11 Musicians Who Overcame Disabilities
By Bill DeMain
1. Ludwig van Beethoven
At age 26, the great German composer and pianist began to lose his hearing. His problems began with a severe form of tinnitus, and it's thought they may have been complicated by syphilis, lead poisoning, typhus, or possibly his habit of immersing his head in cold water to stay awake. Whatever the cause, Beethoven's deafness curbed his performing and conducting career, but didn't slow his prolific output as a composer. In the last twenty-five years of his life, when his hearing was gone, he wrote some of his best-known works, including the Ninth Symphony.
2. Django Reinhardt
Reinhardt grew up in a gypsy camp outside Paris, where he learned to play guitar and violin fluidly. In 1928, the 18-year-old musician was badly burned in a caravan fire, leaving his right leg paralyzed and left hand partially mutilated. Reinhardt learned to walk again with the help of a cane, and retaught himself how to play guitar, employing the index and middle fingers on his left hand. Inspired by Louis Armstrong, he concentrated on jazz and became one of the genre's all-time greats.
Django Reinhardt - "J'attendrai Swing"
3. Ray Charles
There was a lot of trauma in Ray Charles' childhood. At five, he witnessed the drowning death of his younger brother. Soon after, he began to gradually lose his sight. By age seven, Ray was blind (it's presumed that glaucoma was the cause). With his mother's encouragement, he took up music and learned to play piano, organ, sax, clarinet, and trumpet. By age 15, he was touring the country with dance bands. With a career that took in R&B, jazz, soul, pop, and country, he became one of the 20th century's truly legendary performers.
Ray Charles - "You Don't Know Me"
4. Hank Williams
The country star was born with spina bifida occulta, a disorder of the spine that meant a lifetime of chronic back pain. But it didn't prevent Williams from writing and recording countless all-time classics like "Hey Good Lookin'" and "I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry," as well as keeping a rigorous tour schedule. In 1951, after a fall during a hunting trip, Hank's pain grew unbearable. An unsuccessful surgery led to a morphine addiction and alcohol abuse, and eventually an untimely death at age 29.
5. Stevie Wonder
When Steveland Morris was born premature, he was rushed into an incubator. An excess of oxygen caused him to lose his sight. But like his hero Ray Charles, Morris turned to music, learning how to play several instruments, including drums, piano, and harmonica. Discovered by a member of Smokey Robinson's group, The Miracles, the 11-year-old was brought to Motown Records. In short order, he became Stevie Wonder and had the first of many #1 hits. The rest is history.
6. Bill Withers
Bill Withers was a chronic stutterer until the age of 28. "I was never too inclined to jump up in front of people and try to communicate verbally," he has said. But as an R&B singer-songwriter, Withers found a way to overcome his problem, turning out hits like "Use Me" and "Ain't No Sunshine."
Bill Withers - "Ain't No Sunshine"
7. Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Roland Kirk lost his eyesight at an early age, but it never affected his colorful visual sense. He was known to wear long caftans, towering hats, wraparound shades, and an arsenal of woodwind instruments around his neck, some of which he'd play simultaneously, in harmony. A true jazz original, Kirk passed away in 1977.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk - "Seasons" (in Montreux, 1972)
8. Ian Dury
As a lad growing up in London, Ian Dury was stricken with polio, and it left him with a shrunken arm and a hobbled gait. But that only made Dury more determined to leave his mark as an artist. As part of the late 1970s punk-new wave movement, Dury scored quirky hits like "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" and "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll." He continued to perform and record until his death in 2000.
9. Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath
At 17, southpaw English guitarist Tony Iommi lost the tips of the middle and ring fingers on his right hand in an accident at a sheet metal factory. Though he considered quitting music, Iommi came up with the clever solution of making caps for his damaged fingers, which he did by melting plastic bottle tops, then covering them with leather. To ease the tension on his fingers, he used lighter gauge guitar strings detuned a few steps. The rumbling heavy sound that resulted helped his band Black Sabbath define the heavy metal era in the 1970s.
You can watch the video for Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" on YouTube.
10. Rick Allen of Def Leppard
On his way to a New Year's Eve party in 1984, drummer Rick Allen got into a race with another driver. It ended with Allen losing control of the wheel, being thrown from the car, and having his left arm severed. Doctors tried to reattach the arm but couldn't. A depressed Allen thought his career was over. But with the encouragement of his Def Leppard band mates, and a retooled drum kit, he retaught himself to play, using foot pedals to fill out his percussive attack. His first album back in the band, Hysteria, sold 20 million copies. Allen, nicknamed "Thunder God" by fans, is still touring with Leppard.
Def Leppard talk about Allen's accident
11. Jeff Healey
The late blues rocker Jeff Healey lost his eyesight to cancer when he was one year old. Two years later, he was given his first guitar. Though he was shown the usual way to hold the instrument, he found it more comfortable on his lap, with his fretting hand above the neck. His unorthodox approach contributed to the amazingly fluid, soulful style that helped him sell millions of records in the mid-80s. Healey was also accomplished on trumpet and clarinet, playing old time jazz. He died at age 41 in 2008.
Jeff Healey - "See the Light"