Ray Charles may have been one of the most influential singer-musicians ever to grace American pop music. He may have laid the foundation for soul - an earthy blend of the secular and the spiritual, and one of the country's greatest cultural achievements. But during a career of more than 50 years, the legendary Georgia native was affectionately known to friends, fans and industry insiders as Brother Ray, a man with a sharp sense of humor and fiercely independent spirit.
Mr. Charles, whose classic hits include "Hit the Road Jack" and "What'd I Say," died yesterday of acute liver disease at his Beverly Hills home. He was 73.
Despite his bleak early years - he was blind by age 7 and an orphan at 15 - he shattered musical barriers as a young star, smoothly and soulfully exploring the depths of musical genres that included country, jazz, big band and the blues. His vocal delivery - affecting, nuanced and rough around the edges - his distinctive, relaxed sense of rhythm and fluid, tricky piano skills inspired artists as varied as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Billy Joel.
"His sound was stunning - it was the blues, it was R&B, it was gospel, it was swing," singer Van Morrison told Rolling Stone magazine in April. "It was all the stuff I was listening to before but rolled into one amazing, soulful thing."
Ms. Franklin, a longtime friend, said, "He was a fabulous man, full of humor and wit. A giant of an artist, and, of course, he introduced the world to secular soul singing."
Between 1960 and 1966, Mr. Charles picked up nine of the 12 Grammy Awards he won, including best R&B recording three years straight for "Hit the Road Jack," "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Busted." "Georgia On My Mind," the Hoagy Carmichael-Stuart Gorrell composition Mr. Charles definitively recorded in 1960, became Georgia's official song in 1979. He added his aching yet resilient vocal touch to a memorable rendition of "America the Beautiful."
"Mr. Charles was the pre-eminent American musician - with a heart as grand as his talents," said Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy, the organization that honored the performer with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. "The academy has lost a dear friend, and the world has lost a musical legend."
Mr. Charles' appeal survived countless pop trends and spanned generations. In 1980, he appeared in the blockbuster John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd film, The Blues Brothers. Nine years later, when heavily synthesized music and tinny voices dominated pop and urban radio, Mr. Charles rocketed to the top of the R&B charts and won a Grammy for "I'll Be Good to You," a raucous remake of the 1976 Brothers Johnson hit he recorded with Chaka Khan. His longtime friend, producer and band leader Quincy Jones, produced the song.
In the 1990s, the singer was seen in the popular "Uh huh" ad campaign for Pepsi. The commercials featured Mr. Charles, surrounded by fawning, beautiful women, singing and swaying at a grand piano.
The image fit him. The singer used an all-female back-up group, the Raelettes, and was a renowned womanizer. He could be mercurial and demanding in the studio and behind the scenes. His drug use surely contributed to his sometimes erratic behavior during the early years of his career. After a nearly 20-year addiction, Mr. Charles quit heroin cold turkey in 1965, after an arrest in Boston.
Yet he found humor in even his darkest moments. The next year, he scored a hit with "Let's Go Get Stoned," a song written by a young husband-wife duo, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Mr. Charles was never comfortable talking openly about his drug use, though, fearing people would think less of his work because of it.
John Burk, who recently co-produced Genius Loves Company, an upcoming CD featuring Mr. Charles in a number of duets, said the singer's greatest gift was "finding and communicating the human emotion in a song."
Mr. Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson on Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga. Bailey Robinson, his father, was a handyman and mechanic; his mother, Aretha, stacked boards in a sawmill. While he was an infant, his parents moved to Gainesville, Fla.
His childhood experiences would ultimately toughen Mr. Charles and shape his artistic scope. At 5, he saw his brother drown in a tub his mother used for laundry. Two years later, he lost his sight. Although glaucoma is often mentioned as the cause, Mr. Charles said there was never a firm diagnosis. Despite the disability, his mother encouraged his independence.
In his 1978 autobiography, Brother Ray, he wrote: "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. That made it a little bit easier to deal with."
Not long afterward, he was sent to the state-supported St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind. There, his natural gift for music flourished and he learned to read and write music in Braille, scoring for big bands by the time he was 13. He also learned to play a variety of instruments in addition to the piano: alto saxophone, organ, clarinet and trumpet. He found refuge and solace in music and was inspired by an array of musicians and composers: Chopin, Sibelius, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum and the country and western regulars on the Grand Ole Opry radio program.
By the time he graduated from St. Augustine at 15, Mr. Charles' parents were dead. To support himself, the teen-age musician played small gigs on the "chitlin circuit," a string of black-owned dance halls in the South, before moving to Seattle in the late 1940s. There, he dropped the name Robinson and formed a band, patterning himself after Nat "King" Cole. His band backed Ruth Brown, a hot R&B singer at the time on Atlantic Records. And the group recorded a few sides for Swingtime Records.
In 1952, Atlantic bought his contract. Two years later, after a few flops, Mr. Charles hit with "I Got a Woman," a raw, rocking number whose rhythm and feel came straight out of the sanctified church. The song ushered in soul music, a style firmly rooted in gospel with subtle overlays of jazz and heavy emphasis on the blues.
By 1959, "What'd I Say," a song built on a simple piano riff and suggestive moans from the Raelettes, catapulted the singer-pianist to superstardom in the R&B field. He packed the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where he played regularly. And he became a major draw at other prestigious venues, including Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival.
In the early 1960s, he left Atlantic and signed with ABC-Paramount Records, which released his most popular album to date, 1962's Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. The LP, featuring "I Can't Stop Loving You" and other soul-venting interpretations of early country compositions, sold a million copies, establishing Mr. Charles as a major pop star.
"People remember the big hits and the visual image of him," said country singer Marty Stuart, "but they forget what an innovator he was in the 1950s as a jazz musician. 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."
A few months later, Mr. Charles put out Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol. 2, which matched the artistic and commercial success of its predecessor. Both albums were immaculately produced with strings and big band arrangements, anchored by his emotive singing and stylish piano.
Although his popularity waned in the next three decades, Mr. Charles had made his mark as an innovative and unique singer-musician. Aside from his musical accomplishments, he was a shrewd and successful businessman. For 40 years, he maintained a recording studio in Los Angeles. On April 30, the city designated the building as a historic landmark. Mr. Charles made his last public appearance at the ceremony.
Mr. Charles, who was divorced twice and single since 1952, is survived by 12 children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Wire services contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times