10 Famous Musicians with Disabilities

Overcoming the odds.

Ultimate Guitar
10 Famous Musicians with Disabilities

10. Ian Dury

Growing up as a kid 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. 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.

8. 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."

7. 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.

6. Rick Allen

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

5. Tony Iommi

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.

4. 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.

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.

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.

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.

65 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Good list. Only missing Jason Becker.
    I thought he would be at no. 1 just because he's basically got the most crippling disability out of all, not being able to move at all. And yet he still overcomes it by composing beautiful music. I think he deserves at least a spot on the list.
    Absolutely agree. But I don't know if I would go as far as calling it the most crippling, man. I mean, it's bad, but I don't know if it's "chronic stutterer-bad", you know? 
    Theres a bunch of classical musicians (or related to that term) that could fill this in tbh, guys who only had one arm but playing monstrous piano work etc. Where the hell is Jason Becker though? He's got the most brutal disability pretty much and he composes WITH HIS EYES. 
    Can these lists with missing artists stop and just become categories for Wednesday questions please?
    I agree. Half-assed "reporting" should be %100 replaced with user generated material. Isn't that the main part of what made UG great to begin with?
    Its not even half assed in my opinion.  It comes off more as the authors top list, where they either didnt know, or forgot about a certain person or song.  One of the most apparent of that was when they did the anime theme songs which was clearly just the shows the author watched and not actually a top list.  That would have been a perfect Wednesday question for us, the users of UG, to answer.
    No Vic Chesnutt?  Quadriplegic from the neck down.   Silver Mt. Zion as the backing band:
    Stevie Wonder is, pound for pound, probably the best musician in popular music.
    Why isnt Ted Nugent on here? He has suffered from mental retardation for many years and has overcome the odds.
    Scatman John was a stutterer like Bill Withers, but despite his stutter he made this "skipsabadbadblskfbjhslkfbhgsldghldkbhlskhb I'm a Scatman" 
    Actually Beethoven conducted his 9th symphony when he was deaf. After it was finished he had to be turned towards the crowd to see the applause.
    I had no idea Hank Williams died so young. He's an old looking 29 year old. Tony Iommi is maybe my favorite story, because his disability lead to his massive influence.
    You forgot Lil Wayne. *drumroll* Can anyone explain to me how do you write the best symphonies ever when you're fucking deaf??
    By still being able to have auditory perception in your imagination. His ears didn't work anymore, the auditory parts of his brain stil did. Combine that with decades of experience in music notation and a big work in memory to predict how things will sound together. .. and voila... something stil extremely impressive
    1) having a whole life of composing helps. 2) having perfect pitch helps (because you know exactly what notes you are hearing in your head) 3) I heard that he was biting wood when his pieces were played to "hear" the music through vibrations.
    Incredible knowledge of music theory is a huge help. Even if you can't play an instrument, if you know enough about music theory, you can compose great music anyway. Just look at Jason Becker for a more modern example. He's literally incapable of playing an instrument, but he's still writing music and having other virtuoso guitar players play his music on the album.
    Nowhere near famous, but there's that Finnish punk band, Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, where all the members have Down's Syndrome that went viral not too long ago:
    good list, it would be great to also include people with mental illnesses and neurodivergence, like Ian Curtis, Craig Nicholls, Josh Morgan etc
    Boy George was a transvestite and overcame his disability to make sure that all of todays generation are just as screwed up..
    It blows my mind that Stevie Wonder (although this is quite debated) or Ray Charles could come up with all that great music, instrumentally and lyrically, without sight. I don't mean to sound ignorant, but how could you enjoy anything life has to offer without it? Honestly, close your eyes and imagine not seeing again, would you feel compelled to pick up a guitar again? I don't think I would. Geniuses, the two of them.
    If you're going to list stuttering you should have also mentioned Mel Tillis.