On the Tuesday, July 13, episode of America’s Got Talent, Ray Singleton took the stage, or so he’s told.
The 31-year-old Charlotte singer and minister of music at First Calvary Baptist Church in Rock Hill, SC, sat down at his keyboard and eyed the four judges facing him — Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel, and Sofia Vergara. Singleton’s wife Roslyn, a brain cancer survivor, was watching from the wings.
“Simon said, ‘Are you ready, Ray?’” Singleton remembers. “I heard myself say, ‘I am prepared.’” He looked to his wife, saw that tears were already streaming down her face, and began to play and sing in a lilting soulful croon.
“It was the most beautiful moment ever,” Singleton recalls, but he doesn’t remember much other than that.
The moment had its beginnings in an online video Singleton shot of himself serenading Roslyn with Daniel Caesar’s song “Get You” as she was preparing for surgery to remove a cancerous mass the size of a silver dollar from her brain in January 2020.
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The heartfelt and intimate video unexpectedly blew up on social media and set off a chain of events that culminated with Singleton on stage facing television cameras and a quartet of judges.
By the time week seven of America’s Got Talent aired, avid viewers of the show knew Singleton had to pass the televised audition to proceed to the next round of the competition, which will be aired in a series of live episodes following the broadcast of the Tokyo Olympics. The show’s fans also knew Singleton had no chance of receiving a Golden Buzzer, which would have allowed him to proceed to the live shows. According to the program’s rules, each judge only has one Golden Buzzer, and all the buzzers had been used up by then.
With that in mind, Singleton’s only chance was to win over at least three of the judges with his performance of Andy Grammer’s “I Am Yours” to stay in the game. When he finished singing, each panel member down the line awarded Singleton a resounding “Yes,” with plenty of praise to go with their decision. He made it farther than Charlotte music icon, Funky Geezer, who was on the show in 2014.
When Singleton says he was prepared for the America’s Got Talent performance, he isn’t just talking about rehearsing his number before going in front of the judges and the cameras. He alludes to a mental, emotional and spiritual element imbuing the process.
In a way, Singleton’s life has been preparation for that beatific moment.
Music from the very beginning
“I believe I was drawn to music in the womb,” Singleton chuckles. “It’s absolutely part of my DNA.”
Singleton claims he sang before he could talk. His mother and two of his aunts launched a successful gospel ensemble The Lucas Sisters — Trudy Grant, the Rev. Rossilind Daniels and Mary Greer — in Singleton’s hometown of Charleston, SC. When the sisters rehearsed at Singleton’s grandmother’s house, he would sit beside whomever was playing the piano, look at what they did, and commit it to memory.
By the age of 15 he had taught himself to play the instrument.
“I listen to a song for five to 10 minutes; I have it,” Singleton says. “It’s a God-given gift.”
After joining the school drama club in his sophomore year at West Ashley High in Charleston, Singleton sang a Ray Charles song for the club and received his first standing ovation. An electric feeling shot through his body, and he knew then that he would be making music for the rest of his life.
While still in high school, he also joined a band and played gigs around Charleston. The group played for $25 and a meal, Singleton recalls.
When it came time to go to college, Singleton didn’t hesitate to pick Winthrop University in Rock Hill. His choice, he admits, was initially due to some unorthodox research he undertook.
“I saw that the girl to guy ratio was seven to one, and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s where I’m going,’’’ Singleton says, laughing. It was the only college application he filled out.
Once on campus, he immediately fell in love with Winthrop. In order to major in music, however, Singleton had to be able to read music. For a musician who learned by ear and memory, learning to read music was a frustrating and ultimately futile process.
“I would fall into old habits [saying], ‘I can listen to this thing and play it better than if I read it,” Singleton offers.
So instead, he went with his second love, earning a bachelor’s degree in Theatre.
He continued to make music in college, however, performing at open mics put on by the school, eventually hosting the events. It was through those open mics that he recruited fellow music-minded students to form his band The Edge, which became the university’s unofficial house band.
The Edge played all the school’s open mics, talent shows and homecoming shows. “I’ve been viral before viral,” Singleton says.
Singleton remained at Winthrop to earn a master’s degree in counselor education. Through connections with his fraternity brothers at Omega Psi Phi fraternity, Singleton lined-up a campus job overseeing sorority and fraternity activities, which helped pay for his degree.
After graduation, Singleton settled in Rock Hill, where he became the minister of music at First Calvary Baptist Church, a few blocks down the street from where he lived.
The job interview was informal, Singleton remembers. He attended the church during a testimonial service, during which he sang a song. A subsequent chat with the pastor sealed the deal. As of now, Singleton has been with the church 11 years and counting.
From stupid sunglasses to life-saving surgery
On Nov. 5, 2016, Ray Singleton’s life changed forever. That night, his friends dragged him to a party he did not want to attend.
“I had on sunglasses inside the building, because I’m the coolest guy on the planet,” Singleton says. As he was descending the escalator, a woman’s voice rang out: “Where are you going with those stupid sunglasses?” Those are the first words Singleton heard his wife say.
Singleton ditched the sunglasses and tried to dance with Roslyn, but she declined, saying she didn’t dance with strangers. Later, as Singleton was getting ready to leave the party, he felt a tap on his shoulder. As he turned around, Roslyn held up her phone and told him to put his number into it since she was also getting ready to leave. Singleton happily complied.
Later that same evening, Singleton and his friends saw Roslyn and her friends at an after-hours eatery. It turned out that Roslyn’s friends had also cajoled her to come to the party.
Singleton went over to their table and introduced himself to her friends, then asked if he could say grace for their food. That, he later learned, sealed the deal with his wife-to-be.
The next day, on the couple’s very first date, Singleton learned about Roslyn’s battle with brain cancer.
“We were sitting down, and the vibe from the jump [was] like we had known each other for so long,” he says.
Roslyn told him that she was from a small town in South Carolina called Elgin, and that she was a Navy veteran. She also informed him that she had a cancerous mass the size of an orange removed from her brain in 2013, and that she had been undergoing annual brain scans ever since.
Singleton says he always commends his wife for the matter-of-fact, unemotional way she delivers devastating news.
“The way that she delivered it to me, it was like she had a wisdom tooth pulled,” he says.
On Nov. 4, 2018, the couple, by then living in Charlotte, was married in Charleston in an outdoor ceremony officiated by Singleton’s Rock Hill pastor. Minutes before Roslyn walked down the aisle, the sky opened up and rain poured down.
“It was chaos, but it ended up being beautiful,” Singleton says.
Roslyn continued her yearly scans, each time getting an all clear message from her doctors until in October 2019, Singleton got a call at the automobile dealership where he was working. It was from his wife. The doctors had seen something on the scan they didn’t like and they wanted Roslyn to come in for tests.
Singleton accompanied his wife to every medical appointment and test, and he brought something only he could bring to the arduous process; he sang to Roslyn constantly and recorded everything that happened.
“I’ve always been making videos for my wife,” Singleton says, proudly. “I’m the document king.”
To that end, he had put together videos of the couple’s wedding, anniversary and any other events that seemed notable. After the couple got the news that a second round of brain surgery seemed imminent, Singleton started documenting the process with video. “I wanted to put together something to show the strength of this woman.”
At the same time, he was constantly showing his devotion to Roslyn by singing to her every chance he got. It was only natural that, shortly before Roslyn went under the knife for a second time on Jan. 7, 2020, Singleton sat down at the piano and poured out his thoughts and feelings for the woman he loves into his rendition of Caesar’s song “Get You.”
“I just wanted to make my wife smile,” Singleton says. “I didn’t think it was going to be for the world. I put it on social media and it absolutely took off.”
Roslyn was in surgery for eight hours, but two days later she was up and walking.
“The doctors came in and said she’s a miracle,” Singleton marvels. “She was sitting up, talking trash and laughing with the nurses. This girl is a warrior!”
While Roslyn rapidly recuperated, the video of Singleton’s serenade spread faster than any cancer could. Views of the video on Instagram surpassed 17 million by the end of January 2020.
An American shutdown and talent renewal
The video’s popularity snowballed. It was posted on social media platform The Shade Room. After that boost, Singleton and his wife went on Ellen DeGeneres’ variety-talk show Ellen, then a producer for America’s Got Talent reached out to Singleton and asked if he was interested in appearing on the show.
Singleton replied, “Let’s go,” but on March 16, 2020, the day before he was supposed to try out for AGT, Singleton got a call from the producer saying they were pressing pause on the process. The world was shutting down due to COVID.
Grammy-winning artist Daniel Caesar had also seen the video of Singleton singing his song on social media. Caesar’s manager reached out to Singleton and invited him to Coachella last year, but the Indio, California, music festival was also canceled due to COVID.
Eventually, the world began to slowly reawaken. Singleton sang the national anthem for the Carolina Panthers for an Oct. 13 game against the Arizona Cardinals. Then, in January 2021, the America’s Got Talent producer who had reached out to Singleton the first time sent an email asking if the singer was still interested in auditioning on the show. “I said, ‘Absolutely. Hell yeah.’”
The teary-eyed look of love that Singleton received from his wife as he prepared to sing for her on AGT, is etched in his memory, but besides that and his brief exchange with Cowell, he barely remembers the rest of the audition that aired July 13. It was shot in March and contestants were sequestered from one another as a safety precaution due to COVID.
“I maybe saw one [other] act while I was there,” says Singleton. He says he didn’t even know that his episode was going to air until he was notified by show staff the previous Friday.
“So, we’re on edge at all times about what’s going to happen next,” he says. He certainly has no idea how he will fare in the competitive live shows that start broadcasting on NBC after the Olympics.
While Singleton would surely like to win the competition, which would come with a $1 million prize, he feels he’s already garnered his greatest reward with his wife’s clean bill of health. As he told the AGT judges, Roslyn’s been declared cancer-free.
Back in March, after Singleton had finished performing, Cowell called Roslyn out on stage and asked her how she thought her husband had done.
“I have been crying since he started,” Roslyn said. “He has been practicing every day and I never heard him sing so good.”
Ray Singleton says he and Roslyn have no doubt that his music has helped her heal. He’s singing so often he’s hardly aware that he’s singing.
“[Roslyn] tells me, ‘You have helped me. Keep singing to me with your healing love,’” Singleton says. He believes that same healing love can also spread to his audience. He believes his music takes him to another place, and he hopes listeners are carried along on that journey.
“The other world is where nobody’s mad at anybody, the sun shines and there’s no rain. When I’m singing and I’m playing, everything is okay,” Singleton says as his voice chokes up. “My wife isn’t sick.”