11 Musicians Who Overcame Disabilities

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"

Samir Hussein, Getty Images
One of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean' Gloves Can Be Yours (For the Right Price)
Samir Hussein, Getty Images
Samir Hussein, Getty Images

Three things usually come to mind when people recall Michael Jackson's stratospheric fame in the 1980s: His music videos were events unto themselves; he toted around a chimp named Bubbles (who once bit Quincy Jones's daughter Rashida); and Jackson was often seen wearing a single white sequined glove.

There's no official count on how many gloves Jackson owned and wore during his career, but one performance-used mitt is now up for sale via GWS Auctions and their Legends of Hollywood & Music Auction. Used by Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour, the Swarovski crystal-covered glove is unique in that Jackson had it made for his left hand, as he wanted to keep the wedding ring—courtesy of his marriage to nurse Debbie Rowe—visible on his right. (Though wedding rings are traditionally worn on the left hand, Jackson was known to wear his on the right.)

A white glove worn by Michael Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour
GWS Auctions

According to Jackson associate John Kehe, Jackson allegedly got the idea for the glove in 1980, when he was touring a production company and saw a film editor at a control panel wearing a white cotton glove. Jackson himself wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, that he had been wearing a single glove since the 1970s. Either way, it was Jackson's performance of "Billie Jean" during a television appearance for Motown's 25th anniversary in May 1983 that cemented the accessory in the eyes of the public. That particular glove sold for $350,000 in 2009.

The HIStory glove will be up for auction March 24; pre-bids currently have it in excess of $5000. The Legends of Music and Hollywood Auction is also set to feature a prescription pill bottle once owned by Frank Sinatra and a hairbrush used by Marilyn Monroe.

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The Stories Behind 10 Johnny Cash Songs
Getty Images
Getty Images

Johnny Cash, who was born on this day in 1932, once wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God."

That sums the Cash discography up pretty well. He covers at least 20 of those themes in the 10 songs below. Here are the backstories behind some of the Man in Black's most famous songs—and maybe a little insight into why he loved those topics so much.


In the song, Cash explains that he always wears black to performances and public appearances because of social injustices, “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back.” It’s a great story, but it’s not 100 percent true. In 2002, he told Larry King that black was his signature color simply because he felt most comfortable in it, although he preferred light blue in summer. “You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there,” he said.

Rolling Stone wrote that the inky wardrobe was also helpful when it came to hiding dirt and dust in the early touring days.


Cash didn’t always wear black. In the video above, he’s dressed in bright yellow, accessorized with a powder blue cape.

Sound a little off-brand? It was. In the early ‘80s, Cash felt that Columbia, his record label, was ignoring him and failing to promote his music properly. He decided to record a song so awful that it would force Columbia to cut his contract early. The plan worked, but it came at a price. “He was kind of mocking and dismantling his own legacy,” daughter Rosanne later said. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, in case the video is too painful to watch: “I put your brain in a chicken last Monday, he’s singing your songs and making lots of money, and I’ve got him signed to a 10-year recording contract.”


Written in just 20 minutes, Cash’s (arguably) greatest hit  was intended as a reminder to himself to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian, while he was on the road opening for Elvis in the mid-1950s. "It was kind of a prodding to myself to 'Play it straight, Johnny,'" he once said. According to other interviews, that wasn’t the song’s only meaning: He also meant it as an oath to God. Although Sam Phillips from Sun Records said that he wasn’t interested in gospel songs, Johnny was able to sneak “I Walk the Line” past him with the story about being true to his wife.


In 1969, Johnny and June threw a party at their house in Hendersonville. As you might imagine, it was a veritable who’s-who of music: Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein. Everyone debuted a new song at the party—Dylan sang “Lay Lady Lay,” Nash did “Marrakkesh Express,” Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee,” and Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now.” Silverstein, who was a songwriter in addition to an author of children’s books, debuted “A Boy Named Sue.”

When the party was over, June encouraged Johnny to take the lyrics to “Sue” on the plane the next day. They were headed to California to record the famous live At San Quentin album. Johnny wasn’t sure he could learn the lyrics fast enough, but he did—and the inmates went crazy for it. They weren’t the only ones: "A Boy Named Sue" quickly shot to the top of the charts. And not just the country charts—it held the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks.

The song was originally inspired by a male friend of Silverstein’s with a somewhat feminine name—Jean Shepherd, the author of A Christmas Story.


The story behind this one depends on who you believe. The Carter-Cash family has always maintained that June and guitar player Merle Kilgore co-wrote the song about June falling in love with Johnny despite being worried about his drug and alcohol problem.

But according to Johnny’s first wife, Vivian, June had nothing to do with “Ring of Fire.” “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” Vivian wrote in her autobiography. She claims he gave June credit for writing the song because he thought she needed the money.

Either way, June’s sister Anita originally recorded the song. After Johnny had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns, he recorded it that way. 


“Ring of Fire” isn’t the only time Johnny had a dream that inspired a song. In his later years, Cash had a dream that he walked into Buckingham Palace and encountered Queen Elizabeth just sitting on the floor. When she saw him, the Queen said, “Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind!” Two or three years later, Cash remembered the dream, decided that the reference must be a biblical one, and wrote what he called “my song of the apocalypse”—“The Man Comes Around.”


This one is another early song inspired by Vivian. From the summer of 1951 through the summer of 1954, Cash was deployed in Germany with the Air Force. At the end of three years, he turned down the option to re-enlist, feeling homesick for his girl and his home. On the journey back from Germany, he penned “Hey Porter” about the excitement and relief he felt to finally be coming home.


After seeing Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, Cash was inspired to write a song about it. Too bad that song already existed as “Crescent City Blues,” written by Gordon Jenkins.

Jenkins sued for copyright infringement in 1969 and received $75,000. Cash later admitted that he heard the song when he was in the Air Force, but borrowing the tune and some of the lyrics was subconscious; he never meant to rip Jenkins off. Oh, but the famous “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” line—that was all Johnny.

9. "CRY! CRY! CRY!"

After Cash returned home from the Air Force and signed with Sun Records, he gave Sam Phillips “Hey Porter.” Phillips asked for a ballad for the B-side, so Cash went home and quickly wrote “Cry! Cry! Cry!” literally overnight. It became his first big hit—not bad for an afterthought.


Though “Get Rhythm” eventually became the B-side for “I Walk the Line,” Cash originally wrote it for Elvis. It might have been recorded by Presley, but when he went to RCA, Sam Phillips refused to let him take “Get Rhythm” with him.


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