Ray Charles, Who Reshaped American Music, Dies at 73
By JON PARELES
Published: June 10, 2004
Ray Charles, one of America's greatest singers and a musician who brought the essence of soul to country, jazz, rock, standards and every other style of music he touched, died today. He was 73.
A spokesman for Mr. Charles, Jerry Digney, told Reuters that Mr. Charles had died at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., of complications from liver disease.
Mr. Charles reshaped American music for half a century as a singer, pianist, songwriter, bandleader and producer. He was a remarkable pianist, at home with splashy barrelhouse playing and precisely understated swing. But his playing was inevitably overshadowed by his voice, a forthright baritone steeped in the blues, strong and impure and gloriously unpredictable.
Mr. Charles could belt like a blues shouter and croon like a pop singer, and he used the flaws and breaks in his voice to illuminate emotional paradoxes. Even in his early years, he sounded like a voice of experience, someone who had seen all the hopes and follies of humanity.
Leaping into falsetto, stretching a word and then breaking it off with a laugh or a sob, slipping into an intimate whisper and then letting loose a whoop, Mr. Charles could sound suave or raw, brash or hesitant, joyful or desolate, insouciant or tearful, earthy or devout. He projected the primal exuberance of a field holler and the sophistication of a be-bopper; he could conjure exaltation, sorrow and determination within a single phrase.
In the 1950's, Mr. Charles became an architect of soul music by bringing the fervor and dynamics of gospel to secular subjects. But he soon broke through any categories. By singing any song he prized-from "Hallelujah I Love Her So" to "I Can't Stop Lovin' You" to "Georgia on My Mind" to "America the Beautiful"-Mr. Charles claimed all of American music as his birthright. He made more than 60 albums, and his influence echoes through generations of rock and soul singers.
Ray Charles Robinson was born on Sept. 23, 1930, in the small town of Albany, Ga., and grew up in Greenville, Fla. When he was 5 years old, he began losing his sight from an unknown ailment that may have been glaucoma. He became completely blind at the age of 6. But he began to learn piano, at first from a local boogie-woogie pianist, Wylie Pitman; he also soaked up gospel music at the Shiloh Baptist Church and rural blues from musicians who included Tampa Red.
He was sent to the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind from 1937 to 1945. There, he learned to repair radios and automobiles, and he started formal piano lessons. He learned to write music in Braille and played Chopin and Art Tatum; he also learned to play clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet and organ. On the radio, he listened to swing bands, country-and-western singers and gospel quartets. "My ears were sponges, soaked it all up," he told David Ritz, who collaborated on his 1978 autobiography, "Brother Ray."
He left school at 15, after the death of his mother, and went to Jacksonville to earn a living as a musician. He played where he could as a sideman or a solo act, taking jobs all over the state and calling himself Ray Charles to distinguish himself from the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. He modeled himself on two urbane pianists and singers, Charles Brown and Nat (King) Cole, carefully copying their hits and imitating their inflections. After three years, he decided to put Florida far behind him and moved to Seattle. There, he formed the McSon Trio, named after its guitarist, Gosady McGee, and the "son" from Robinson. He also started an addiction to heroin that lasted for 17 years.
Mr. Charles made his first single, "Confession Blues," in Seattle in 1949, credited to the Maxin (a different spelling
of McSon) Trio. His second single, "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand" by the Ray Charles Trio, was recorded in Los Angeles in 1950 with musicians who had played with Nat Cole. The singles were hits on the "race records" (later rhythm-and-blues) charts, and Mr. Charles moved to Los Angeles.
He joined the band led by the blues guitarist Lowell Fulson, and became its musical director. After two years of touring the United States, he left to resume his own career.