The pioneering musician who eased the pain of depression at the piano

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The Independent US

Ray Charles, the man credited with inventing American soul music with a series of landmark recordings blending gospel, jazz, country and blues, died at his California home last night surrounded by family and friends. He was 73.

Ray Charles, the man credited with inventing American soul music with a series of landmark recordings blending gospel, jazz, country and blues, died at his California home last night surrounded by family and friends. He was 73.

He had been ill for some time. The cause of death was given as complications arising from liver disease.

Born into the most desperate Depression-era poverty and blind from the age of seven, Charles grew into one the most talented musicians of his generation, his infectious laugh and sunny demeanour belying a life story of extraordinary sadness and adversity.

He is now regarded as one of the most talented and influential American musicians of the 20th century, honoured with accolades to the very end. Just two months ago, in his last public appearance, his recording studio in Los Angeles was designated a historic landmark in a ceremony attended by the actor and jazz aficionado Clint Eastwood.

A composer, arranger, singer and player of instruments including the piano, organ, saxophone, clarinet and trumpet, Charles was boundlessly curious about musical forms and experimented with just about all of them. His greatest period, though, came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he secularised gospel music, made it acceptable for a black man to sing country and developed a soulful uptempo style - punctuated with his trademark moans and "oh yeahs" - that ushered in the Motown era.

One of his greatest admirers with a similarly eclectic taste, Van Morrison, told Rolling Stone recently: "His sound was stunning. It was the blues, it was R&B, it was gospel, it was swing. It was all the stuff I was listening to before that but rolled into one amazing, soulful thing."

Charles wrote in his autobiography: "I was born with music inside me. That's the only explanation I know of ... Music was one of my parts ... It was a necessity for me like food or water."

Among his most famous recordings were R&B classics like "What'd I Say" and "Hit The Road Jack", a soft, wistful version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia On My Mind" - since promoted to be the official anthem of the state of Georgia - and unique country ballads such as "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Take These Chains From My Heart".

Off stage, Charles battled demons and, for 20 years, was a heroin user. But he kept his dark side away from the public. As he once said: "I've known times where I've felt terrible, but once I get to the stage and the band starts with the music, I don't know why but it's like you have pain and take an aspirin, and you don't feel it no more."

He was born Ray Charles Robinson - the surname was later dropped to avoid confusion with the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson - and raised in Georgia and Florida in the very worst period of racial segregation in the American South.

His father was a mechanic and his mother did odd jobs, from laundry to stacking boards in a sawmill. "Even compared to other blacks," Charles wrote, "we were on the bottom of the ladder looking up. Nothing below us except the ground."

When he was five, his brother drowned in his mother's washtub. When he was six, he started to go blind for reasons that were never properly diagnosed. At seven, he began attending St Augustine's school for the deaf and blind, which is where he discovered his talent for music - learning to read and write music in braille and trying just about every instrument in the orchestra.

By 15, both his parents were dead and he was forced to fend for himself, half-starving as he toured Florida in search of music jobs. At 17, he moved to Seattle - deliberately choosing the US city furthest away from Florida - and began to thrive.

That was where he met a youthful Quincy Jones, formed a series of successful bands and won his first recording contract. From his first hit record, "I Got A Woman", he was mixing gospel with the blues and earning the admiration of his peers.

The music producer Jerry Wexler once described Charles's achievement as "taking gospel songs and putting the devil's words to them". He constantly took his audience by surprise - never more so than with Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music , a two-album project that seemed preposterous when it first appeared but came to earn him some of his biggest hits.

"He can take a gem from Tin Pan Alley or cut to the country," Wexler said, "but he brings the same root to it - black American music."

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