- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) — Ray Charles, the blind singer and piano player who erased musical boundaries with classic hits such as “What’d I Say,” “Hit the Road Jack” and the melancholy ballad “Georgia on My Mind,” died yesterday. He was 73.

Mr. Charles died of acute liver disease at his Beverly Hills home at 11:35 a.m. yesterday, surrounded by family and friends, said spokesman Jerry Digney.

The Grammy winner’s last public appearance was alongside Clint Eastwood on April 30, when the city of Los Angeles designated the singer’s studios, built 40 years ago in central Los Angeles, as a historic landmark.

Blind by age 7 and an orphan at 15, Mr. Charles spent his life shattering any notion of musical boundaries and defying easy definition. A gifted pianist and saxophonist, he dabbled in country, jazz, big band and blues.

Mr. Charles won nine of his 12 Grammy Awards between 1960 and 1966, including the best R&B; recording three consecutive years (“Hit the Road Jack,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Busted”).

His versions of other songs are also well known, including a stirring “America the Beautiful.” Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell wrote “Georgia on My Mind” in 1931, but it was Mr. Charles’ rendition that became Georgia’s official state song in 1979.

“I was born with music inside me. That’s the only explanation I know of,” Mr. Charles said in his 1978 autobiography, “Brother Ray.”

“Music was one of my parts. … Like my blood,” he wrote.

Mr. Charles’ appeal spanned generations: He teamed with such disparate musicians as Willie Nelson, Chaka Khan and Eric Clapton, and appeared in movies including “The Blues Brothers.” Pepsi tapped him for TV spots.

Ray Charles Robinson was born Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga. His father, Bailey Robinson, was a mechanic and a handyman, and his mother, Aretha, stacked boards in a sawmill. His family moved to Gainesville, Fla., when he was an infant.

“Talk about poor,” Mr. Charles once said. “We were on the bottom of the ladder.”

Mr. Charles began dabbling in music at 3, encouraged by a cafe owner who played the piano. The knowledge was basic, but he was that much more prepared for music classes when he was sent away to the state-supported St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind.

Mr. Charles learned to read and write music in Braille, score for big bands and play instruments — lots of them, including trumpet, clarinet, organ, alto sax and the piano.

“Learning to read music in Braille and play by ear helped me develop a … good memory,” Mr. Charles said. “I can sit at my desk and write a whole arrangement in my head and never touch the piano. … There’s no reason for it to come out any different than the way it sounds in my head.”

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