By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
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 and 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 Cocoanut 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.