Show Mobile Navigation
The Arts |

10 Musicians Who Made The Most Of Their Disabilities

by A. J. Simonson
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Music is a demanding profession in which becoming disabled in some way can mean an untimely end to your career. Nevertheless, there are people who have transcended their disabilities through talent and hard work. Some of them have even gone farther and used their bodily differences or mental issues as a trademark sign, shaping their followers’ style. Beethoven, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder are widely known, but other musicians have overcome comparable hurdles.

Featured image credit: Carl Lender

10 Nick Drake

Nick Drake – From The Morning

Nick Drake was a healthy boy during childhood, an accomplished track athlete, and captain of the rugby team in his high school years. It was not his body that had issues, but his brain. All through his short life, Nick Drake battled depression, and in the end, he took his own life by overdosing on antidepressants at age 26. He left behind a few albums, none of which sold over 10,000 copies in his lifetime and were full of ethereal, sad lyrics fueled by his depressive state and desperate calls for help.

Gloominess aside, Drake was an excellent musician. His lack of success was due to a combination of bad luck, poor promotion, and pathological shyness, not from any lack of quality in his music. He didn’t become famous until years after his untimely death. He was influenced by both Bob Dylan and Romantic poets, and he had none of the cockney brashness of most working-class British acts of the time. Drake was a brilliant musician, but he never had enough confidence or charisma to hold an audience’s attention. Nonetheless, he left an enduring musical legacy that Kate Bush, REM, and Paul Weller have paid tribute to.

9 George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel’s – Water Music

In 1737, things were going well for George Frideric Handel. A large man of great appetites and boisterous laughter, he had found a faithful audience in Britain for his operas. But little by little, he found it more difficult to compose, and he focused on shorter oratories with religious themes. Then, along came the disaster: A stroke left him paralyzed and almost mute. According to his doctor, “We may be able to save the man, but we have lost the musician.”

Handel went back to his native Germany to start treatment at the Aachen Spa. Slowly, he recovered his wits and his mobility, but no one dared order a new piece, except for his old Dublin audience, who wanted an oratory. Its title was short and clear—The Messiah. From the opening sentence (“Comfort ye”), Handel worked nonstop until he finished it. The result was his magnum opus.

There would be more strokes, fame, fortune, phenomenal losses, and finally a death in his bed, at the age of 74, blind and fully paralyzed. The modern explanation for Handel’s ailments and miracle recovery is lead poisoning, since his health deteriorated when he was exposed to lead-laden food and wine and improved when he was kept away from the toxin.

8 Ian Dury

Ian Dury and the Blockheads – Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

The man who coded the lifestyle of his contemporary singers as “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” had to overcome illness from a very young age. As a kid, Ian Dury contracted polio, which stunted his growth and atrophied one of his arms. He found it difficult to walk unaided, so he learned to walk on a cane. That would prompt him to write another of his most famous songs, “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.” After an unpromising start as Kilburn & the High Roads, he renamed his band as Ian Dury and the Blockheads. The band was very successful in the late 1970s with an energetic, funky cockney rock at a time when punk was storming Britain.

In a way, Ian Dury was more punk than most punks: His disabled persona, perched atop a microphone (upon which he leaned when his weak legs were giving way) with a safety-pin-and-razor earring, influenced the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and other punk acts of the era. After his death in 2000, Ian Dury was the subject of a film, and his works have been the soundtrack of many others.

7 Bedrich Smetana

Bedřich Smetana: Má Vlast Moldau (Vltava) [City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra]

The 19th century was rife with nationalism that extended to music. After the Renaissance, Baroque, and Enlightened eras, which centered on international humanist ideals, the new musical paradigm emphasized local components and traditions with Romantic fervor. Composers like Verdi or Wagner came to represent the ideal of their nations.

This was also true in smaller nations such as Czechoslovakia, then under Austrian rule. Bedrich Smetana recovered folk songs and tales and provided the musical score to a renaissance that culminated long after his death with the independence of Czechoslovakia. In the meantime, he had participated in the liberal revolution of 1848, had been in exile in Sweden and Russia, and had fought bitterly against critics and politicians about his musical style and themes.

In 1874, he became completely deaf. What could have been the end of a musical career was just the kickoff for a decade in which, relieved of his official duties and petty fights for recognition, he could dedicate himself fully to composing. The result was Ma Vlast (“My Homeland”), which became his signature piece.

6 Franz Schubert

Schubert – Der Erlkönig [魔王] (complete version.)

The foremost composer of a type of music known as lieders, in which a solo singer is accompanied by a piano, Franz Schubert had a short but intense life. Not a very handsome man and immensely talented but penniless, he had a difficult time relating to women, and he resorted to hiring prostitutes. That gave him syphilis, which affected his body and his mind and influenced his work. He would start some of his most popular pieces such as The Fair Miller in the hospital. Unable to finish a popular opera, he set his mind on shorter pieces, which were less tiring for his febrile mind but kept him chronically underemployed and at the edge of starvation.

He also suffered from cyclothymia, an illness similar to bipolar disorder. When in his darkest moods, he would compose such eerie pieces as Der Erlkoenig (“The Elven King”) or Death and the Maiden. His talent would only be recognized after his death at the ripe old age of 31 due to mercury poisoning, since mercury was the treatment for syphilis. It was a sad end for the man whose talent has been praised by Liszt and Beethoven.

5 Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt was a Belgian guitarist of Romani descent who started his professional career at age 13 to make ends meet. (He would remain illiterate for a large part of his adulthood.) When he was 18, he was badly burned in a fire that ravaged the caravan he lived in. His right leg and left arm were devastated. Doctors wanted to amputate the leg and assured him that he could never play guitar again.

In a magnificent show of determination, he refused amputation, relearned to walk with the help of a cane, and topped it off by learning to play the guitar using the index and middle finger of his left hand, the only fingers that weren’t paralyzed. The result didn’t just sound good, it was seminal in the creation of “hot jazz guitar,” which is influential even today. His example has inspired other people on this list, and he was very influential.

4 Thomas Quasthoff

Thomas Quasthoff & Daniel Barenboim performs Gute Nacht of Schubert’s Winterreise

Thalidomide was a drug prescribed to pregnant women to prevent morning sickness in the 1950s and 1960s. Sadly, it would be a harsh lesson on the effects of chirality. Whereas half of the molecules were perfectly safe, the other half were inducing horrible birth defects in babies, and the synthesis method couldn’t distinguish between both of them.

Thomas Quasthoff was one of the affected, but he refuses to be classified as a victim. To him his disability is a fact, not a problem. Since he was born with three-fingered flippers instead of arms, he was unable to play any common instrument, but he did have musical talent and a voice that enabled him to become the most popular classical singer in Germany by the time of his retirement in 2012. He couldn’t play any sport like most normal kids (his brother used to be a keen table tennis player), but he was seen as a great singer from a very young age, both by his father, who wanted him to have some kind of entertainment, and by pianist Sebastian Peschko, who declared him to be “100 percent made of music.”

Quasthoff focused on lieders. These small musical gems, popularized by Franz Schubert, tend to be short and straightforward but intensely beautiful. Luckily for us, Quasthoff is still alive and occasionally reappears on TV.

3 Paul Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein plays Ravel’s Piano concerto for the Left Hand (1)

The Wittgensteins were a very influential family in Austro-Hungarian intellectual life at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Paul’s brother, Ludwig, was an influential philosopher who had studied at the same school as Hitler. Ironically, the Wittgensteins were Jewish.

Paul was an accomplished pianist who was badly wounded while serving in World War I. His right hand had to be amputated. That could have been the end of his career, but Paul refused to quit. He still had another hand, in which he had more musical ability than most people. Undeterred, he commissioned pieces for the left hand from such first-rate composers as Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten, and Richard Strauss.

The most famous piece would be his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, composed by Frenchman Maurice Ravel. A symbol of postwar reconciliation, it would sadly lead to the end of the friendship between Wittgenstein and Ravel when the former made some rearrangements to the piece that Ravel disliked. Paul Wittgenstein died a naturalized American citizen in 1961 at the age of 73, after enjoying critical acclaim.

2 Niccolo Paganini

The Best of Paganini

Like Tony Iommi and Django Reinhardt, Paganini made a new musical style out of what seemed to be a disability. Picture him as one of the first music superstars along with Mozart or Beethoven, someone who made a show of playing the violin and who took part in unprecedented self-promotion and virtuoso antics. But it was not all hard work and showmanship; he was blessed with a curse, or cursed with a gift, depending on your perception.

Paganini was of unusually slender build because he suffered either from Marfan syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Both are connective tissue illnesses that make joints and sinew extremely supple and flexible but also weaken the body. As such, Paganini could play the violin with a feverish speed, using a custom bow that was much longer than usual.

His hardworking and even harder partying lifestyle took a toll, too. He was suspected to suffer from syphilis due to his numerous trysts, and he was also treated for tuberculosis at least once. Due to his originality and the inability of other players to match him (at least until after his death, when his methods and compositions were published), he was rumored to have made a deal with the Devil. It wasn’t until decades after his death that he was finally allowed to be buried in a Catholic graveyard.

1 Tony Iommi

Icons: Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath

Tony Iommi is widely regarded as one of the inventors of heavy metal. He came from a working-class family of Italian descent in Birmingham. While working at a sheet metal factory, he accidentally cut off the tips of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand, a career-ending injury for a left-handed guitarist like him.

One day, the foreman played some of Django Reinhardt’s music, which lifted Iommi’s spirits somewhat. Then, he learned that Reinhardt played with just two fingers, inspiring him play the guitar again. His injured fingers hurt, so he had to change the way that he tuned his guitar. He used thin-gauge banjo strings, tuned lower than usual because tightening them too much was unbearably painful after a couple songs, even with the usage of thimbles that eliminated his sensitivity and made him press them down too strongly.

The sound that resulted was amazing. It was something new, dark, and booming, as if coming from the depths of Hell. His accident prompted his band, Black Sabbath, to tune their instruments lower to match him. Their followers and imitators did likewise, thus creating heavy metal. According to Ian Anderson, Iommi turned a disability into a new sound.

A.J. Simonson is a junior engineer, aka an Oompa Loompa of technology. His field of choice is 3D printing. History, languages, politics, and economy are side interests to his main passion: cars and planes.

fact checked by Jamie Frater