Ray Charles Dies At 73 (2024)

Ray Charles, master of many musical styles, dies at 73

By Anthony Breznican


3:22 p.m. June 10, 2004

BEVERLY HILLS – Ray Charles, a transcendent talent who erased musical boundaries between the sacred and the secular with hits such as "What'd I Say," "Georgia on My Mind" and "I Can't Stop Loving You," died Thursday. He was 73.

Charles died of acute liver disease at his Beverly Hills home at 11:35 a.m., surrounded by family and friends, said spokesman Jerry Digney.

Blind by age 7 and an orphan at 15, the gifted pianist and saxophonist spent his life shattering any notion of musical categories and defying easy definition. One of the first artists to record the "blasphemous idea of taking gospel songs and putting the devil's words to them," as legendary producer Jerry Wexler once said, Charles' music spanned soul, rock 'n' roll, R&B, country, jazz, big band and blues.

He put his stamp on it all with a deep, warm voice roughened by heartbreak from a hardscrabble childhood in the segregated South. Smiling and swaying behind the piano, grunts and moans peppering his songs, Charles' appeal spanned generations.

His health deteriorated rapidly over the past year, after he had hip replacement surgery and was diagnosed with a failing liver. The Grammy winner's 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, as a historic landmark.

Aretha Franklin called Charles "the voice of a lifetime."

"He was a fabulous man, full of humor and wit," she said in a statement. "A giant of an artist, and of course, he introduced the world to secular soul singing."

"People remember the big hits and the visual image of him, but they forget what an innovator he was in the 1950s as a jazz musician," said country music singer Marty Stuart. "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."

"I lost one of my best friends and I will miss him a lot," Willie Nelson said in a statement. "Last month or so, we got together and recorded 'It Was a Very Good Year,' by Frank Sinatra. It was great hanging out with him for a day."

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."

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, teaming with such disparate musicians as Chaka Khan and Eric Clapton. Pepsi tapped him for TV spots around a powerfully simple "uh huh" theme, and he appeared in movies including "The Blues Brothers."

"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. His womanizing was legendary, and he 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.

Said John Burk, who worked recently with Charles as producer of the upcoming duets album "Genius Loves Company": "There were a couple of times where he would say, 'I'm not feeling well today but I'll take a stab at it ... I can come back to it later.' And he never had to come back to it later."

He said Charles' gift was "finding and communicating the human emotion in a song. ... That's what we strive for in the recording process, is to find that human experience."

Ray Charles Robinson was born Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga. His father, Bailey Robinson, was a mechanic and a handyman, and his mother, Aretha, stacked boards in a sawmill. His family moved to Greenville, Fla., 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 his mothers' laundry tub when he was about 5 as the family struggled through the Depression. His sight was gone two years later. Glaucoma is often mentioned as a cause, though Charles said nothing was ever diagnosed.

After 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.

His early influences were myriad: Chopin and Sibelius, 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 R&B, pioneering what came to be 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. It was banned by some radio stations.

Producer Wexler, who recorded "What'd I Say," said he has worked with only three geniuses in the music business: Franklin, Bob Dylan 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."

Charles played "America" for Ronald and Nancy Reagan in 1985 at an inauguration ball, and was one of the legends receiving Kennedy Center Honors in 1986.

His 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."

Charles, who was divorced twice and single since 1952, was survived by 12 children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A memorial service was planned for next week at Los Angeles' First AME Church, with burial afterward at Inglewood Cemetery.


Ray Charles Dies At 73 (2024)


Ray Charles Dies At 73? ›

He was 73. Mr. Charles underwent successful hip replacement surgery last year and had been scheduled to start a concert tour this month, but developed other ailments and died of complications of liver disease, said his publicity agent, Jerry Digney. Mr.

What was Ray Charles' cause of death? ›

After a successful operation, Charles soon discovered he was suffering from liver disease. He died on June 10, 2004, at his home in Beverly Hills, California. He was 73 years old. During his lifetime, Charles recorded more than 60 albums and performed more than 10,000 concerts.

At what age did Ray Charles lose his eyesight? ›

Charles started to lose his sight at the age of four or five, and was blind by the age of seven, likely as a result of glaucoma.

What happened to Ray Charles at age 7? ›

At an early age, his vision began to deteriorate, and by age seven, Ray was completely blind. The cause of his blindness was believed to be glaucoma. Shortly after losing his vision in 1937, Ray Charles was sent to St. Augustine, Florida to attend a special school for the deaf and visually impaired.

Why did Ray Charles go blind? ›

Charles himself was not born blind, but slowly started losing his vision at the age of four, due to what was later diagnosed as glaucoma. While neighbors in Charles's hometown of Greenville, Florida pitied the boy, Charles' mother Retha had no patience for sympathy.

Why did Ray Charles drop his last name? ›

Charles soon dropped his last name "Robinson," mainly to avoid popular confusion, since boxer Sugar Ray Robinson had become a household name in the U.S. He soon landed a record contract and moved to Los Angeles with a newly formed group, the McSon Trio.

Did Ray Charles write his own songs? ›

By the early 1960s, after writing many R&B classics, Ray Charles had virtually given up writing his own songs, choosing instead to interpret songs of many different styles written by others.

Why didn't Ray save his brother? ›

Though George did drown in a metal tub, Ray did try to pull him out, but was unable to do so due to George's large body weight; Ray then ran inside to tell his mother what happened.

What conditions did Ray Charles have? ›

Ray's struggles with mental illness, began after a near fatal car accident at age 5, led him to a juvenile detention center, incarceration and homelessness. After he learned of his diagnosis with schizophrenia, Ray began to get treatment and started the long road to recovery.

Who did Ray Charles leave his money to? ›

Just before the 2002 Christmas, it's reported that Ray Charles had a family luncheon with his 12 children at a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport. He told them he was mortally ill and outlined what to expect from his fortunes. Charles left most of his assets to his charitable foundation.

How many babies did Ray Charles have? ›

Throughout his 73 years of life, Ray Charles had 12 children with ten different women. The women who mothered the musical icon's kids are Louise Flowers Margie Hendrick, Mae Mosley Lyles, Sandra Jean Betts, Mary Chantal Bertrand, Arlette Kotchounian, Gloria Moffett and Mary Anne den Bok.

Did Ray Charles go deaf? ›

After experiencing a temporary ear ailment, Charles began to fund research in cochlear implants and other electronic devices; and he often anonymously funded hearing aid implants for those who could not afford them.

Where is Ray Charles buried? ›

How much was Ray Charles worth? ›

Charles reportedly left $500,000 to each of his 12 children, and gave the rest of his estimated $75 million estate, and licensing rights to his music, to Ray Charles Enterprises. The foundation absorbed Ray Charles Enterprises after Charles' death.

Did Ray Charles have macular degeneration? ›

Ray Charles, a musician, was blinded by untreated glaucoma as a child. He told New Musical Express in an interview that blindness was not something he considered a disadvantage. He became a world-famous blues musician after learning piano with the Braille system.

Did Jamie Foxx actually sing in Ray? ›

Foxx not only played an energized character in "Ray," but nailed the singing and movement style of the famous musician. Foxx, however, did not do his own singing for the role. The vocals were recordings of Charles himself.

What was the cause of death for James Ingram? ›

Ingram continued to perform into the 2010s and filled venues internationally. At the end of the decade, however, he died after a battle with brain cancer.

Did Ray Charles have a brother? ›

Who was Ray Charles' mother? ›

Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany on September 23, 1930, the same year that Hoagy Carmichael composed “Georgia on My Mind.” A few months after his birth his mother, Aretha Williams, moved with RC (as everybody called the young Charles) to Greenville, a small town in north Florida.

What type of music was popularized by Ray Charles? ›

As a performer and recording artist in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ray Charles pioneered a new style of music that became known as "soul," a blend of gospel music, blues, and jazz that brought him worldwide fame.

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