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 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."