Ray Charles, American Legend, Dies at 73

'Genius' Overcame Obstacles, Broke Down Musical Boundaries

Listen: <b>Web Extra</b>: Rock Historian Ed Ward's Career Retrospective

Ray Charles

hide captionSoul music pioneer Ray Charles, 1930-2004.

Institute of Jazz Studies
Ray Charles and NPR's Marian McPartland

hide captionRay Charles and NPR's Marian McPartland.

Vanguard Photography

American musical icon Ray Charles died Thursday of complications from liver disease at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 73.

Known as "The Genius" since the early 1950s, Charles started out primarily as a jazz and blues pianist and singer in the style of his early musical idols such as Nat "King" Cole and pianist Charles Brown. But over his more than 50 years in show business, Charles built a career that defied genre, bringing his soulful voice, keyboard prowess and songwriting talent to the pop, country and R&B charts.

Among the first musicians to blend the emotional power of gospel music with secular themes, Charles won 12 Grammys, including a lifetime achievement award in 1987. His songs "Hit the Road Jack," "What'd I Say" and "Georgia on My Mind" have become American classics. In 1986, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Ga., on Sept. 23, 1930, Charles grew up in Greenville, Fla. He contracted an unknown illness at the age of four that began to affect his eyesight and within three years, he was completely blind.

From 1937 to 1945, he attended a Florida school for the deaf and blind where he learned to read braille, repair — and listen to — radios, and play piano as well as clarinet, saxophone, trumpet and organ. After his mother died, he left school for Jacksonville at 15 to begin his career as a professional musician.

After several years, Charles moved to Seattle where he started his steady rise to fame — and also became hooked on heroin. In 1949, Charles cut his first two singles, and after both became hits, he moved to Los Angeles in 1950. He toured the United States for several years as the musical director for blues guitarist Lowell Fulson.

Charles signed with Ahmet Ertegun's Atlantic Records in 1953 and then switched to ABC-Paramount in 1959, building an impressive track record of hits along the way. But in 1965, he was arrested for heroin possession and left music for a year to kick his habit.

He came back strong, beginning a touring regimen that had him on the road for much of the year. Throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s — even into the new century, Charles continued that schedule, until earlier this year, when illness forced him to cancel several appearances.

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