LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Ray Charles, who overcame poverty, blindness and heroin addiction to lay the foundation for soul music and become one of America's most beloved entertainers, died on Thursday at the age of 73 after a long fight with liver disease, his spokesman said.
Charles, hailed as "The Father of Soul" and best known for such hits as "Georgia On My Mind" and "Hit the Road Jack," died at 11:35 a.m. PDT (2:35 p.m. EDT) at his Beverly Hills home, surrounded by family, friends and business associates, according to the singer's longtime publicist Jerry Digney.
"Mr. Charles was conscious and engaged almost to the end, and wanted the world to know that he will miss the chance to entertain his many family and friends, as he had done, up until last summer, for the past 58 years," longtime manager Joe Adams said at a news conference outside the musician's studio.
The legendary entertainer made his last public appearance on April 30, turning up in a motorized wheelchair for a ceremony dedicating his longtime recording studio in Los Angeles as an historic landmark.
Visibly frail, his voice reduced to a whisper, Charles' demeanor then was a far cry from the wildly enthusiastic performer known to millions of fans for more than half a century.
Charles' biographer, David Ritz, said the singer-songwriter had been unable to speak for the past two to three weeks.
Charles was forced to cut short a North American tour last summer due to hip pain, marking the first series of concerts he had missed in more than 50 years. He later underwent hip replacement surgery.
But other ailments were diagnosed, and unspecified complications forced him to scrap plans to resume touring with a performance in New York last month.
Charles triumphed over adversity from a young age. Left blind by glaucoma at the age of 6, he attended a school for the disabled in St. Augustine, Florida, where he learned to read and write music in Braille and play the piano, saxophone, organ, trumpet and clarinet.
In a 2002 interview, Charles credited his mother with pushing him to be independent, despite his blindness.
"She'd make me cut wood, wash clothes and build a fire under the pot. ... People thought that was abusive. My mother had the attitude 'He's got to learn, and just because he's blind doesn't mean he's stupid."'
Quitting school at age 15 after his mother died, Charles moved to Jacksonville, Florida, then on to Seattle to pursue a music career.
Charles came into his own musically in the early 1950s after signing with Atlantic Records, where he recorded the seminal hit "I Got a Woman," popularly credited as the first true soul record ever made.
He went on to collect 13 Grammy Awards during his career, including a lifetime achievement honor in 1987. He played his 10,000th concert last May in Los Angeles and in 2002 celebrated the 40th anniversary of his first hit on the country music charts, "I Can't Stop Loving You."
Charles made his biggest mark in the 1950s by blending the spirituality of gospel music he learned in the black churches of his youth with the sensuality of the blues to pioneer an emotionally raw genre called soul. Soul in turn helped pave the way for such performers as Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and the birth of rock 'n' roll.
"He is one of the most important artists of the last century," Ahmet Ertegun, who signed Charles to his Atlantic Records label 52 years ago, told Reuters. "The only artist that had a greater influence was Louis Armstrong."
Charles released his latest album, "Thanks for Bringing Love Around," in 2002, including a new version of "What'd I Say," a song he originally released in 1959 that became one of his first hits.
Other hits include the ballad "Georgia On My Mind," which became the official state song of Charles' home state, as well as "Hit the Road Jack," "The Right Time," "Yes, Indeed," "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" and "I Can't Stop Loving You."
While best known for his contributions to soul music, Charles achieved success with pop standards, jazz tunes and country music.
As his health was failing in recent months, Charles had been finishing work on an upcoming CD of duets, titled "Genius Loves Company," with such performers as Elton John, Norah Jones, B.B. King, Diana Krall, Johnny Mathis and Willie Nelson. It is slated for release at the end of summer.
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ray Charles (news) was one of American music's great innovators, blending the gospel of the black church with the sensuality of the blues to create an emotionally raw genre called soul.
He died on Thursday morning at his home in Beverly Hills, California at age 73 after a long battle with liver disease.
"The only genius in the business," Frank Sinatra (news) once said of Charles.
Charles' response: "(Jazz pianist) Art Tatum, he was a genius, and Einstein. Not me."
Whether singing the blues or playing jazz, crooning a ballad or yodeling country and western, Charles combined the raw emotions of black gospel with the sophistication of classical training.
Blind since the age of six, Charles battled childhood poverty and later heroin addiction to become one of the world's most enduring performers.
Drawing on influences as diverse as Chopin and Sibelius, Tatum, Artie Shaw and Nat "King" Cole, Ray Charles helped revolutionize popular music in the 1950s, leading the way for such performers as Elvis Presley (news), Buddy Holly (news), Chuck Berry (news) and Sam Cooke (news) and what was to become rock 'n' roll.
His "I Got A Woman," is widely considered to be the key that opened the door for a crossover of the black musical heritage into the white American musical mainstream.
By taking the traditional gospel "My Jesus Is All The World To Me," and adding secular lyrics, Charles came up with a song that, though not a chart hit, was popular on both sides of the racial divide in 1954.
"For blacks it served as unabashed celebration of negritude without religion; to whites it opened doors that had always been shut," said Peter Guralnick, a music writer and historian.
"I got a lot of flak because some people felt it was like an abomination of the church. But then people began to realize ...'The man is just singing what he feels. He's got to sing it the way he feel it.' That was when I gave up trying to sound like anyone else," Charles once told an interviewer.
He was calling his style "soul music" then -- a decade before it was recognized as a distinct genre.
Born Ray Charles Robinson on Sept. 23, 1930 in Albany, Georgia, he was raised in Greenville, Florida, by his mother and his father's first wife.
His mother took in laundry to make ends meet and at the age of 5 he watched powerless as his older brother drowned in a tub. The next year, he lost his sight to glaucoma.
When he was seven, his mother enrolled him in St. Augustine's School for the Deaf and Blind, where he learned to read and write music in Braille, score for big bands, and play the piano, alto sax, organ, trumpet and clarinet.
Devastated at age 15 by the death of his mother, he quit school, heading for Jacksonville and a career in music.
Two years later after playing with a jazz band and a hillbilly group called the Florida Playboys, Ray Charles took his savings of $600 and went to Seattle.
There he changed his name to Ray Charles -- to avoid confusion with the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson -- made his first record ("Confession Blues" - 1948) and got hooked on heroin.
"I did it to myself. It wasn't society ... it wasn't a pusher, it wasn't being blind or black or being poor. It was all my doing," he wrote in his autobiography "Brother Ray."
He had several rhythm and blues hits over the next four years and learned the business.
"He was like 40 years old," said a young Quincy Jones (news), who met Charles in Seattle. "He knew everything. He knew about ladies and music and life, because he was so independent."
His big break came in 1952 when Atlantic Records signed him to a contract and he recorded "I Got A Woman." The song wasn't an immediate hit, but Charles had his fair share of chart success in the years that followed.
Another gospel song "This Little Light Of Mine," became "This Little Girl Of Mine," and Charles introduced a female vocal group, the Raelettes, who backed him up almost like a choir.
Between 1954 and 1959, Charles had a string of hits -- "Yes, Indeed," "Hallelujah, I Love Her So," "Drown In My Own Tears," and "Night Time Is The Right Time," before he recorded his first million-seller "What'd I Say?" -- which was banned on radio stations across America but still became a hit.
Changing labels from Atlantic to ABC at age 29 in 1959, Charles then recorded more sentimental songs such as "Ruby" and "Georgia On My Mind," but still had hard-edged R&B hits like "Hit the Road, Jack" and "Let's Go Get Stoned."
In 1963 his "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" album -- on which he was backed by an 18-piece orchestra -- yielded four Top-10 hit singles plus "I Can't Stop Loving You," which sold 3 million copies.
His 15 years of drug addiction become public knowledge with his 1964 arrest in Boston for heroin possession. He stopped touring for all of 1965 to kick the habit.
In "Brother Ray," he told of the court case in which he had to prove to the judge he was off drugs.
"I walked out just as I had walked in -- my own man. The only difference was that I didn't need a fix every morning."
In 1973 he split with ABC Records and formed his own label, Crossover, producing and engineering his own records.
In 1986, Ray Charles was honored by President Ronald Reagan (news) as one of the recipients of the Kennedy Center Awards, given for outstanding contributions to the performing arts in America.
Yet, he considered one of his greatest honors having the Georgia legislature adopt "Georgia On My Mind" as the official state song. Charles had at least nine children with five different women. His 20-year marriage to Della, one of his original Raelettes, ended in divorce in 1977.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Ray Charles (news), who battled childhood poverty, blindness and heroin addiction to help create soul music and become one of America's most enduring musicians, died on Thursday at the age of 73, his spokesman said .
Charles died at 11:35 a.m. at his Beverly Hills home of complications of liver disease. Family members and his manager were present, said Jerry Digney, his longtime publicist.
The following are some key facts in the life of Ray Charles:
-- Sept. 23, 1930: Ray Charles Robinson is born in Albany, Georgia
-- 1936: Charles contracts glaucoma, which eventually leaves him blind
-- April 1949: Charles makes his chart debut with "Confessin' Blues"
-- March 1955: Charles hits No. 2 on R&B charts with "I Got a Woman," widely considered first "soul" song, a mix of R&B and gospel
-- 1956: Charles hits No. 1 on the R&B chart with "Drown in My Own Tears"
-- November 1957: "Swannee River Rock" becomes first Charles hit to cross over to pop charts
-- December 1966: After a conviction on possessing heroin and marijuana, Charles receives a five-year suspended sentence. He recovers from drug addiction at a California sanitarium
-- 1979: Charles' version of "Georgia On My Mind" is declared official song of Georgia
-- January 1986: Charles is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
-- March 1988: Charles receives a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 30th annual Grammy Awards. At the ceremony, it was said Charles is, "the father of soul (having) personified the true essence of soul music in all his ... performances of basic blues, pop ballads, jazz tunes and even country music."
-- June 1993: Songwriters Hall of Fame awards Lifetime Achievement Award
-- March 1994: Charles receives 12th Grammy of his career, for Best Male R&B Performance, "A Song for You" <--That's my Song!
-- Charles has 32 chart hits, including three at No. 1: "Georgia" in 1960, "Hit the Road Jack" in 1961 and "I Can't Stop Loving You" in 1962
-- Charles on his family's poverty, from www.raycharles.com: "You hear folks talking about being poor. ... Even compared to other blacks ... we were on the bottom of the ladder looking up at everyone else. Nothing below us except the ground."
-- Charles on music, from his autobiography, courtesy of www.raycharles.com: "I was born with music inside me. That's the only explanation I know of. ... 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. ... Music is nothing separate from me. It is me. ... You'd have to remove the music surgically." (With data from www.raycharles.com, www.rockhall.com)