Last Wednesday was an extraordinary day for Chattanooga native and piano virtuoso Tonee “Valentine” Carter.
That’s when paths crossed between the 66-year-old Carter and 46-year-old Instragram influencer, author, podcaster and motivational speaker Carlos Whittaker.
The random encounter led to a $61,000 windfall for Carter after Whittaker shared videos of him with his “InstaFamilia,” his more than 200,000 Instagram followers.
Although Carter admits the ensuing publicity “has been crazy” after his story went viral; nevertheless, he is “grateful and surprised” by God’s continuous blessings.
“God is good,” Carter, whose stage name is Tonee Valentine, said during a telephone interview. “Although I may cuss sometimes, I’m still a praying man. So I’m used to God and His blessings. But I must admit, this here is a surprise and has just been taken to another level.”
Carter has performed for a diverse audience nearly every day for the last 13 years at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. He met Whittaker, who was traveling home to Nashville on Wednesday morning after a speaking engagement was canceled.
Whittaker, a former musician himself, said he was walking to the Delta Sky Club when he was surprised to hear piano music. So, for an hour and a half while waiting for his flight, he sat at the piano bar in Concourse A–listening to the music that seemed to effortlessly flow from Carter’s fingertips.
Whittaker shot videos of the musician and shared them with his social media followers. Eventually, he came up with an idea.
“I stopped to have some Chick-fil-A and noticed nobody was paying attention to this piano player, so I thought I would sit down and enjoy his music,” Whittaker said. “Suddenly I was like, what would happen if I asked my Instagram followers if we could give him the biggest tip he’s ever gotten. Within 30 minutes, we had raised $10,000.”
Before Whittaker boarded his plane, he told his followers they could continue to tip Carter on Venmo and CashApp.
“Grateful is an understatement that this happened to me,” Carter said. “It just did it for my heart that total strangers were giving to me. It’s just been amazing.”
Carter is the nephew of former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professor and renown pianist, composer and conductor Dr. Roland Carter. He grew up in Chattanooga, and graduated from Brainerd High School.
In 1978, Carter was working for the Record Bar located in Chattanooga’s East Gate Mall. After he learned of an opening in an Atlanta area Record Bar, he transferred to that store.
“I fell in love with Atlanta,” he said.
Carter began playing piano at the age of 6, after his father–also a pianist–took him to a Ray Charles concert.
“I knew exactly then that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “Once it’s in your heart, it’s in you and it’s not going nowhere.”
Carter began his professional career at 20, touring with the late Teddy Pendergrass. He has since performed in numerous nightclubs, casinos and five-star restaurants.
He spent more than a decade as the featured guest entertainer on cruise ships, playing for passengers and seeing the world. In 2008, while working as a pianist on one of those cruise ships, Carter learned he has kidney disease.
Carter’s doctor told him that his kidneys were functioning at just 10 percent. With the diagnosis, now he must reserve his evenings for nine hours of life-saving dialysis treatments.
Despite his health problems, Carter said he’s “the happiest man in the world. I am happiest playing piano and watching people respond to that happiness with theirs.”
The first thing Carter plans to do with the $61,000 is get an oil change for his car, he joked. But after that he says he’ll use it to help people the way Whittaker has helped him.
“That money is not really my money,” Carter explained. “There is only one way to say thank you, because words are inadequate. And that is to pay it forward.”