by Aimee Levitt
Everybody's fallen in love with a singer at some point. They've listened to a song over and over, until they know not just every note, but every breath and hesitation, until they can't distinguish the singer from the song. Most of us don't do anything about it. The obsession fades; we fall for somebody else.
And then there's Marci Soto.
Soto had loved Ray Charles ever since she first heard his Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music album in 1962, when she was 24. Even after she married and had two daughters, she couldn't (to borrow a phrase from one of his most famous songs) stop loving him.
One August night in 1968, Charles announced on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson that he would be playing at the Coconut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles all week. Soto was living in New Orleans then. Her husband, Henry Soto, had turned out to be an alcoholic gangster with an abusive streak. As far as she was concerned, the marriage was over, though the divorce wouldn't come through for five more years. And now she knew exactly how to find the man she considered the love of her life. What did she have to lose? Within minutes, she had Joe Adams, Charles' manager, on the line, and told him she wanted to speak to Ray.
"Will I do?" Adams asked.
"No, I'm sorry," she told him. "You sound very nice, but there are no substitutes for Ray."
When Adams asked her to send him a full-length photo of herself, it never occurred to her to ask why a blind man would need to know what she looked like. But it must have pleased somebody, because two weeks later, Charles himself called her up and invited her to meet him the following afternoon at his room in the Fontainebleau Hotel.
"I opened the door," she remembers. "He was standing by the window. When he heard me, he turned around. I can't tell you how I felt. I walked up to him and said his name. He said, 'Marci,' and I thought my heart would stop." Instead, she writes in her new memoir, Ray & Me, they fell into bed.
"I had to teach him how to kiss me right," she recalls.
And that was the beginning of a relationship that lasted 30 years. After Soto moved to Kirkwood, Charles was a frequent guest at her home there, spending holidays with her family, messing around on the piano in the basement with her daughters, listening to The Price is Right and ball games on TV while sitting on the couch in his underwear eating White Castle hamburgers. "Our life was ordinary," says Soto, who is now 72. "Ray called it 'common.'"
Like most relationships, it wasn't always blissful. More accurately, it was, Soto says, tempestuous. There were lots of fights. There were periods of estrangement when she tried to forget him and make a life with other men. But until the final break in 1997, she always went back. "I lived to be with him," she says. "My kids and Ray were my whole reason for being."
Despite that, she knew they could never be together permanently. "I knew he could never give up the road," she says, "and I couldn't deal with the road."
More to the point, she knew she couldn't trust him.
Soon after they met, when Soto was still starry-eyed, Charles invited her and the girls to move to LA. He promised he would give her money for a house and a comfortable life. Instead, what he gave her was $50 for an apartment. And then, after Soto's estranged husband showed up at one of his performances and sent a threatening note backstage, Charles stopped returning her calls.
"That probably scared him," Soto admits now. "He realized he'd bit off more than he could chew."
Homeless and penniless, and with her husband threatening to cut her into pieces and feed her to the sharks, Soto and her daughters fled to St. Louis, where her family still lived. She got a job and an apartment and sent Charles back the $50 with a letter telling him she never wanted to see him again. But she'd forgotten Charles had her brother's phone number, and he used it, repeatedly, to grovel and eventually get her to take him back.
Things were never the same, though. For one thing, she learned that Charles was married, though he said repeatedly that he didn't have much respect for the institution. (He eventually got a divorce in 1977.)
"I never forgave Ray for what he did to me in California," Soto says. "He never would talk about it. He was ashamed, I think. In New Orleans, I trusted him implicitly. I would have done anything for him. It's a sad thing that happened. It stopped me from ever trusting him."
Or maybe it was a lucky thing, because it forced Soto, who describes herself as chronically insecure, to make an independent life for herself and her daughters. Since 1975, she has had her own house-cleaning business, All About Cleaning. Though Charles lent her money to buy the little house in Kirkwood where she still lives, he was never allowed to visit unless Soto explicitly invited him.
She has no regrets. "Other people think I'm crazy or whacked out, but I wouldn't trade my life for anything." When, twenty years into the relationship, Charles suggested they discuss "making something of ourselves," Soto told him he was full of bullshit.
It was just as well. "Ray was stingy," Soto says. "Later [after he died] I learned it was because he was supporting a harem." But during his lifetime, she learned about a relationship with only one other woman. Her name was Norma, and Charles had bought her a Mercedes. Soto never confronted him about that, but as revenge, she stole enough money from his wallet to buy a used car. "I'm not going to tell you how much money I stole," she says. "But after that we were together another fifteen years."
Soto finally reached the breaking point in 1997, when Charles went on tour in Europe and didn't call for three weeks. "I wish things had been different - easier," she says. "It was hard to deal with. I didn't regret it."
It took Soto six years to write Ray & Me. She relied heavily on the 40 cassette tapes of conversations with Charles she'd recorded over the years. (He knew she was recording, she says, but he didn't care, just like he didn't care that she took pictures of him in his boxers.) Originally, she worked with a ghostwriter, but after they failed to interest any publishers in the project, Soto decided to finish on her own. "It was therapeutic," she says, "a way to get through Ray's death. I wanted to show people the Ray I knew, not the Ray in the movie."
The last time she spoke with Charles was in 2004, three months before he died. It was another conversation prompted by a TV appearance, this time the NAACP Image Awards. By then it was obvious he was suffering from the liver cancer that would eventually kill him.
"Oh, my God, when I saw him, I started to cry," Soto says. "His suit hung on him like a hanger. His voice was weak. His face was gaunt and drawn. I said, 'I gotta call him.' I didn't have his number, so I called the studio. When he got on the phone, I couldn't talk, I just wept. I asked questions: 'Do you have someone taking care of you? Are you in pain?' I told him I was having hip surgery the following week. He said he would call, but I never heard from him again. I think he figured he had time, but he didn't have time. I wish I could do it over. I wish I'd told him I'd love him till I drew my last breath."