Blind musicians lead the way
Blindness to the sighted person may seem an impediment or adversity that could easily hamper an individual's musical pursuits, but history has proven that persons with visual disabilities have used such 'impediments' to great advantage in elevating themselves to the highest echelons of musical stardom.
Such was the experience of the blind genius Ray Charles as profiled in last week's retrospective of the music diaries. Charles created recordings in a soulful style that changed the entire course of popular music in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Blindness was never a problem to him, and he even went as far as saying that losing his mother when he was only 15 was much more devastating to him than losing his sight.
There have been many other instances in music history that profile blind or visually impaired recording artistes who went on to have very successful music careers. Some went blind during their lifetime; some were born blind; while others lost their sight shortly after birth.
Stevie Wonder, who belonged to the latter group and who lost his sight because of a problem with his incubator, was perhaps the most prominent of the lot, having been a hitmaker for over four decades. Making his mark in 1963 with his double-faceted imprint of vocals and harmonica, he stunned the music world as a blind 12-year old with his first hit, Fingertips Part 2, which climbed to number one in the United States. The Motown label for which he did the recording quickly marketed him as the 12-year-old genius and changed his last name from Judkins (his surname at birth) to Wonder (his stage name), understandably so. It is, however, interesting to note that Wonder's real name became Steveland Morris after he adopted his mother's family name.
Out of the limelight for a while after his first hit, Wonder re-emerged in 1965 with the dance-oriented recording Uptight Everything's Alright. It brought him to public attention and began a run of six years of top-40 hits. They included Bob Dylan's Blowing In The Wind and Ron Miller's A Place In The Sun in 1966.
By 1971, Wonder managed to secure from Motown greater artistic control and publishing rights over the music he wrote, produced, and played instruments on, both for himself and others. A successful businessman, he managed to set up his own publishing company, thereby having the sole rights to the music he produced. Now in his 51st year in the music business, and his 64th year on Earth, Wonder is still having an active entertainment career.
On the local scene, perhaps the most exciting episode concerning a blind singer belongs to Derrick Morgan, the Ska King. He was aware of his ordeal from as early as age five, when he came to Kingston from Clarendon, where he was born, to join his mother and to seek medical attention. The news wasn't all that good, and he would gradually lose his sight through what doctors described as an undeveloped retina. But like Ray Charles, who received similarly unwelcome news at that same age, Morgan was unruffled, and in fact, used the adversity as motivation to get into music, his second love.
His first was stenography, which he was forced to abandon. After winning the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour talent contest at age 17, in 1957, and given worthwhile exposure on The Bim and Bam popular comedy and variety show around the island, Morgan came face-to-face with the larger-than-life record producer Duke Reid and his Treasure Isle label. His first set of recordings for Reid were Bells the President and Little Wonder Smith, which saw him at one time placing seven recordings in the top 10 charts, a Jamaica music industry statistical record that still stands today.
Morgan's musical onslaught
Morgan continued his musical onslaught during the rocksteady era with hits like Greedy Girl and Tougher Than Tough. His work in helping to set up the careers of producers Prince Buster, Leslie 'Beverleys' Kong, and Bunny Lee cannot be overlooked, while his songwriting prowess on the winning festival songs in 1998, 2000, and 2002 is almost beyond human comprehension, bearing in mind his visual impairment and his apparent incompatibility with the songs' era. Now in his 70s, Morgan still records occasionally, while maintaining demand for local and overseas shows.
Frankie Paul, born Paul Blake in the mid 1960s and known as Jamaica's Stevie Wonder, had a visual impairment at birth but was said to have a partial correction. He first found fame in the 1980s, performing for several producers.
Producer 'Jammys' felt the full impact of Paul's talent with Sarah and I Know The Score in 1987. Three years later, he gave the same producer the classic I Want To Rock, while Alesha and Worries in the Dance were also big hits for him.
Blind singers Adina Edwards and Roy Richards were big names in Jamaican popular music during the early 1960s. Richards, who was born in Clarksonville, started out as a vocalist but soon added the harmonica to his repertoire. I can remember seeing him perform at local theatres, where he thrilled thousands blowing the harmonica with his nostril and mouth. Grub Cooper, whose contribution to Jamaica's music is immeasurable, could only be justifiably included in an episode of his own.
Notable blind singers
- Other notable blind singers in classical and popular music include British pianist George Shearing (August 13, 1919 - February 14, 2011), who composed 300 titles and had albums on the Billboard charts from the 1950s to 1990s.
- José Feliciano, born 1945, is a Puerto Rican guitarist, singer, and composer who became famous for his rendition of Light My Fire and the popular Christmas single Feliz Navidad. He was blind at birth through congenital glaucoma.
- Andrea Bocelli also suffered that fate at age 12, but nonetheless had a successful music career.
- Clarence Carter, another successful blind singer, born in Montgomery Alabama in 1936, hit the American charts with Slip Away, Too Weak To Fight, and Back Door Santa in 1968, while Patches and Strokin' in 1970 and 1985, respectively, were equally successful.