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Ray Charles is known for his remarkable talent and his huge contributions to the art of rhythm and blues music. The musician wrote and performed many unforgettable songs during his life, performing with greats such as Aretha Franklin and Frank Sinatra. However, behind the scenes, things were more complex than they seemed. 

Charles was known for overcoming a heroin habit, but his substance use didn’t end there. Although he lived to be 73 years old, his lifestyle ended his life early.

Ray Charles singing and playing on a keyboard
Ray Charles | Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

The unique genius of Ray Charles

According to NPR, Ray Charles Robinson was born in Georgia in 1930, but he grew up in Florida. When he was four years old, he developed a mysterious illness that destroyed his eyesight slowly over the next three years. He was sent to a school for the blind, where he learned to read and write in braille. At the same time, he was also exposed to music, and he fell in love. He learned to play the piano, saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, and organ. 

When he was 15, his mother died. He decided to leave home and pursue work as a musician. His obvious talent helped him build a career at an impressive pace. He signed his first record contract in 1953, and quickly produced a string of hits, such as “Georgia on my Mind.” But then he nearly lost it all. 

His battle with heroin

As Charles’ fame grew, so did a problem he’d been struggling with for years. At the age of 18, he had started using heroin. In 1965, he was arrested for heroin possession. His place in musical history could have ended there, but he managed to overcome his addiction and resume his passion for music.

But although he stopped using heroin, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that he was clean and sober. According to Slate, he found “a different buzz.” He drank a lot of gin and smoked a lot of pot, and he wasn’t ashamed to admit it. 

“Just like smack never got in the way of my working, same goes for booze and reefer,” he said. “What I do with my own body is my own business.” His body could only withstand that kind of drug use for so long. In 2002, he was diagnosed with alcoholic liver disease and hepatitis C. 

Gathering his kids at the end

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According to Rare, Charles was known for having a busy romantic life. By the time he died, he had 12 children with 10 different women. Not all of his children were close (many of his relationships with their mothers overlapped), but when he got ill, they all came to see him. 

In 2002, he gathered his kids to tell them that he was sick and would not live much longer. He promised each of them would receive $500,000, but that the bulk of his estate would be donated to charity. Sadly, this didn’t stop the family from becoming embroiled in legal battles over the rights to his songs after his death in 2004.

Although he may have died earlier than he should have, Charles left behind a rich legacy of music. And though his personal life was complicated, he will long be remembered for his songs.