June 28, 2004 12:00 PM

He was born poor in Georgia, blinded by glaucoma at 7, orphaned at 15 and battled then beat a nearly two-decade heroin addiction. Yet through it all, he sang with such drive, passion and perfection that he was nicknamed “the Genius.” Soul pioneer Ray Charles’s life was a natural for a Hollywood movie. But Charles, who died June 10 of liver disease at age 73, wouldn’t even think about letting Jamie Foxx–or anyone–touch his story until he sensed the actor had the rhythm in his bones. “Ray got two pianos together and sat Jamie down–in other words, ‘Show me’ ” says Taylor Hackford, director of the upcoming Ray. After two hours of trading riffs, “Ray jumped up, hugged himself–when Ray got excited, he’d hug himself–and said, This is the guy.’ ” But it will be Charles’s inimitable voice–a crackling yet tender melding of gospel joy and blues regret–on the soundtrack when Ray is released in October; “Ray will live forever in his music,” says Stevie Wonder. “That’s his legacy.” It’s an enormous one. Charles, twice divorced and the father of 12, was unrivaled R&B royalty (“Hit the Road, Jack.” 1961), but he could also sing country heartbreak (“I Can’t Stop Loving You,” 1962), lend his voice to fund-raising supergroup anthems (“We Are the World,” 1985) and even play himself in the 1980 Blues Brothers movie. “He was always cool,” says hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. “You can’t generation-him, age-him, thing-him.” Or replace him. “Listen to his music,” says Wonder. “Even though some of his songs are sorrowful, we can open our hearts and our eyes and feel them and say, ‘Wow, this man–he expressed it so well.'”

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