A blind man playing craps would be something odd to see inside a casino, but when the blind man is Ray Charles and the casino is Harrah's Lake Tahoe or Caesars Tahoe, then it all makes sense.
The legendary soul, blues and gospel singer, who died Thursday, performed inside the casino show rooms at least a half dozen times in the past 21 years - knocking folks out with his songs, wit and, yes, gaming technique.
"He'd play craps when he was here. To think about it is kind of funny - a blind man rolling dice. But he did and he did it with the help of his bodyguard," recalled Gary Zaskoda, Harrah's stage manager of nearly 30 years.
"He'd roll and tell his bodyguard 'What's my point? What's my point?' or 'What did I roll? What did I roll?' and of course everyone would gather around watching Ray Charles play craps. It was kind of comical. He drew big crowds around him," Zaskoda said.
Charles frequented both casinos, first performing at Caesars Tahoe in 1983, said Sue Hyde, vice president of marketing for the casino. He made appearances there again in 1992 and 1996.
He visited the South Shore Room at Harrah's beginning on Christmas Day 1987 through Jan. 2, 1988; again on Oct. 13-14, 1995 and May 28-30, 1999, Zaskoda said.
As stage manager at Caesars for more than 20 years, Abe Barcellos has helped orchestrate many acts that have come through town, but it was Ray Charles whom he ranks with the likes of Elvis as being one of the casino's best entertainers.
"He was an icon. A legend. A great performer who had electrifying shows. I'm thankful I got to see him," Barcellos said.
Ray Charles was one of the very last show performers who rank in the same breath, era and caliber as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin, all of whom visited Tahoe on many occasions, Zaskoda said.
"I've seen a lot of people come in here, but Ray Charles - his music I really loved," he said. "You just don't see that caliber of musician anymore, anywhere. He was one of the last true 'lounge' acts. Those are the shows with the big names you hear about from people who've been here a long time."