CNN) -- Ray Charles, the innovative singer and pianist whose combinations of blues and gospel pioneered soul music and earned him the nickname "the Genius," has died. He was 73.
Charles died at 11:35 a.m. (2:35 p.m. ET), in Beverly Hills, California, his publicist said. The cause was of complications from liver disease.
Charles was a towering figure in pop music history. The term "genius" came from Frank Sinatra -- no slouch in the singing department himself -- and others called him "the greatest pop singer of his generation" and "a true American musical original."
It was Charles' blending of gospel and blues music on the 1954 recording of "I Got a Woman" -- created at a small radio station studio in Atlanta, Georgia -- which is often credited as the beginning of soul music.
But Charles was never one to pay attention to musical boundaries. Born in the Deep South, raised on gospel, blues, country, jazz and big band, he forged these disparate styles into something all his own.
"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," singer Van Morrison told Rolling Stone magazine in April.
Charles won 12 Grammy awards, including the award for best R&B recording three consecutive years ("Hit the Road Jack," "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Busted"). His version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia On My Mind" was named the Georgia state song in 1979, and he lent his gravelly voice to songs ranging from "America the Beautiful" to "Makin' Whoopee" to the 1985 all-star recording of "We Are the World."
"I was born with music inside me. That's the only explanation I know of," Charles said in his 1978 autobiography, "Brother Ray." "Music was one of my parts ... like my blood. It was a force already with me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me, like food or water."
Up the ladder
Ray Charles Robinson -- he later changed his name to avoid confusion with the noted boxer -- was born in Albany, Georgia, on September 23, 1930. His father was a handyman; his mother stacked boards in a sawmill. The family moved to Greenville, Florida, when Ray was an infant.
"Talk about poor," Charles once said. "We were on the bottom of the ladder."
Charles' younger brother, George, drowned when Ray was 5, an event Charles witnessed. George had fallen into a tub; Ray tried to pull him out, "but he was too heavy," he told an interviewer.
Not long after, Charles began losing his sight. By the time he was 7, he was totally blind. But his mother, Charles said, was resolute.
"When the doctors told her that I was gradually losing my sight, and that I wasn't going to get any better, she started helping me deal with it by showing me how to get around, how to find things," he said in the autobiography. "That made it a little bit easier to deal with."
He'd been playing piano since he was 3. In 1937, he entered the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind as a charity student, studied classical piano and clarinet, and learned to read and write music in Braille. Both his parents died by the time Charles turned 15.
At that age, he left school and joined dance bands in Florida, then moved to Seattle, Washington, where a talent contest appearance led to work playing at the Elks Club. He formed the McSon Trio with two other musicians -- a group modeled on the Nat King Cole jazz group -- and soon they moved to Los Angeles, where they recorded their first single, "Confession Blues," which Charles wrote.
During the early 1950s, the trio released several singles including "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand," which hit the U.S. R&B chart.
In 1952, Atlantic Records signed him to a contract and he began recording and touring regularly.
His first commercial success came in 1953, when he played piano on Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used to Do," which sold more than a million copies.
But it was "I Got a Woman" which made his name.
Ray Charles in concert in 2000.
The song, based on an old gospel song, was "the fusion of all the elements that till then had simply failed to coalesce," wrote music historian Peter Guralnick. "It was the uninhibited, altogether abandoned sound of the church; it was the keening, ecstatic voicings by which the world has come to know Ray Charles best."
Charles followed up "I Got a Woman," which hit No. 2 on the R&B charts, with hits including "Drown in My Own Tears," "This Little Girl of Mine" (covered by the Everly Brothers), "Lonely Avenue" and "The Night Time Is the Right Time." His rollicking piano and distinctive voice were often backed by a call-and-response group of female background singers, the Raelettes.
In 1959, Charles broke through to the white audience with a top 10 hit, "What'd I Say," which ran more than six minutes in its unedited version. The smash led to his appearance at New York's Carnegie Hall, as well as a huge contract from ABC-Paramount Records.
Charles didn't sit still -- literally and metaphorically. His first album for ABC-Paramount, "The Genius Hits the Road" (1960), was recorded with an extensive string section, still rare in R&B music at the time (the Drifters' "Here Comes My Baby," from 1959, perhaps being the first example). The album featured "Georgia on My Mind," which hit No. 1 and won two Grammys.
The next year he hit No. 1 again with "Hit the Road Jack."
In 1962, Charles decided to release an album of country music, "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music," which broke new ground by combining soul and country music and was seen as a risk by many observers at the time. But Charles fooled them all; the album went to No. 1, as did one of its singles, Charles' rendition of Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You." He soon followed the album up with "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol. 2."
His hits continued through the mid-'60s and included "Busted," "Crying Time" and "Let's Go Get Stoned," the latter one of the Ashford and Simpson songwriting team's first hits.
Living for the stage
Music was one of my parts ... like my blood. It was a necessity for me, like food or water.
-- Ray Charles
Charles' influence was wide-ranging. When Motown was promoting a new (and also blind) artist, Stevie Wonder, in 1963, they called him "the 12-year-old genius" and played up the Charles similarities. Artists ranging from Joe Cocker to the Beatles to Loretta Lynn credited his impact.
Charles also worked extensively with an old Seattle friend, Quincy Jones, whose tastes were equally varied.
Charles had his struggles. In 1964 he was arrested on drug charges and checked into a rehab center in California. He admitted he had struggled with a heroin addiction for 20 years.
He later became reluctant to talk about the drug use, notes The Associated Press, fearing it would taint how people thought of his work.
"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 once said.
Charles remained a popular entertainer long after he stopped hitting the charts. His appearance in 1980's "The Blues Brothers" gave that movie some of its best moments; in the '80s, he was a fixture in Pepsi ads, making a catchphrase of "You've got the right one baby, uh-huh."
"The way I see it, we're actors, but musical ones," he once told The Associated Press. "We're doing it with notes, and lyrics with notes, telling a story. I can take an audience and get 'em into a frenzy so they'll almost riot, and yet I can sit there so you can almost hear a pin drop."
Among his other passions was chess, which he took up while recovering from his heroin addiction.
He knew his value, but played down his impact.
"Music's been around a long time, and there's going to be music long after Ray Charles is dead," he told the Washington Post in 1983. "I just want to make my mark, leave something musically good behind. If it's a big record, that's the frosting on the cake, but music's the main meal."
Charles was divorced. He had 12 children. A memorial service is to be held June 18 or 19 at the Fame Church in Central Los Angeles.