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In Memoriam: Ray Charles

Photos: Top right hand side, Ray Charles when he is roughly twenty years old, at the piano; bottom, Ray Charles standing and smiling, in his 'later years' (roughly sixty years of age)

Ray Charles, whose music transcended many genres for more than a half-century, bringing the essence of soul to country, jazz, rock and standards, died on June 11, 2004, at his home in Beverly Hills, California. He was 73.

Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, and grew up in Greenville, Florida. When he was five, he began losing his sight from an unknown condition, and became completely blind by the time he was seven.

He attended the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind from 1937 to 1945, where he learned to repair radios and cars, and started piano lessons. He also learned to write braille music, play clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet and organ. He listened to a wide variety of music, including swing bands, country and western singers and gospel quartets.

When he was 15, his mother died. Shortly thereafter, he left school and went to Jacksonville, Florida, to earn a living as a musician. He began calling himself Ray Charles to distinguish himself from the boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson.

Charles was an important influence on American music as a performer, songwriter, bandleader and producer. He was a powerful barrelhouse piano player, but his piano work was overshadowed by his bluesy, baritone voice.

"I've Got a Woman" became Charles's first national hit in 1955. He made more than 60 albums, and his versions of such varied songs as "Hallelujah I Love Her So", "What'd I Say", "Hit the Road Jack", "I Can't Stop Loving You", "Georgia on My Mind" and "America the Beautiful" are all considered standards.

By the early 1960's, Charles became largely an interpreter of material from an eclectic range of other writers. He made an instrumental jazz album, "Genius + Soul = Jazz," playing Hammond organ with a big band featuring Count Basie sidemen; a duet album in 1961 with jazz singer Betty Carter; and in 1962 he released the album "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music", remaking country songs as big-band ballads.

Charles himself was influenced by Nat King Cole, and influenced singers as varied as Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison and Billy Joel.

In 1986, Charles was one of the first musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He won a dozen Grammy Awards for his recordings, and also received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement. Among his other numerous awards were the Presidential Medal for the Arts in 1993, and the Kennedy Center Honors in Achievement in 1987.

He was divorced twice, and is survived by 12 children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.