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Remembering Ray Charles, Master of Many Musical Styles - 2004-06-11

Ray Charles, a musician of exceptional talents - singer, songwriter, arranger and pianist - died June 10 of acute liver disease at his home in Beverly Hills, California. He was 73 years old.

Music was always important to Ray Charles, especially the gospel and rhythm and blues that was part of his African American heritage. In a career spanning more than 50 years, the extraordinarily gifted blind artist earned 12 Grammy Awards and numerous other honors, both in the United States and abroad.

"Georgia On My Mind" is probably the one song for which Ray Charles was best known. He did not write the piece, but he made this arrangement of it so famous that the southern state of Georgia, in which Mr. Charles was born, selected it as its state song.

"It's very touching when you have the whole [legislative] assembly stand up for little old me. Like the man [someone in the legislature] said, 'You know, Mr. Charles, you are the first person that has ever come in this chamber and everybody agreed on it, 100 percent. There was not one negative vote.'"

Ray Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson into a poor family in Albany, Georgia in 1930. At the age of five he began playing piano, one of several instruments he mastered. At seven, he went blind from glaucoma. While attending a school for the deaf and blind, he studied composition and learned to write music scores in braille. Orphaned at the age of 15, he left school and joined a musical group. He continued to play thereafter.

In the early years of his career, Ray Charles was strongly influenced by several blues singers, including the great Nat "King" Cole. He went on to develop his own style, however, and, with the 1955 release of "I Got a Woman," he established his place in the music world.

Ray Charles was criticized by some singers for drawing on gospel music for his melodies and singing style while using the sexually suggestive lyrics typical of the blues. But it is just this blending of styles - blues, jazz, gospel, country and rock and roll - that his admirers say displayed his genius.

"If you say to me, do I think I am a genius - I'm not a fool," Ray Charles said. "First of all, I know I'm not a genius. At least not in my own mind. If you say I was a gifted human being, I would think you are right. I'm gifted in the sense that I can do a lot of things in music well. I can sing a little bit, I can play the piano a little bit, I can write music, [and] I can compose [music]."

Aside from the dark glasses he always wore, Ray Charles shunned the outward trappings of blindness. He never had a seeing-eye dog or used a cane. Instead, an assistant accompanied him wherever he went. Mr. Charles was on the road with his 17-piece band for eight months each year, working six or seven nights a week. Mr. Charles arranged all the parts of each song. He personally selected each tune that would be played at a concert - usually five minutes before the performance began. He kept up the grueling pace for years just because he enjoyed it.

"I do it because I love it. I love it," he said. "What else would I do? Music really and truly is my bloodstream, my breathing, my respiratory system, I guess."

The years of constant touring contributed to the failure of three marriages and to a 17-year heroin habit. In 1965, Mr. Charles was arrested for heroin possession. But after a hospital stay, he was completely cured of his addiction. After that, he poured his energy into his work, playing anywhere, from concert halls to small supper clubs throughout America.

"We [Americans] do have the freedom to say things we want to say. We can if we have the will and the drive, pretty much make ourselves become whatever [we want to be]."

To his fans, Ray Charles was fondly known as "Brother Ray," also the title of his 1978 autobiography. He was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. His final public appearance was on April 30 when the city of Los Angeles designated his 40-year-old studio an historic landmark. A Ray Charles favorite was his number one hit "Hit The Road Jack," featuring his longtime backup singers the Raylettes.

Charles had hip replacement surgery last December and had to cancel many of his 2004 tour dates. He died in Beverly Hills, California of acute liver disease on June 10 at age 73.