06/10/2004 AT 3:50 PM ET
Grammy-winning soul legend Ray Charles, whose music fused gospel and blues in such chart-topping hits as “What’d I Say,” “I Got A Woman” and “Georgia on My Mind,” died Thursday at his Beverly Hills home. He was 73.
Charles died at 11:35 a.m. of complications from liver disease. He was surrounded by family and friends, spokesman Jerry Digney tells the Associated Press.
Frank Sinatra once called Charles “the only genius in the business,” though as Charles told PEOPLE in 1990: “I’ll get all the accolades, but at my best I will never make half the money that Sinatra has made. It’s not going to happen. But when you break it down, what does it matter? I can only sleep in one bed at a time. I can only make love to one woman at a time.”
Charles – who was blind since age 7, an orphan at age 15 and battled heroin addiction for 20 years – racked up 12 Grammys over his career, thanks to albums such as Hit the Road Jack and now-classic renditions of standards such as “America the Beautiful” and “Georgia on My Mind.”
Born Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga., and christened Ray Charles Robinson (he later dropped the surname to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson), he was the son of Bailey Robinson, a railroad repairman who was seldom around and never married Ray’s mother, ‘Retha. She took to washing and ironing to support her two children and shared child-rearing duties with Bailey’s legal wife, Mary Jane.
“Mary Jane had a child of her own but he died, so she took a liking to me,” Charles recalled. “With Mary Jane I couldn’t do wrong. I was her pet. But my mother made sure I did right.”
On Sundays he sang at the Shiloh Baptist Church, but there was other music as well – at the Red Wing Cafe where the proprietor, Wylie Pitman, kept the jukebox stocked with records by Muddy Waters, Blind Boy Phillips and Tampa Red. “Mr. Pit also had a piano,” said Charles. “As a little kid I’d go in and start banging on it, and the man could have easily shooed me away. Instead he’d take my fingers, one by one, and show me a little melody.”
When he was 5, playing in the backyard one afternoon, he saw his 3 1/2-year-old brother, George, topple into a washtub. “He must have dropped something in the water and keeled over trying to get it,” said Charles. “I tried to pull him out, but he was too heavy. I went into the house to get my mom, but it was too late.”
A few months later, Charles’s eyes started tearing and his sight gradually slipped away, stolen by a disease his country doctor could not name, let alone cure. Within two years he was totally blind.
“People couldn’t understand why my mama would have this blind kid out doing things like cutting wood for the fire,” he said. “But she had the foresight to go against the grain in this little town. Her thing was: ‘He may be blind, but he ain’t stupid.’ That’s why I brag on my mama today.”
He studied classical musical at state boarding school for the blind in St. Augustine, Fla., and played blues and boogie in his spare time. Then his mother died suddenly, apparently a victim of food poisoning.
He was just 15, but he decided to set out on his own and to try to earn his way as a pianist. He traveled through Florida playing in pickup bands and living on sardines and beans.
Finally, he asked a friend to take a map of the United States and locate a big city as far away as possible from Tampa. Within days he was rumbling toward Seattle by bus. “I didn’t know anything about the town,” he said. “But I figured it had to be a place where at least I’d have a better chance.”
A few months short of 18 when he arrived, he entered a talent contest his first night in town and was immediately offered a job playing at a local Elks club. After several months, he caught the ear of a record producer and cut his first single, “Confession Blues.”
During the next few years Charles lived on the road, making the rounds of black honkytonks and beer halls around the country. Musicians called it the chitlin’ circuit. “People didn’t sit on their asses,” Charles said. “They came to dance. If somebody got too close to somebody else’s woman, it was nothing to have a fight break out and bottles start flying.”
Soon he began combining gospel styling with down-and-dirty lyrics and horn riffs, and folks everywhere came to know who he was. In the ’60s he started turning tired country standards like “I Can’t Stop Loving You” ’ into pop hits by embellishing them with lush orchestral arrangements and his own plaintive vocals.
He lived high, literally, having battled a heroin addiction. A notorious ladies’ man, Charles also sired at least nine children with seven different women. “All my kids know me,” he proudly told PEOPLE, adding that, after two failed marriages, he vowed to remain single.
But the one thing he said he would never do is stop making music. “I don’t want to retire to nothing. … I figure you do what you can, while you can, on this earth, because you can bet your ass you’re gonna leave here. Ain’t no doubt about that.”