He wrote songs for an array of country and pop performers, was a trailblazing entertainer in South Africa and, in death, a philanthropist.
Gray died in his sleep at his Nashville home Tuesday after a long battle with cancer. He was 69.
"Drift Away" also was recorded by rap artist Uncle Kracker in 2003 and became a hit again.
Gray's silky tenor also was heard on other hits including "The In Crowd" in 1965 and "Loving Arms" in 1973. His songs received radio airplay on several formats including Top 40, country, AOR and adult contemporary.
"He had such a unique style, so identifiable," said Bud Reneau, Gray's close friend and songwriting partner. "If you listened to his record, you knew right away it was him. It was a big factor in his marketability."
Gray toured extensively in Europe, Australia and Africa, and insisted on performing for integrated audiences in South Africa, according to his web site. After that declaration, he became especially popular in South Africa.
"I guess what you call my `signature songs' will never die, thank God," he told The Tennessean newspaper in 1988. At the time, he was the only major black vocalist to call Nashville home.
He wrote songs recorded by Ray Charles, Johnny Mathis, Etta James, Three Dog Night, Julio Iglesias, John Denver, George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
Gray sang on several motion picture soundtracks including "Uptown Saturday Night," "Out of Sight" and "Casey's Shadow." Additionally, he sang advertising jingles for companies such as Clorox, Budweiser, Hardee's, Honda and Buick.
"I talked to him the day before he died," said Charlie Andrews, Gray's attorney and friend. "We just talked about life and living and general stuff."
Gray was born into a family of sharecroppers in Simonton, Texas. He moved from Texas to California in the early 1960s where he met Sonny Bono, then an executive with Specialty Records. This led to his first record, "Look at Me," in 1963. While in Los Angeles, Gray appeared in a production of "Hair."
Funeral arrangements were incomplete. He was not married and had no children.
Reneau said Gray willed much of his property and future earnings to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
"He was a giver," Reneau said.