What the media does not always showcase are those recording artists, those musicians living with disabilities while also performing to the highest of industry standards. Many disabled famous names battled years if not a whole lifetime with illness or disability. Ludwig Van Beethoven, at the age of 26, began to lose his hearing. His problems began with a severe form of tinnitus, further complicated by 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.
Jazz Master, Django Reinhardt, grew up in a gypsy camp outside Paris, where he learned to play guitar and violin fluidly. As an 18-year-old musician he was badly burned in a caravan fire leaving his right leg paralysed and his left hand partially mutilated. Reinhardt learned to walk again with the help of a cane and retaught himself how to play guitar while disabled, employing the index and middle fingers on his left hand. Inspired by Louis Armstrong, he concentrated on the jazz genre becoming one of the all-time greats. Similarly, there was a lot of trauma in Ray Charles’ childhood. At age 5 he witnessed the drowning death of his younger brother. Soon after, he began to gradually lose his sight. By age seven, Ray was blind thus disabled. 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.
The country music star Hank Williams 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“. In 1951 after a fall during a hunting trip, Hank’s pain grew unbearable. An unsuccessful surgery led to a morphine addiction, alcohol abuse and an untimely death at the age of 29. Stevie Wonder, born Steveland Morris, was delivered premature and rushed into an incubator. An excess of oxygen caused him to lose his sight. But like his hero Ray Charles he turned to music, learning how to play several instruments, including drums, piano, and harmonica. Discovered by a member of Smokey Robinson’s group, the 11-year-old was brought to Motown Records. In short order, he became Stevie Wonder and had the first of many #1 hits.
As a lad growing up in London, Ian Dury was stricken with polio which left him with a shrunken arm and a hobbled gait. This only made Dury more determined to leave his mark as a disabled artist. 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. 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 sound that resulted helped his band Black Sabbath define the heavy metal era in the 1970s.
The late blues rocker Jeff Healey lost his eyesight to cancer when he was one years 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. The list is long and distinguished and continually growing. Like the human spirit, music knows no bounds and will always make an impact from both the most and the least likely of sources.