R&B and soul singer Ray Charles has died at age 73.
Charles passed away at 11:35 a.m. PT on Thursday (June 10) of complications resulting from liver disease, according to his publicist, Jerry Digney. Family, friends and his manager were with him at his Beverly Hills, California, home at the time of his death.
He was diagnosed with “acute hip discomfort” last year, and as doctors treated him they discovered other ailments, including liver disease.
Despite being blind since childhood, Charles helped to pioneer the soul genre in the mid-1950s with early albums that blurred the lines between jazz, gospel, blues and, in later years, country. On such notable hits as “What’d I Say,” “Unchain My Heart” and “Drown in My Own Tears,” the singer/pianist’s warm, raspy voice epitomized the impassioned energy of a true soul singer. It’s a voice that will go down in history as one of music’s most recognizable.
Even songs that Charles didn’t write himself were made his own, most notably “Georgia on My Mind.” Though Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell penned the tune in 1931, Charles’ 1960 version is universally considered to be the definitive rendition, and it became Georgia’s official state song 19 years later. Charles’ emotional rendition of “America the Beautiful” was especially poignant during the flush of patriotism that followed the September 11 attacks.
Many younger music fans will remember Charles for his series of Diet Pepsi commercials in 1990, which featured him singing the slogan “You got the right one, baby. Uh-huh.” So popular were the spots that Advertising Age named Charles its Star Presenter of 1990, and the series was awarded Campaign of the Year in 1991.
A decade earlier, Charles appeared in the classic comedy “The Blues Brothers.” Playing “Ray,” the owner of a music shop, Charles’ onscreen jam of “Shake a Tailfeather” with Jake Blues was one of the film’s musical highlights. In 1985 he appeared on the USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” charity single.
Born Ray Charles Robinson on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, Charles’ young life was burdened by hardship, and his perseverance played out like an inspirational American tale. Glaucoma struck him blind at age 6, and by age 15 he was an orphan. He studied music at Florida’s St. Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind and eventually found work as a musician. In 1947 he moved to Seattle, scoring his first top-10 R&B hit four years later with “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand.”
The Ray Charles that will forever be ingrained in music history developed in the mid-1950s, when he signed with Atlantic Records and recorded such hits as “I Got a Woman,” “This Little Girl of Mine,” “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” “Lonely Avenue” and “Night Time Is the Right Time.”
“What’d I Say,” released in 1959, is Charles’ signature tune. His funky electric piano drove the song through the abrupt stops and starts that found Charles belting verses like “Hey, mama, don’t you treat me wrong/ Come and love your daddy all night long” and “See the girl with the diamond ring/ She knows how to shake that thing” with a vigor to rival any rock and roller of the time. As a result, the song became Charles’ first crossover hit, reaching the top 10 on the pop chart.
Charles unexpectedly applied his soul and R&B foundations to the predominately white genre of country with 1962’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which featured the single “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”
His early-’60s hit streak (“Busted,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “Crying Time”) was temporarily derailed when he was arrested for heroin possession in 1965. After a year out of the spotlight, he rebounded rather brazenly with “Let’s Go Get Stoned.”
In his 58-year career, Charles won 12 Grammy Awards, nine of them between 1960 and 1966, including Best R&B recording for “Hit the Road Jack,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Busted.”
When asked for his favorite song on MTV’s “A Town Hall Meeting With President Clinton,” Bill Clinton cited Charles’ version of “A Song for You,” the tune that yielded Charles his 12th Grammy in 1994.
Charles established the Ray Charles Robinson Foundation for the Hearing Impaired in 1988. He was honored by the Blues Foundations’ Blues Hall of Fame in 1982 and entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame four years later. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1993. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987 from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences and its President’s Merit Award just prior to this year’s Grammy ceremony.
“The world is a quieter place today as we mourn the passing of Ray Charles,” said NARAS President Neil Portnow. “With a mix of blues, gospel, jazz and soul, Mr. Charles was the preeminent American musician — with a heart as grand as his talents. The Academy has lost a dear friend, and the world has lost a musical legend.”
Before he died, Charles gave the go-ahead for the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center at Morehouse College in Atlanta and finished a duets album titled Genius Loves Company, which features collaborations with Norah Jones, B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Michael McDonald, Bonnie Raitt, Gladys Knight, Johnny Mathis and James Taylor. The album, his first studio effort since 2002’s Thanks for Bringing Love Around, is due August 31.
Charles’ Los Angeles studio, built 40 years ago, was designated a historical landmark on April 30. Charles’ appearance at the dedication ceremony was his last public event. His last public performance took place on July 20 of last year in Alexandria, Virginia, part of a North American tour that was cut short due to his hip ailment; a hip-replacement operation followed.
He is survived by 11 children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held late next week at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. Interment will be at Inglewood Cemetery in nearby Inglewood.
Charles’ legacy will hit the silver screen in October with the feature film “Ray.” Actor Jamie Foxx plays the lead role (see “What Do Kanye West, Tom Cruise, Ray Charles, And Dave Chappelle Have In Common?” ).
[This story was updated on 06.10.04 at 7:32 p.m. ET.]