Stars remember Ray Charles -- James Brown, Aretha, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, and others eulogize the Genius of Soul as an innovator in numerous genres

By Gary Susman
Updated June 11, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Even in death, Ray Charles united disparate strains of music. The singer, who blended soul, country, pop, and jazz on his records, drew tributes from artists across all genres as news spread of his death on Thursday at age 73. ”It’s a real bad day,” James Brown told the New York Daily News. ”What I want to say about brother Ray Charles is that he inspired a lot of people. He motivated me among many others. We not only lost a great countryman, we lost a genius.” Said Aretha Franklin in a statement, ”He was a fabulous man, full of humor and wit. He introduced the world to secular soul singing. Undoubtedly, the music world will miss his voice. He’s the voice of a lifetime.”

”There will never be another musician who did as much to break down the perceived walls of musical genres as much as Ray Charles did,” said producer Quincy Jones, a Charles friend and collaborator for 60 years. ”There was just no one like Ray Charles,” said another musical partner, Tony Bennett. ”It broke my heart today when I heard he had left us.”

Charles disciple Van Morrison was onstage at Hampton Court Palace in London when he heard the news. ”I’m deeply shocked. I’ve lost a dear friend. Ray will be sadly missed.” Then he sang Charles’ ”I Can’t Stop Loving You.” ”Ray Charles was a true American original,” said another disciple, Billy Joel, who recorded the duet ”Baby Grand” with Charles. ”[He] defined rhythm & blues, soul, and authentic rock & roll,” Michael Jackson, who sang with Charles on ”We Are the World,” said in a statement. ”I am saddened to hear of the death of my friend…. He was a true legend — an American treasure.”

”When I heard that he passed, I dropped and started crying,” Patti LaBelle said in a statement. ”It is a big loss to America…. We’ve lost a great angel.” Legendary jazz drummer Max Roach, the bebop innovator who played often with Charles, told the Daily News, ”Ray was real. He was just real. He did everything he wanted to do and he did it extremely well. I’m going to miss him.”

Some remembrances were leavened with humor. Ruth Brown, the R&B hitmaker who was Charles’ labelmate at Atlantic Records in the 1950s, recalled hearing from Charles that he was to be the subject of a biopic. (Called ”Ray,” the movie, which stars Jamie Foxx, is due in theaters this fall.) ”He told me they were making a movie about his life and asked who should play me,” Brown told the Daily News. ”I said, ‘Halle Berry.’ He said, ‘Ruth, I ain’t THAT blind.”’ Another friend and duet partner, Willie Nelson, said in a statement, ”I lost one of my best friends and I will miss him a lot.” He added, ”Ray could kick my ass any day in a chess game. He gloated over that.”