It’s no easy feat to learn to master a musical instrument. In fact, the endeavor can prove to be downright intimidating. Perhaps you fear that you have too many hurdles to overcome in order to master your talent. But the history of music is rife with examples of those who have become great musicians despite obstacles that most of us would consider impossible. In the hopes of providing some inspiration, here, in no particular order, are the top ten best blind piano players and blind musicians of all time.
Being blind has not stopped these legendary musicians from earning their place in the ranks of the world’s most famous musicians, including the world’s most famous piano players, and their stories provide encouragement to millions. We hope that you will be encouraged by their stories as well.
Greatest Blind Piano Players and Singers Of All Time
The “Father of Soul” was born in the Deep South in 1930 to Bailey Robinson, a mechanic, and a sharecropper named Aretha Williams. Incidentally, Aretha was not Bailey’s wife, yet Bailey’s wife Mary Jane took both Aretha and Ray into her heart and home from the beginning. Despite the loving environment he received by not just one, but two mothers, he had the decks stacked against him from the earliest days of his life. Yet Ray went on to become America’s most legendary blind black singer and piano player. Not only did he lose his vision at an early age due to glaucoma, but he also watched his older brother drown when he was only four years old. His mothers, who took vastly different approaches to his disability but loved him dearly, raised Ray for the most part without the presence of his father. Over the course of his life, Ray overcame the death of his mother Aretha in his teenage years, heroine addiction, and his own difficult divorce from his beloved wife Della in 1976. Yet he persevered through it all, just as his undefeatable mother did through the harsh circumstances of his childhood. Ray lived to be 74, ultimately dying from alcoholic liver disease. At the ripe old age of 72, the famous blind singer jokingly told one of his closest friends that if he had known he was going to live so long he would have taken better care of himself.
Frank Sinatra once humbly called Ray “the only true genius in the show business,” and there are those who still agree today that we will never find his match in our lifetimes. Billy Joel agreed with Sinatra, saying “This may sound like sacrilege, but I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley.” History may decide this factor for us all some day. It would be interesting to learn whether Charles will be recognized in elementary music texts 300 years from now as Mozart and Bach are today, and if they will credit the difficult personal circumstances of his life (both inflicted and self-inflicted) as the source of his musical genius. But history books or no, it is absolutely undeniable that Ray Charles changed the landscape of American musical history. He is beloved by millions who understand that we would all be listening to something different today had it not been for his immense musical presence in our lives. His iconic hits like “Hit the Road Jack,” and “Georgia on My Mind,” are still listened to, sung or hummed by thousands of people across the world every day. In fact, it’s statistically probable that as you are reading this article, someone, somewhere is listening to a recording of Ray Charles’ unique voice singing one of his signature songs.
The Famous blind black singer and piano player Stevie Wonder was born six weeks early and lost his vision in infancy due to a combination of retinopathy from premature birth and receiving too much oxygen in his incubator. Now 66 years old, it’s interesting to speculate whether the child prodigy would have become one of our most famous blind black musicians had he been born today when modern medicine could have preserved his vision. Stevie filled his early years with the piano instead of street games like other children his age and became a virtuoso before he was even old enough to attend junior high school.
At the age of 12, “Little Stevie Wonder” had his first number 1 hit with the song “Fingertips,” and of course the rest is history. Fingertips also became the first single ever to hit both the R&B Charts and the Billboard Hot 100 at the same time, creating a crossover hit that opened new music horizons for many musicians who came to follow.
At the age of 64, Stevie has received 22 Grammy Awards, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and has received the Grammy Album of the Year three times. The only other musician who has received this distinction three times is Frank Sinatra. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2014, but Stevie remains humble about his lifetime success saying “There’s no way we can find peace with the ego.”
Andrea Bocelli is one of the most beloved blind singers in the world. But oddly he isn’t really known as a “blind singer.” In fact, the subject of his blindness was rarely the topic of conversation among adoring female fans whose hearts skipped beats at both his handsome profile and buttery tenor voice.
Bocelli was born visually impaired, but he did not become completely blind until he received a soccer injury at the age of 12, so he still had his vision when he first started exploring music. He started at the age of 6 with the piano and later took up woodwind instruments as well. But his family recognized his talented voice from a very early age, often asking him to share his talents. They fostered his talents and he even studied under Luciano Bettarini, but his family also wanted Bocelli to have a lucrative traditional career. So, interestingly, Bocelli is also an attorney.
Bocelli continued to make music however, even as a court appointed lawyer, and he became a professional singer when Luciano Pavarotti heard his recording of “Miserere,” written by U2’s Bono, in 1992. Now in his late 50’s, Bocelli has collaborated with famous singers from every genre throughout the world and is one of the most beloved famous blind musicians in Europe. His 2013 hit album Passione featured duets with Jennifer Lopez and Nelly Furtado and lyric writing help with Stevie Nicks and Neil Diamond. He is now nominated for the 59th Grammy Awards in February of 2017 for the category of “Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album” along with fellow nominees Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, Josh Groban and Willie Nelson. Likely, he has not even seen the peak of his career and will still be making charts for a decade to come.
Art Tatum is hands down the most influential jazz pianist of the genre. He is also the world’s most well-known blind jazz musician. His improvisations what made him so influential to future musicians, with a style that was so far ahead of the time that his ideas are still fresh and exciting today, more than 60 years after he passed away.
Tatum’s short life was filled with music from day one, being born into a musical family. His father and mother, who played guitar and piano at Grace Presbyterian Church, both fostered his immense talents. He started attendance at Columbus School for the Blind when he was 16 years old and studied music with Overton G. Rainey, who was a blind black piano player just like Art. He began gigging professionally three years later and was becoming well-known for his talents by 1931. Tatum played clubs and recorded with famous musicians throughout the 40’s and 50’s, winning Esquire magazine’s jazz poll and gaining the admiration of musicians from many scenes.
Unfortunately, Tatum’s life was cut short when in 1956, he died as a result of kidney failure. He was survived by his son Orlando Tatum Jackson and his second wife, Geraldine Tatum, and his lifetime legacy of music.
Tatum posthumously received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989. He was called “the 8th wonder of the world” by Count Basie, “a crazed Chopin” by Jean Cocteau and “my musical God” by Oscar Peterson.
Blind musician Moondog wasn’t a huge commercial success or a constant resident on the Billboard Hot 100, but he was a New York musical legend in his own unique way. Even though most knew Moondog only as a homeless eccentric who spend his days selling homemade instruments on the streets of New York–dressed as a Viking no less–he was actually well known in the musical world. Janis Joplin covered him, he’d had multiple record deals and was known to some of the greatest composers in the world.
Moondog learned to play the drums from Arapaho tribesmembers at drum circles and Native American Sun Dances. Not yet blind, he traveled throughout the Midwest with his family as a child, picking up details from each of his childhood homes that would later influence his compositions. He became blind at the age of 16 when a dynamite cap, discovered abandoned in a field, exploded near his face. He found solace in his music and eventually decided to devote his life’s work to musical expression.
While Moondog did not lead a life of riches or fame, he carved his place into musical history, influencing so many of our most loved modern musicians. He did not mourn his life of homelessness, and his quiet legacy seems so appropriate for a man who once humbly said “I am an observer of life, a non-participant who takes no sides. I am in the regimented society, but not of it.” Non-participant or not, he left his mark on the world.
Anyone who has seen the movie “Road House” knows Jeff Healey, even if they don’t exactly know his name. He played the blind white singer for the troubled night club at the center of the story line. Healey worked his way into the hearts of every music lover who hadn’t already heard of him as he played the blues on the silver screen while Patrick Swayze did what he did best, look good and kick butt. Of course, Healey was already well known in Canada with his album “See the Light.” But after he was featured in the movie, the album became even more popular. Before long Healey was filling stadiums with adoring fans.
Jeff’s signature guitar playing style–he play’s guitar like a zither, flat on the lap facing upright–has become so iconic that most could simply look at a silhouette of him on stage and name him. His unusual style of playing produced a sound that was called “astonishingly fluid” by Guitear player magazine, and his style of mixing blues, rock and jazz influences made his sound as unique as his playing style. He has recorded with legends like Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Lenny Kravitz and the Rolling Stones, but his favorite genre was American Jazz.
Healey died far too early in 2008 from lung cancer. He was only 41 and had just finished recording his last album, Mess of Blues. Two more albums have been released posthumously. In total, he recorded dozens of hits and full albums and his work is still prominently heard on the radio today.
Deedles, otherwise known as Diane Joan Schuur, is a blind piano player and jazz singer who has performed with some of the most famous names in music. From Quincy Jones to Barry Manilow, her collaborations have been some of the most commercially successful in the world. He collaboration with B.B. King hit the number one spot with the Billboard Jazz charts and her album Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra spent 33 weeks in the number one spot of the same chart.
Born prematurely, Schuur lost her vision before she ever knew what it was like to see. Despite her blindness she was able to live a completely independent life, even traveling back and forth from her residential school to home for visits by herself. She was so independent that even though she started out at a residential school for the blind, she eventually enrolled in a traditional public school. She auditioned for country singer Jimmy Wakely at the Elks Club in 1971, and he immediately arranged a 45rpm recording of the song “Dear Mommy and Daddy.” She performed at small venues and was picked up by several famous musicians as she continued to gain mastery of her skills. One of those musicians, Ed Shaughnessy reported that his “hair stood on end” the first time he heard her play at the age of 22. Yet Schuur would still struggle as a musician until her ultimate breakgrhout at a White House performance in the early 1980’s. First lady Nancy Reagan was so impressed by her performance that she became an immediate fan. And the rest is history.
Schuur has performed at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall, but one of her funnest performances was her 1996 appearance on Sesame Street. On this famous recording, she explained to Elmo how she overcame her handicap by using her other senses. YouTube recordings of the interview still receive hundreds of thousands of hits today as she inspires new generations to move past their handicaps. She received the Helen Keller Achievement Award from the American Foundation for the Blind in the year 2000 for recognition of her amazing career.
Famous blind country singer Ronnie Milsap is known for his iconic hits “Smokey Mountain Rain” and “There’s No Gettin’ Over Me” among many, many others. His collection of Grammy Awards is second only to George Straight and Conway Twitty, and he has most certainly earned his place in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Born in 1943, Milsap had a difficult childhood. Nearly blind from birth, he was raised by his grandparents in abject poverty till he was sent to a school for the blind at an early age. He had some small vision in one eye until an abusive teacher assaulted him and he lost his remaining vision. Milsap found escape in the world of music and excelled at the pursuit to the degree that he was awarded a full scholarship to attend Young Harris college. He dropped out of college after joining an R&B band and began playing professionally at small clubs.
Milsap has been listed as 1982’s top male vocalist, instrumentalist of the year in 1988 and received the Pioneer Award in 2002. He has 8 Country Music Association Awards in addition to his six Grammy Awards and has been featured in numerous documentaries detailing his life and path to commercial success. Now Milsap leads a quieter life, enjoying his family and well-earned, semi-retirement. Even though he doesn’t receive a great deal of airtime on the radio today, he can still be caught on a different wavelength. His call sign as an amateur radio operator is WB4KCG.
Blind Willie McTell
Blind Willie McTell was born at the tail end of the 19th century, with estimates of his birth ranging from 1898 to 1903 based on his entry in the 1910 census. The black blind singer and 12 string guitar player went on to become a widely recorded artist in the first half of the 20th century under various names and labels. Known under the names Blind Sammie, Georgia Bill, Hot Shot Willie, Barrelhouse Sammie and Pig & Whistle Red, McTell never enjoyed the fruits of his legendary skills. Struggling with alcoholism and diabetes, McTell found solace in God and spent the last two years of his life as a preacher at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Atlanta.
McTell was so impoverished that he often played on street corners for quarters. This street performing is what led to his last recorded performance in 1956. A record store manager recognized McTell as he played on the street and lured him into his store with a bottle of liquor. The manager recorded McTell on a tape recorder and released the recording after his death under the name Last Session. It seems as though everyone profited from McTell’s work but McTell himself.
Eventually dying of a stroke in his late 50’s or early 60’s (no one knew his age), he was buried in an unmarked grave. A fan paid to have a plaque installed at the site years later. Just like Motzart, who was also buried in a pauper’s grave, McTell has become an historical figure. His distinctive style is documented in the Library of Congress (a recording for which he only received $10) and American music students learn from the century-old recordings of his music. No doubt, his legend will still be told in the centuries to come.
Nobuyuki Tsujii is a young blind piano player who has already become one of the most famous piano players of our time. He began by hammering away at a toy piano at the age of two and began to learn his skill in earnest by the age of four. By the time Tsujii was only seven years old, the young prodigy had already earned first prize for his playing by the Tokyo Helen Keller Association.
Tsujii has played all over the world as he earned his college degree from Ueno Gakuen University in 2011, and is now a point of education himself, being featured in an English text book for Japanese high school students.
Tsujii’s life story is documented in a film called “Touching the Sound,” which has boosted his global popularity even more.
Here’s hoping that learning about these famous blind musicians has inspired you to foster your unique skills as well. Whether your talents lie in music or elsewhere, these incredible people are living proof that, while following your dreams may not bring you riches beyond belief or perfect happiness, it’s possible to carve your place in history no matter what hurdles you must overcome. Consider the lives of these incredible people as you begin your journey, whatever it may be, and know that you too will make your mark if you follow your dreams.