Ray Charles - with his savvy blend of blues and gospel - is often credited as the being the inventor of soul music.

Charles - although gracious, modest and unassuming in conversation - agrees with that assessment."All I did was be myself and sing what I genuinely felt inside of me," says Charles, 67.

"What came out was basically my roots mixed all in together. I came from a black community in the South, and of course, I heard a lot of blues. Yet, I went to all the revival meetings in the Baptist Church and Sunday School, so that had a huge influence on me.

"If you mix those two things together, you would get kind of a bluesy, gospel feeling," he adds. "When I started singing that way, nobody had ever done it before. Of course I got a lot of criticism for it. People were saying I was bastardizing the church and all of these other things, but it was just me. It was just the way I felt the music, and I sang it and played it that way.

"After awhile, when you had other artists begin to do the same thing like Aretha Franklin, they started saying it was `soul music.' But it kinda started with me I guess. I guess I'm sort of guilty."

"Guilty" is hardly the word for Charles' musical innovations and personal charm, which have captured the attention of several generations of Americans. And although Charles has broadened his musical horizons to include pop, country and show tunes, he says he still feels the same attachment to his blues, gospel and jazz roots. Most importantly, he says he enjoys musical diversity and exploration.

"First and foremost, I'm a musician," he says. "I like all kinds of music. It's like Duke Ellington once said, there's only two kinds of music: good and bad. I honestly feel that that's the truth. Music is the tree, and the branches are things like classical or county and western or hillbilly or whatever they want to call it.

"Spiritual, gospel, whatever name they give it . . . as a musician who loves music, I can always find some good in all these branches."

Charles - who holds a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and is a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame - says commitment and integrity are the most important factors to enduring success.

"I really believe artists who have sincerity in their music and are honest in their music and their work - I think they survive," he says. "I think of a guy who just passed away, Frank Sinatra. Let's face it, the guy - and I'm only talking about his music, I don't know anything about his personal life . . . - but his music, the way he could handle a song. He could put himself into this thing.

"I think that transmits to the audience. They know you're giving them your best. You're giving them all of yourself. I think the audience knows, `If I go out to hear Ray Charles, I'm going to hear some good stuff.' I think that's the key to the longevity. Artists that take their performances seriously. ALL THE TIME. Period."