When Tonee “Valentine” Carter sits in front of a piano, his fingers take on a life of their own, dancing across the keys as he smiles, closes his eyes, and sinks into a melody.
Carter, 66, isn’t famous, but he does perform for an international audience nearly every day at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Travelers lucky enough to hear him often find themselves hypnotized by his music.
That’s what happened to Carlos Whittaker, a motivational speaker who was traveling home to Tennessee on Wednesday morning after a speaking engagement was canceled.
“I was super bummed that morning and had to reroute to Atlanta. As I was walking through the concourse, I heard someone playing the piano, and I just had to walk by them,” Whittaker, 46, told CNN. “There was Tonee, going down and going to town and I knew I just had to stay there.”
For an hour and a half Whittaker sat at the piano bar in Concourse A, listening to the music that seemed to effortlessly flow from Carter’s fingertips. The author, podcaster and Instagram influencer also took videos of the musician and shared them with his “InstaFamilia,” which include more than 200,000 followers.
Eventually, the two men began talking, even sharing intimate details about their lives.
When Carter returned to his piano, Whittaker came up with an idea.
“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,” he said. “Within 30 minutes, we had raised $10,000.”
In a video he shared on Instagram, Whittaker captured the moment he told Carter that a bunch of people he had never met quickly came together to raise thousands of dollars just for him.
“I just lost it. I thought he was kidding, I just couldn’t believe it. That just doesn’t happen,” Carter told CNN. “I didn’t know how to feel. This is the kind of the thing I do. I love giving and donating and helping people, but I never expected someone to do it for me.”
Before Whittaker boarded his plane, he told his followers they could continue to tip Carter on Venmo and CashApp.
“By the time I landed in Nashville, it was $20,000. And by the time I interviewed him for my podcast that night, it was $44,000. And as of this conversation, it’s at $61,000,” Whittaker said on Friday evening.
Despite health problems, he’s ‘the happiest man in the world’
Carter was just 6 years old when his father, also a pianist, took him to a Ray Charles concert.
“I was done. I knew exactly then that’s what I wanted to do and I’ve been obsessed ever since,” said the musician, whose stage name is Valentine. “Once its in your heart, it’s in you and it ain’t going nowhere.”
Carter said that no matter what’s going on in the world, music reminds him that “life is good.”
“When I’m playing, I feel like the happiest man in the world,” he added. “The happiest person in the world. I am happiest playing piano and watching people respond to that happiness with theirs.”
But Carter hasn’t had the easiest life. In fact, he’s lucky to be alive.
In 2008, while working as a pianist on a cruise ship, Carter learned he has kidney disease. His doctor told him that his kidneys were functioning at just 10%.
The diagnosis turned his life upside down. For decades before then, he played in bands and worked cruise ships. But now he must reserve his evenings for life-saving dialysis treatment.
“I have to do what I have to do to live. But I’m so happy, because when I’m not going through dialysis, I’m not going through heart problems, brain tumors or cancer. Maybe I don’t have working kidneys, but I get up and go to work everyday,” he said.
“Yes, my life is a little inconvenient and yes, it isn’t what it used to be. No, I don’t have any strength and yes, I’m weak sometimes and a lot of my days aren’t good, but damn I’m here. I’m happy. Hell yeah, I’m the happiest person I know.”
He plans to pay it forward
On Wednesday Carter put on a suit and headed to the airport, where he’s worked as a pianist for the last 13 years. He didn’t expect anything extraordinary to happen. He was just excited to play music for strangers, like always.
“I love working here. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. It’s a different energy, people going on vacations or business trips or going away with their loved ones, they’re happy,” he said. “And when people are having a miserable day, they’ll walk past me and things will get a little brighter. They’ll start patting their feet and tapping their hands on the table and think ‘Alright, I can do this.’”
But then Whittaker, who Carter calls an “angel,” walked past and everything changed.
“It was a typical day and this guy walks up and introduces himself and says he wants to interview me for his podcast,” Carter said. “He asked me what my story was and I said ‘I really don’t have a story, I’m quite boring. All I do is play piano.’”
But the two quickly became friends, and within hours thousands of people across the world knew Carter’s name and were even giving him tips.
“It has had me crying for days, not because of the total, but because of the individual donations,” Carter said. “I looked through all the donations and saw so many that were $0.50, $1, $2. My heart palpated because I knew they were giving me what they had. People were giving out of love.”
CNN has independently verified the amount raised and sent to Carter.
Whittaker has used his Instagram platform to raise funds for others in the past.
Earlier this month, he and his followers raised $230,000 for Brooklyn To Alaska, a non-profit organization that sends urban teenagers on a transformative adventure to Alaska.
“My online community has turned into this thing where we all collectively decide to change someone’s life whenever we get a chance,” Whittaker said. “I know people with 1 million followers who can’t raise a few thousand dollars, but we’re just 200,000 and they just give and they’re so excited about it. It’s a blessing.”
The first thing Carter plans to do with the money 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 $60,000 is not mine. It’s money that’s going to go to others,” Carter said. “There is only one way to say thank you, because words are inadequate. And that is to pay this forward.”