Soul titan Ray Charles, who crafted such hits as ''What'd I Say'' and influenced artists from Stevie Wonder to Billy Joel, dies at 73

By Gary Susman
Updated June 10, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
Ray Charles: Robert Mora/Getty Images/NewsCom

Ray Charles, who essentially invented R&B music as we know it 50 years ago, launching a career with few peers in terms of innovation and influence, died Thursday at his Beverly Hills home surrounded by family and friends, spokesman Jerry Digney told the Associated Press. The 73-year-old succumbed to liver disease, Digney told Reuters.

Charles, who was blinded by glaucoma before he was 7 and orphaned at 15, pioneered modern soul music by combining the rousing uplift of gospel with the earthy grit of the blues — a taboo combination at the time — in such early hits as ”I Got a Woman” (1955) and the epic call-and-response shouter ”What’d I Say” (1959). Over the course of his career, he would also branch into country and jazz, until his name became synonymous with American music, with a range of idioms that few other performers (Sinatra, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson) have matched. His vocal and piano styles were instantly recognizable, and he profoundly influenced such performers as Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Van Morrison, Joe Cocker, and Billy Joel.

Charles won 12 Grammys during his career, nine of them between 1960 and 1966, when he was turning out hits like ”Busted” and ”Hit the Road, Jack.” By the 1970s, the hits had stopped coming, but by then Charles had become an American institution, commonly referred to by his nickname ”the Genius of Soul.” His rendition of ”America the Beautiful” was de rigueur at state functions, and his version of ”Georgia on My Mind” convinced voters of Charles’ home state to make the Hoagy Carmichael tune the official state song in 1979. He toured tirelessly until last year, when he was sidelined by hip-replacement surgery. His last public appearance was on April 30, when the city of Los Angeles gave landmark status to the Ray Charles Studios, where he recorded for four decades.

A biopic about him, starring Jamie Foxx, is due in theaters this fall. Preparing for the role, Foxx, a classically trained pianist, grew close to Charles as he prepared for the film. ”We get together on tandem pianos — he has pianos all over the place — and sing the blues,” Foxx told Entertainment Weekly. ”He and I get down!”