"Although he was very successful and owned a home in Beverly Hills, his first home was always his treasured studio, recently named a city landmark," said a saddened Joe Adams, the entertainer's manager for the past 45 years. Charles' last public appearance was alongside Clint Eastwood on April 30, when the city of Los Angeles designated the singer's studios an historic landmark.
Last summer, it was initially reported that Charles---born in Albany, GA, on Sept. 30, 1930, as Ray Charles Robinson---was suffering from "acute hip discomfort." As doctors began to treat the entertainer in Los Angeles and perform a successful hip replacement procedure, other ailments were diagnosed, and Charles ultimately succumbed from complications due to liver disease.
Prior to his death, Charles finalized a duets album, "Genius Loves Company," for the Concord label, his first new album since 2001, and okayed plans for the building of the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Norah Jones, BB King, Willie Nelson, Michael McDonald, Bonnie Raitt, Gladys Knight, Johnny Mathis and James Taylor are just a few of the notable artists involved with the project, which is scheduled for release Aug. 31. "The duets project has been a tremendous experience," he said, at the outset of recording. "I am working with some of the best artists in the business, as well as some of my dearest friends."
Charles was recently awarded the prestigious "President's Merit Award" from the Grammy® organization by its president, Neil Portnow, just prior to the 2004 Grammy® Awards, and was named a City of Los Angeles "Cultural Treasure" by Mayor James Hahn during "African American Heritage Month" in a February ceremony that he attended. He also received the NAACP Image Awards' "Hall of Fame Award" on March 6th.
An accomplished pianist and songwriter, Charles was considered the creator of the soul music genre, a unique R&B forerunner to rock n' roll and other musical offspring. During a career that spanned some 58 years, Charles starred on over 250 albums, many of them top sellers in a variety of musical genres. Blessed with one of the 20th century's most advanced musical minds, Charles became an American cultural icon decades ago. Among his memorable hits are "What'd I Say," "I Got A Woman," "Georgia," "Born To Lose," "Hit the Road Jack" and "I Can't Stop Loving You." He also gave the Ray Charles touch to such popular fare as the Beatles' "Eleanor Rugby" and "Yesterday." Among the singer's most moving and enduring musical recordings is his oft-played rendition of "America The Beautiful."
Charles appeared in movies, such as "The Blues Brothers," and on television, and starred in commercials for Pepsi and California Raisins, among numerous others. After going blind from glaucoma at the age of seven, Charles was sent to the St. Augustine, Fla., School for the deaf and blind, where he developed his enormous musical gift. The young pianist eventually made his way to Seattle, Wash., performing as a solo act, first modeling himself after Nat "King" Cole.
While in Seattle, he met a young Quincy Jones and they became lifelong friends. In the late 1940s, he began establishing a name for himself in clubs around the northwest, evolving his own music and singing style, which later included the famous back up singers, "The Raelettes." While in Seattle, he dropped the "Robinson" from his name to avoid confusion with the legendary boxer.
A recording career began in earnest in 1949 and Charles soon started a musical experiment, which included mixing genres. The experiments manifested themselves in 1955 with the successful release of "I Got a Woman." It's reported that in devising the song, Charles reworded the gospel tune, "Jesus is all the World to Me," adding deep church inflections to the secular rhythms of the nightclubs. "I Got A Woman" is popularly credited as the first true "soul" record.
The renowned entertainer, who had not missed a tour in 53 consecutive years of concert travels, had cancelled his remaining 2003 tour, beginning last August. "It breaks my heart to withdraw from these shows," he said at the time. "All my life, I've been touring and performing. It's what I do. But the doctors insist I stay put and mend for a while, so I'll heed their advice."
While remaining in Los Angeles, Charles continued a light work load at his studios and offices, overseeing production of new releases for his own record label, Crossover Records, mixing a long-planned gospel CD and beginning work on the duets album. A feature film based on his life story, "Unchain My Heart, The Ray Charles Story," starring Jamie Foxx as the entertainer, completed principal filming early last summer.
Charles' last public performance of his career was on July 20, 2003, in Alexandria, VA. "Ray Charles was a true original, a musical genius and a friend and brother to me," said Adams, the entertainer's longtime manager and business partner." He pioneered a new style and opened the door for many young performers to follow. Some of his biggest fans were the young music stars of today, who loved and admired his talent and independent spirit."
In addition to multiple Grammy® Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement, Charles is also one of the original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a recipient of the Presidential Medal for the Arts, France's Legion of Honor and the Kennedy Center Honors. He has also been inducted into numerous other music Halls of Fame, including those for Jazz and Rhythm and Blues, a testament to his enormous influence.
"You can't run away from yourself," Charles once said. "I was raised in the church and was around blues and would hear all these musicians on the jukeboxes and then I would go to revival meetings on Sunday morning. So I would get both sides of music. A lot of people at the time thought it was sacrilegious but all I was doing was singing the way I felt."
Last May, he headlined the White House Correspondents Dinner in Wash., DC, at which President and Mrs. Bush, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, were in attendance, and he also starred with Vince Gill, George Jones and Glen Campbell in a Nashville television special saluting country music's top 100 hits. Charles' performance of "Behind Closed Doors" on the TV special garnered the evening's biggest standing ovation.
In 2002, Charles celebrated the 40th anniversary of his first country hit, "I Can't Stop Loving You," which became a number one chart topper and expanded the scope of the entertainer's career to the industry's astonishment. Last year, the press-shy Charles sat for interviews in Los Angeles with film star Clint Eastwood, who conversed with the music pioneer about the blues for a documentary, "Piano Blues," seen on PBS, and also reunited with his longtime friend and early record industry patron, Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, for a television profile on the record label legend.
Early last summer, he performed his 10,000th career concert at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. In May, 2003, he also received his fifth doctorate from Dillard University in New Orleans. In 2002, Charles and Adams endowed both Morehouse College and Albany State Univ., in Charles' birthplace of Albany, GA, with substantial contributions, exceeding $1 million each.
Sixteen years ago, Charles established the Ray Charles Robinson Foundation for the hearing impaired. Since its creation, the foundation, with Charles' encouragement and generous, on-going funding, has blazed a trail of discovery in auditory physiology and hearing implantation. Each such implant procedure costs upwards of $40,000, which the Foundation pays to have done. Of some 145-celebrity charities, the Ray Charles Foundation is rated by non-profit experts as one of the top five most efficient with zero administrative overhead. Recently, a series of slot machines were designed in Charles' name for the visually handicapped and the legendary performer was also named a "living legend" by the Library of Congress in 2002.
He also starred in a concert in May 2002, at the Colosseum in Rome, the first musical performance there in 2,000 years. Charles once told an interviewer from USA Today, "Music to me is just like breathing. I have to have it. It's part of me. "Despite recent health challenges, Charles was planning to again start touring in mid-June and the sudden setback in his recovery was a great shock to all.
Eleven children, 20 grandchildren and five great grandchildren survive Charles, who will be remembered late next week at a memorial service at the FAME Church in central Los Angeles with interment at Inglewood Cemetery in Inglewood, Calif.
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