Josh Shaffer

Raleigh singer bares his soul for the street

It’s hard for me to resist a blind man playing piano on the street, especially if he’s got a voice that can shake parking meters out of the concrete, but it’s an irresistible bonus for me if he’s serenading the sad-luck crowd outside the Wake County jail.

So I took a spot on the planter box next to Phil Walters, who belted out songs for the forsaken on his Casio keyboard — a dented coffee can for donations perched above middle C.

For an hour, he led a brave singalong for the newly freed, the soon-to-be cellbound and the unhappy families caught in between. Hard-looking men clapped hands as he sang Sam Cooke songs, mouthing the words with lit cigarettes on their lips.

So I asked Walters, 52, what made him choose this stage. Of all the spots in Raleigh, why decide to busk on a block of Salisbury Street where the passers-by carry more felonies than car keys?

“I was kind of led here,” he explained. “The only people who want to be here, work here. I thought this would be a good place to bring some joy. Prayed for a lot of people here. Seen God do some amazing things right on this street.”

He told me about a few of them.

A few weeks ago, a couple got married by a county magistrate and rushed outside into the courtyard, freshly married in the world’s least romantic venue. Walters played “You Are So Beautiful” for their impromptu after-party, then recommended they visit the azalea garden at WRAL for a free honeymoon.

Not too far back, a young man sat down on Walters’ right and told him in a deep voice, “They’re going to lock me up today. I did something bone-headed.”

They prayed together, and Walters told the man that God would follow him inside. When he walked out an hour later, slapped with probation rather than jail time, Walters told him, “God has given you a second chance. Just use it wisely.”

From the way he plays, I felt sure Walters would tell me that he’d grown up as an organist in the church where his father was the pastor. But instead, he picked up playing piano thanks to a video from the public library, which taught him his first few chords while he still had the use of his left eye.

His playing blossomed nine years ago, when he lost that eye because of a hereditary condition that also blinded his grandmother. He writes his own songs now. And for the last four years, he’s caught a ride downtown from his home in North Raleigh to play on various streets, finally settling on the jail.

While I sat with him, I saw a man walk out the front door pushing a double-stroller with two babies inside, and he paused at Walters’ Casio to fish a dollar out of his wallet.

A few minutes later, a guy in sunglasses with his hair slicked back and his shirt unbuttoned to his navel dug into his pocket for a handful of change, then went back for a second handful.

Shortly before I left, a man in a Notorious B.I.G. T-shirt clapped and sang along to “Stand By Me,” then shook Walters’ hand and introduced himself as Slim.

The coffee can had cash poking out of the slit, and I was hogging up space on the planter. So I said goodbye to Walters, who offered me his blessing.

“I can tell you like what you do,” he told me. “Isn’t that a wonderful thing when you can do what you love?”

And his fingers hit the keys. or 919-829-4818