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Caption from LIFE. "Ray stands in the driveway of his rambling Los Angeles home with his wife Della and sons Robert, 5, David, 7, and Ray Jr. 11. 'I don't need to see them to know what they look like,' he says. 'I know my wife is pretty, and I think my sons are pretty good boys.'" NOTE: Ray and Della divorced in 1977; in all, Ray was married six times.Bill Ray—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Ray Charles with his son, David, 1966.
Ray Charles at home in Los Angeles, 1966.
Ray Charles at home in Los Angeles, 1966.
Ray Charles at home in Los Angeles, 1966.
Ray Charles at home in Los Angeles, 1966.
Ray Charles at home in Los Angeles, 1966.
Ray Charles at home in Los Angeles, 1966.
Ray Charles and his sons goof around on his tour bus, 1966.
Ray Charles and his sons goof around on his tour bus, 1966.
Ray Charles 1966
In the early morning at Los Angeles airport, [Ray Charles] waits with his manager, Joe Adams, to board his plane for a flight to New York. His arm is linked to Adams', but Ray still stands very much alone.
In his 50-seat private plane, Ray talks to a control tower. He likes to sit up in the co-pilot's seat and knows so much about the operation of the plane that, in an emergency, he could take over. 'That would really be flying blind, baby.'
Ray Charles 1966
Ray Charles, 1966.
Ray Charles's tour bus, 1966.
Ray Charles's tour bus, 1966.
Ray Charles's tour bus, 1966.
His chauffeur, Vernon Troupe, leads Ray Charles to the piano in Los Angeles studio where Charles records for his own company, named Tangerine after his favorite fruit.
Ray Charles and the Raelettes, 1966.
Ray Charles and orchestra, 1966.
Ray Charles in the studio, 1966.
Ray Charles rests before a show, 1966.
Ray Charles -- without his trademark sunglasses -- rests before a show, 1966.
Ray Charles before a show, 1966.
Ray Charles before a show, 1966
Ray Charles backstage talking with Eric Burdon and the Animals, 1966.
Ray Charles at Carnegie Hall, New York City, 1966.
Ray Charles at Carnegie Hall, New York City, 1966.
Ray Charles, with arms outstretched, during performance at Carnegie Hall, 1966.
Caption from LIFE. "Ray stands in the driveway of his rambling Los Angeles home with his wife Della and sons Robert, 5,
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Bill Ray—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
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Ray Charles: Rare and Classic Photos of an American Genius, 1966

In July 1966, LIFE magazine published a feature story on the man Frank Sinatra reportedly once called "the only true genius in show business"—Mr. Ray Charles. Whether or not he was the only genius in show business is debatable; but there's no getting around the fact that Ray Charles is one of a handful of the most influential American musicians in history. A prodigious pianist, soulful songwriter and vocalist of astonishing range and power, Charles transformed the pop-culture landscape with his melding of gospel, blues and R&B music during the 1950s.

In 1966, Charles's career was on the rebound after a forced hiatus in rehab the previous year for his longtime heroin addiction. (He'd been arrested for possession — for the third time—in 1965, and agreed to rehab in order to avoid jail time.) After getting clean he reemerged with hits like "I Don't Need No Doctor," "Crying Time" and other songs in various genres, including blues-inflected country, that revealed his powers as an entertainer to be not merely undiminished, but perhaps stronger than ever.

LIFE photographer Bill Ray spent a solid month with Charles during this pivotal time in the singer's career, chronicling performances at celebrated venues like Carnegie Hall as well as hanging out with the legend in the studio, backstage at concerts and on the road and in the air between shows. Here, on Ray Charles' 84th birthday (he was born Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga., and died June 10, 2004, in California), LIFE.com presents a selection of Ray's photos—many of which never ran in LIFE magazine—that reveal a Ray Charles most of us have never seen.

"I was amazed at how he was able to exercise so much control over so many aspects of his life," Bill Ray says today. "The music, the travel, his love life—which was definitely complicated. He could sometimes seem cool, calculating, even ruthless in his dealings with people, but part of that was a way to make sure he wasn't being cheated, or taken advantage of. To me, at least, he was always very warm, very welcoming. And when he got behind that piano and began to sing—wow! It was just impossible not to be moved by music that powerful."

[See more of Bill Ray's photos, and purchase prints and books, at BillRay.com]

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