Piano player and singer best known for “What’d I Say” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You”
Ray Charles died on Thursday, June 10, 2004 of acute liver disease at age 73. Charles died at his Beverly Hills home at 11:35 a.m., surrounded by family and friends. Blind by age 7 and an orphan at 15, the gifted pianist and saxophonist spent his life shattering any notion of musical categories and defying easy definition. One of the first artists to record the “blasphemous idea of taking gospel songs and putting the devil’s words to them,” as legendary producer Jerry Wexler once said, Charles’ music spanned soul, rock ‘n’ roll, R and B, country, jazz, big band and blues. Over the course of a 58-year career, he put his stamp on it all with a deep, warm voice roughened by heartbreak from a hardscrabble childhood in the segregated South. Smiling and swaying behind the piano, grunts and moans peppering his songs, Charles’ appeal spanned generations. Ray Charles had a string of hits in the early 1960s, including “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Georgia On My Mind” and “Hit The Road Jack.” Charles’ health deteriorated rapidly over the past year, after he had hip replacement surgery and was diagnosed with a failing liver. But he kept on working on what would be his last CD, “Genius Loves Company.”
Charles was no angel. His womanizing was legendary, and he struggled with a heroin addiction for nearly 20 years before quitting cold turkey in 1965 after an arrest at the Boston airport. Yet there was a sense of humor about even that – he released both “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned” in 1966. His first big hit was 1959’s “What’d I Say,” a song built off a simple piano riff with suggestive moaning from the Raeletts. Some U.S. radio stations banned the song, but Charles was on his way to stardom. He was called “The Genius” and was playing at Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival. His last Grammy came in 1993 for “A Song for You,” but he never dropped out of the music scene until illness sidetracked him last summer (2003). “The way I see it, we’re actors, but musical ones,” he once told The Associated Press. “We’re doing it with notes, and lyrics with notes, telling a story. I can take an audience and get ’em into a frenzy so they’ll almost riot, and yet I can sit there so you can almost hear a pin drop.” His ups and downs are chronicled in an upcoming biographical movie set for release in October of 2004, titled simply “Ray” and starring Jamie Foxx.