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival.
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.
Veteran producer Jerry Wexler, who recorded “What’d I Say,” said he has worked with only three geniuses in the music business: Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin 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…. He can take a gem from Tin Pan Alley or cut to the country, but he brings the same root to it, which is black American music.”
Charles released “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Volumes 1 and 2” in the early ’60s, a big switch from his gospel work. It included “Born to Lose,” “Take These Chains From My Heart (And Set Me Free)” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” some of the biggest hits of his career.
He made it a point to explore each medium he took on. Country sides were sometimes pop-oriented, while fiddle, mandolin, banjo and steel guitar were added to “Wish You Were Here Tonight” in the ’80s. Jones even wrote a choral and orchestral work for Charles to perform with the Roanoke, Virginia, symphony.
Charles’ 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.”
“Music’s been around a long time, and there’s going to be music long after Ray Charles is dead,” he told the Washington Post in 1983. “I just want to make my mark, leave something musically good behind. If it’s a big record, that’s the frosting on the cake, but music’s the main meal.”