He died on June 10, 2004 from liver cancer when he was 73.
Ray Charles possessed one of the most recognizable voices in American music. He was a pioneer in the genre of soul music during the 1950s by fusing rhythm & blues, gospel, and blues styles into his early recordings. He was one of the first African-American musicians to be given artistic control by a mainstream record company.
The son of a sharecropper, and a railroad repair man, mechanic and handyman, Ray Charles Robinson, who was born in Albany, Georgia, moved to the poor black community of Jellyroll on the western side of Greenville, Florida.
His musical curiosity began at Mr. Wiley Pit's Red Wing Cafe when Pit played boogie-woogie on an old upright piano. Pit would care for George, Ray's brother, (George drowned in the Williams' wash tub when he was four years old.)
Ray started to lose his sight at the age of five, and went completely blind by the age of seven, possibly due to an infection caused by soapy water to his eyes which was left untreated. He attended school at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine from 1937 to 1945, where he developed his musical talent. During this period he performed on WFOY radio in St. Augustine.
For over a year, he played the piano for bands at the Ritz Theatre in LaVilla, earning $4 a night. Then he moved to Orlando, and later Tampa, where he played with a southern band called The Florida Playboys. This is where he began wearing sunglasses when he performed.
He moved to Seattle in 1947 on a whim and he met and befriended a 14 year old Quincy Jones. Ray started recording, as the Maxin Trio with guitarist G.D. McKee and bassist Milton Garrett, achieving his first hit with "Confession Blues" in 1949. The song soared to #2 on the R&B charts. Then under the name "Ray Charles" - to avoid being confused with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson –he recorded two more R&B hits, "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand" (#5) in 1951 and "Kissa Me Baby" (#8) in 1952.
Hit songs such as "Georgia On My Mind," "Hit the Road Jack," "One Mint Julep and "Unchain My Heart" helped his transition to pop success, and his landmark 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and its sequel Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol. 2, helped to bring country into the mainstream of music. His version of the Don Gibson song, I Can't Stop Loving You topped the Pop chart for five weeks and stayed at #1 R&B for ten weeks in 1962.
His final album, Genius Loves Company, released two months after his death, consists of duets with various admirers and contemporaries: B.B. King, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, James Taylor, Gladys Knight, Michael McDonald, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Diana Krall, Norah Jones, and Johnny Mathis. The album won eight Grammy Awards, including five for Ray Charles for Best Pop Vocal Album, Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for "Here We Go Again" with Norah Jones, and Best Gospel Performance for "Heaven Help Us All" with Gladys Knight.
Rolling Stone ranked Charles number 10 on their list of "100 Greatest Artists of All Time" in 2004, and number two on their November 2008 list of "100 Greatest Singers of All Time."