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Whatever the style, in his greatest performances Charles explored melancholy and then beat it back with pounding piano playing and his broad-shouldered baritone. His rendition of Georgia on My Mind (1960) is about more than a state of the union; it turns longing into a state of grace. Many of his other hits, including Drown in My Own Tears (1955) and Busted (1963), were suffused with despair, but he performed them with such fortitude, they came across as revivifying. Indomitable in life (he overcame a 20-year heroin habit and fathered 11 children) and in song (he won 12 Grammys and legions of other honors), he showed that soul was good for the spirit.
In later years he gained mainstream celebrity in the movie The Blues Brothers and in Diet Pepsi commercials, but it was always the music that defined his life. Charles raised money for the hearing impaired because, he said, "I can't imagine being deaf ... To me, it's the worst thing in the world. Imagine never being able to hear music. Most people expect me to help the blind, but I don't think they need help. After all, I'm blind and I'm doing all right." He was doing all right all the way to the end. He recently completed a CD with contributions from Norah Jones, B.B. King and Willie Nelson. A biographical film starring Jamie Foxx will be out in October. Charles' legacy should last as long as soul itself. He did his mother proud. He found that other way.