Ray Charles' seven-decade career will forever be seen as one that touched people individually while having an incalculable impact on the face of contemporary soul, R&B, gospel and rock.
The singer/songwriter and pianist/saxophonist, who died Thursday of complications from liver disease (see "Ray Charles Dead At 73"), could mournfully relay the pleading sentiment of every jilted-yet-still-obsessed lover on songs like 1961's "Unchain My Heart" and 1962's "I Can't Stop Loving You." Other songs, like 1959's "What'd I Say" brought gospel's power, R&B's swagger and rock and roll's muscle to a pop climate where only a few artists (i.e. Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis) had been so lyrically daring.
Jerry Wexler, a producer and former vice president of Atlantic Records, described Charles as taking the "music of the church [and putting] the devil's words to it."
The influence of Charles' trademark rasp is undoubtedly heard in the singing styles of Van Morrison and Joe Cocker. In the 1960s, the Beatles, the Who, the Animals and other bands of the British Invasion worshipped him, but simply aping his style was a losing proposition given that true soul just can't be knocked off so easily.
"Ray Charles is one of the all-time greats," Alicia Keys said in a statement. "It saddens me that we have lost him. Who will we turn to now for inspiration? I can't help but feel that soon all the greats will be gone. We really have to appreciate them while they're here. In mourning Mr. Charles, it's comforting to remember that the beauty and musicianship will live on forever in every piece of work he's contributed to the world. His legacy is forever, and I will always cherish it."
"There will never be another musician who did as much to break down the perceived wall of musical genres as much as Ray Charles did," read a statement from producer Quincy Jones (the pair had been friends since 1947). "I truly have no words to express the deep sadness that I have today. Ray Charles was my oldest friend, my brother in every sense of the word and bigger than life — a musical genius who made every song he performed his own."
"[Ray Charles] was a true legend ... an American treasure," Michael Jackson said in a statement. "His music is timeless; his contributions to the music industry ... unequalled; and his influence unparalleled. His caring and humility spoke volumes. He paved the way for so many of us, and I will forever remember him in my heart."
Justin Timberlake, a benefactor of Charles' crossover inroads, was more succinct in his praise for the music legend. "Ever since I started listening to music, Ray Charles has been my idol," his statement read. "I send my deepest condolences to his family."
For Stevie Wonder, the sadness of Charles' passing was coupled with a determination to keep his legacy alive. "It's with a broken heart [that I learn] we have physically lost Ray Charles," Wonder said Thursday at a Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony in New York. "It's a relief knowing that he is not going to suffer anymore. It's a celebration to know that death can never, ever kill the genius of Ray Charles. He has left a legacy that will outlive all of us here and beyond, and that is an incredible feat. Whatever it is that I can do to perpetuate and preserve his greatness, that's what I will do."
Producer Jermaine Dupri was shocked to hear of Charles' passing. "I'm kind of blown away by the news," he said. "It's definitely something I'm hating to know happened. ... When anybody who's blind or [disabled] can take their talents to an even higher level, it's just remarkable. He touches me by being one of the most remarkable people ever."
Indeed, Charles' blindness, caused by glaucoma when he was 7, seldom seemed an obstacle in most of his pursuits — musical, recreational or social (he was a renowned ladies' man in his younger days).
"Ray could kick my ass any day in a chess game," noted country star Willie Nelson, who recorded "It Was a Very Good Year" with Charles for the upcoming duets album Genius Loves Company, due August 31. "I lost one of my best friends and I will miss him a lot."
Charles broke many stylistic conventions with his music, and his early forays into mainstream rock and roll and even country music helped dissolve racial barriers as well. When many people thought he'd lost his mind by making 1962's Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Charles proved his detractors wrong by scoring a #1 pop single with "I Can't Stop Loving You" from that album and taking covers of Hank Williams' "Your Cheating Heart" and Johnny Cash's "Busted" inside the top 10 a year later.
"Ray Charles was one of the greatest giants of our time, before our time, and after our time," Wyclef Jean said. "Telling me Ray Charles died is the equivalent of telling me Martin Luther King died. Not only was he a musician, he was a revolutionary and a fighter. He uplifted the black race. He's no longer here physically, but spiritually and musically he'll always be remembered."
In addition to artistic admiration, the Roots' ?uestlove respected Charles' groundbreaking business savvy. "He was a pioneer in that modern-day struggle to control your music," the drummer said. "In fact, he himself, not his lawyer, negotiated his recording rights [with ABC], and he's one of the few artists who owned all his masters. For a black man in those times, that's unheard of. I take inspiration from that."
Jamie Foxx, who will portray Charles in the upcoming movie "Ray," found out firsthand that all the accolades heaped upon Charles by peers, friends and admirers were accurate. "Everything that's been said about Ray Charles is true: He was a genius, a legend and an inspiration to generations of people all over the world. I'm honored to be chosen to portray him. He will be missed forever but never forgotten."
"It is a big loss to America," singer Patti LaBelle said in a statement. "Although I knew him as a friend, he was nice to everyone. And even though he was blind, he saw people in his own special way. We've lost a great angel."