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10 Famous Blind Musicians

You might not think a blind person can play a musical instrument. Let alone play it to a high standard. But, as we all know, it is possible. So, I decided to take a look at some famous blind musicians.

Being born blind or going blind early in your life is a terrible affliction. Losing your sight is bad enough if you are older, but it is tragic if you are young. 

It is quite rightly seen as a disability as it is so restrictive. But, for some, it has been a challenge that they just had to overcome. And, whilst they may never see, they decided it wasn’t going to stop them from pursuing what they wanted to do.

An Inspiration

In many ways, the blind musicians we are going to consider are more than just great musicians and singers. They are an inspiration to everyone who may suffer from a restrictive disability, not just blindness.

Beethoven, with his lack of hearing, and at the end, total deafness, also comes to mind, albeit with a different disability. But the point is that these people stand out as examples of what can be achieved in the face of adversity. A lesson for us all.

So, let’s take a look at these great blind singers and musicians and see what they all achieved. And, in some cases, are still achieving.

10 Famous Blind Musicians

George Shearing

George Shearing

George Shearing was one of nine children born in Battersea, South London, just after the First World War. The family was an ordinary working class at the time. The father delivered coal, and the mother was an evening cleaner.

George was born blind and attended a special school for blind children in Wimbledon that concentrated on sensory perception. He began teaching himself piano at the age of 3, and four years at Linden Lodge school nurtured this talent.

He was offered scholarships, but he chose to play at a local pub in Lambeth, where he was paid. This would have boosted the family’s income significantly, which may have had something to do with his decision.

People Taking Notice…

As a self-taught blind jazz pianist, he was a minor sensation, and people took notice. He joined an all-blind band which is where he made his first BBC radio broadcast in 1937. In 1949, he formed the George Shearing Quintet, with whom he made his first recordings. One of those songs he recorded was the popular “September In The Rain.”

He played with the exiled Stephane Grappelli during the war and emigrated to America when hostilities had ceased. There he re-recorded “September in The Rain,” which sold over 900,000 copies. And he was a regular performer at Birdland, the famous jazz club in New York.

A commanding Jazz artist…

It was Shearing who wrote the music to Lullaby of Birdland. It was recorded by many Jazz greats, including Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan with Cliff Brown. As well as a recent version by the great Amy Winehouse.

He performed for Queen Elizabeth II at a Royal Command Performance, and for three American presidents. During the 70s, he began to wind down the activities of his band and concentrated on other musical adventures. He also wrote an autobiography of what was a very interesting life. 

Shearing continued to perform into the 2000s when a fall at home caused him to call it a day. In 2011, he died aged 91. You could say it was a life well spent.

Blind Willie Johnson

Blind Willie Johnson

Now we move from the piano to the guitar and to a name that many may not recognize. Johnson was considered one of the finest bottleneck slide players there has ever been. His devout religious beliefs caused his music to be called “Holy Blues.”

No one seems to know how he lost his sight; all we know is that he wasn’t born blind. Some say it was during an argument between his father and his stepmother. 

During the altercation… 

Little Willie was splashed with a caustic substance that blinded him. But there are other theories. Whatever the reason, it didn’t restrain his evangelical and guitar-playing future.

He recorded songs that portrayed his beliefs but also showcased his guitar and vocal talents. Songs like “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” and “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” are two standout examples.

Despite his devout religious views… 

Blind Willie Johnson often courted controversy. He was arrested in 1929 in New Orleans for busking outside the Customs House on the famous Canal Street. He sang a passionate version of “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down,” which didn’t endear him to the local officials.

In all, during the 1920s, he recorded thirty songs, some of which are still available. But his legacy goes further than that. Some of today’s Blues guitarists have been inspired by his slide guitar playing. Some have even covered his songs.

Like many of these stories of the time, it had a sad ending. Despite all his efforts, he died in poverty, under-appreciated at the time for his songs and his slide guitar prowess. An all-too-common occurrence for early Blues musicians and some of the most famous blind musicians as well.

Jose Feliciano

Jose Feliciano

Born in Puerto Rico in 1945, Jose was born blind because of a condition known as Congenital Glaucoma. He was surrounded by music from a very young age and would listen to his uncle playing the ‘cuatro.’

The ‘cuatro’ is the national instrument of Puerto Rico. Almost a cross between a guitar and a violin; it has four strings and is played guitar style.

Self-Taught…

Like many blind musicians, Feliciano was self-taught. He started at the age of seven with the accordion. His father bought him a guitar at age nine, and practicing this instrument dominated his life for the next few years.

He cites Wes Montgomery and Andre Segovia as his biggest inspirations for his guitar style. Also admitting he would often copy some of the old early Rock n Roll records.

His basic understanding and skills were given a new direction under a music teacher, Harold Morris, at a New York school for the blind. Feliciano also mentions Sam Cooke and Ray Charles as inspirations when talking about his vocal style.

Making the big time…

Jose became popular amongst an international audience with his cover version of The Doors song, “Light My Fire,” released in 1968. It reached #6 in the UK and #3 in America and was also included in his successful album, Feliciano.

But, in the fifty years he has been recording, it isn’t his most-loved song. Each year, his Christmas song, “Feliz Navidad,” is always popular.

Nobuyuki Tsujii

Nobuyuki Tsujii

Back to the piano again for a man who might be unknown to many. Nobuyuki Tsujii was born in Japan in 1998 and had eye malformations at birth rendering him blind.

However, it was very clear that from an early age, he could hear and distinguish notes. At the age of just two, he was given a toy piano. Immediately, his parents could see that he could hear a song and then find the correct notes even on such a small instrument.

At four years old… 

Tsujii commenced formal classical piano training and is now a world-renowned classical pianist. He performs with the very best symphony orchestras from all around the world. Put simply, one of the best blind musicians alive today. And, possibly, one of the best ever.

His story is told in the film Touching the Sound: The Improbable Journey of Nobuyuki Tsujii. And, in performance, Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1.

Whilst other classical pianists must read music at the highest level that is not an option for this young man. Instead, he has developed a technique of learning by ear and continues that process today. He is, what you might call, a master of the piano and sound.

Jeff Healey

Jeff Healey

A Canadian guitarist and singer-songwriter who found great success during the 80s and 90s. Jeff was left blind at the age of one after suffering from cancer of the eye, or Retinoblastoma.

This resulted in having to have his eyes removed and false eyes inserted. You might think that such a traumatic experience in one so young would leave a scar for life. I am sure he suffered growing up, but he found a way to compensate through his music.

As a young boy, he was sent to a school for blind children. It was there that he learned to play the guitar. Although not in a conventional way. He played it with it flat on his lap. In later years, that became one of his defining attributes.

A Band…

He formed a band that had some success in the 1980s with the song “See the Light” from the album of the same name. He continued to have success with his recordings and cut a copy of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, adding backup vocals and acoustic guitar.

Unfortunately, Jeff wasn’t blessed with a healthy life and had a series of skirmishes with cancer over the years. In 2008, at just 42, he finally succumbed to that dreadful disease. His first Rock and Blues album, Mess of Blues, already finished, came out a month after his death.

Andrea Bocelli

Famous Blind Musicians

Andrea Bocelli is a renowned Italian opera singer and was considered a child prodigy. He wasn’t born blind, but he did have severe problems with glaucoma that reduced his eyesight. However, an accident with a football left him completely blind at the age of twelve.

Andrea came to everyone’s attention at the 44th San Remo Music Festival. He stunned the audience with his performance. This led to recordings and album sales of more than 75 million. He now performs concerts all over the world.

His voice has been called the most beautiful voice in the world, but he is also a talented musician. Andrea plays Flute, Guitar, Saxophone, and Drums, all to a decent standard.

Diane Schuur

Diane Schuur

Diane Schurr is a jazz singer and pianist whose musical interest also lies in Blues and Gospel music. She was born premature and blind, suffering from a condition known as Retinopathy of Prematurity.

Diane taught herself to play piano by ear from a young age and went on to study voice and music at the University of Puget Sound. Her voice was noticed by bandleader Doc Severinson, and she was soon performing in a variety of places. 

Her resume is impressive… 

Diane has performed with Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, and Quincy Jones. She has released many jazz albums, the most successful of which was Diane Schuur & Count Basie Orchestra. And, with BB King, Heart To Heart with B.B. King.

In the late 80s, she had problems with alcohol and drugs and had considered suicide. She went on a course to get rid of the demons, which, thankfully, worked. She has now been clear of those things for over ten years. Today, she is undoubtedly considered one of the greatest blind musicians.

Art Tatum

Art Tatum

Born in Ohio in 1909, Art was partially blind in one eye and totally blind in the other. But, despite these serious sight problems, he grew up to be one of the finest jazz pianists of his generation.

He is not as well known as some. Mainly because he tended to shun the spotlight and tried his best to avoid fame and all the stuff that goes with it. Nevertheless, his playing had a huge influence on the world of jazz.

He began playing at a very young age, and it was soon evident that had an excellent “ear.” It was reported that he enjoyed “perfect pitch,” something not that common in people. 

All The Skills He Needed…

He also had a very good memory and these things combined gave him the necessary skills he would require. His “ear” for tones and harmonies made him very special. It could be said that he revolutionized jazz using tones and harmonics not heard before.

Tatum traveled to the UK on the Queen Mary and performed at the BBC and in smaller concert venues. He always said he preferred the British audiences because they didn’t talk while he was playing.

Art was known as a very heavy drinker and would drink before and during performances. And, often, excessively after. It didn’t seem to affect his performance levels, but it certainly affected his health.

He died at 47, too young as some did, but he left us volumes of work to appreciate his genius. Among them is what some would say was his finest period, Art Tatum Collection 1932-47.

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder has become one of the most successful blind musicians we have known. He was born blind, six weeks premature, and as a result, his eyes had not fully developed. A condition that is called Retinopathy of Prematurity, which Diane Schurr also suffered with.

He arrived as a 14-year-old with a harmonica and was known as “Little” Stevie Wonder with the song “Hey Harmonica Man.” He developed into an outstanding singer, songwriter, keyboard, harmonica player, and multi-instrumentalist. 

His career developed at a fast pace…

He came into his own with a string of big hit records, starting with Uptight. Then, in 1967, I Was Made To Love Her, and in 1968 with For Once In My Life. Stevie wasn’t “Little” anymore. He had become “Big” Stevie with a big reputation. 

But, for me, he really came into greatness a bit later with songs like “Sir Duke” and “Superstition.” And, just to indulge, my favorite from his brilliant catalog of songs is “Living For The City.”

It is not an exaggeration to say his revolutionary use of synthesized sounds was unique. It brought great changes in music in the 60s and, especially, the 70s.

Ray Charles

Ray Charles

And so we come to the end of this list of famous blind musicians. Ray Charles liked to be known as “Brother Ray.” Most of his contemporaries knew him as “The Genius.” Even today, the accolades have never stopped pouring in. Billy Joel referred to him as being more important to music than Elvis Presley.

Ray Charles was born in Georgia in humble and rather difficult circumstances in 1930. He rose to be a major influence on just about everyone. 

At the age of four…

Ray started to go blind and was totally blind by the age of seven. Possibly because of glaucoma that remained untreated. Fortunately, at that very young age, he had started to find his way around a piano keyboard.

As a result, his music knew no genre boundaries. He moved between R&B songs like “What’d I Say, Pt. 1 & 2” to a more light jazz feel with “Hit the Road Jack.”

He could produce the best country music of the time with songs like “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” one of his most famous recordings. And, in the next breath, hit you with some good old-fashioned Rock n Roll with “Mess Around.”

At times…

He had controversy and problems with the law for substance abuse. So, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for him, even when he was doing well. He walked out of a concert when he found that the audience had been segregated and was sued by the promoter. 

In later years, he started a foundation for children with hearing disorders. As an absolute giant in the world of music, we all have a favorite Ray Charles song. Mine is “Georgia on My Mind.”

Want to Discover More Incredible Musicians?

Well, have a look at our detailed articles on Famous Saxophone Musicians You Should Know, the Best Jazz Pianists of All Time, the Best Rock Drummers of All Time, the Best Female Singers, and the Most Famous Blues Singers for more amazing music artists.

Famous Blind Musicians – Final Thoughts

As I said at the outset of this look at well known blind musicians, it is about the music, but it is about a lot more. Life throws down a challenge, as it does to many, and then almost says, “What you gonna do about it?”

I am sure most of us bemoan those hurdles and think, “Why me?” Well, this list should inspire you not to say, “Why me?” but rather, “Okay, let’s get on with it.”

Can you imagine learning to play an instrument you can’t see? 

Most of us have enough trouble doing that when we can see the thing. But, all of these people saw it as a challenge. And, for the people we looked at, it changed their lives immeasurably. 

If you need some inspiration when things are hard, then here are some people who will provide it. They may have all been blind, but what they gave music is immeasurable.

Until next time, happy listening.

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