Friday, 14 September 2012

Top 5 Disabled Musicians

The last few weeks have seen me pretty much glued to the telly as first the Olympics and then the Paralympics captivated most of the nation. The Paralympics in particular were, in my opinion, a far greater success than I could have imagined. I consider myself to be open minded and unencumbered by prejudice but having seen the Paralympics match the Olympics as a sporting event I think my attitudes to disabled people have been changed. I hope this have a long lasting affect on the nation as a whole, it really was an incredible summer.

Watching the Paralympic closing ceremony new Twitter friend UrsulaWJ posed the question "how come there aren't any disabled music megastars?". I came up with a few suggestions but not many from the last 20 years, and even fewer that might be considered megastars (perhaps Ray Charles & Stevie Wonder). A decent topic for a top five then ...

1. Ian Dury - Contracted polio at the age of seven but went on to become one of the great British lyricists. Released his first album as part of Kilburn & The High Roads in 1974, but went on to greater success in the late seventies with his debut solo LP "New Boots and Panties" and then alongside The Blockheads.

I remember being captivated by Ian's appearance on Top Of The Pops to play "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" in '78.

2. Ray Charles - Ray Charles never knew exactly why he went blind, but he remembered starting to lose his sight around 5, a few months after his younger brother had drowned. His mother sent him to a public school for the blind at 7 where he began to develop his musical talent.

His career spanned almost 60 years and reflected influences that included jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, gospel and country but his greatest song (and possibly one of my all time favourites) is the epic, piano led shuffle of "What'd I Say".

3. Django Reinhardt - Reinhardt was 18 when he was injured in a fire that left his right leg paralysed and the third and fourth fingers of his left hand badly burned. Doctors believed that he would never play guitar again and intended to amputate one of his legs but Reinhardt refused surgery and was able to walk within a year with the aid of a cane.

I honestly know nothing about great guitar playing, and even less about great Jazz guitar playing, but Reinhardt does have an amazing sound that seems all the more incredible when you realise his lack of fingers.

4. Vic Chesnutt - Left partially paralyzed by a car accident at 18, Vic Chestnutt was effectively quadriplegic from the neck down. Unable to walk he found that he was able to play simple chords on guitar. He released around 15 albums from his debut in 1990 but didn't really obtain widespread exposure until a 1996 record, in aid of musicians requiring health care, saw bands like REM, Garbage and Sparklehorse covering Vic's songs.

Sadly in December 2009, Chesnutt died from an overdose of muscle relaxants. In a interview on NPR radio in the US earlier that month he had discussed "Flirted with You All My Life", a song about suicide, and suggested it was a song about "breaking up with death" and that he was no longer in that frame of mind.

5. Rick Allen - When the Def Leppard drummer lost his left arm in a street-racing accident shortly after the release of their multi-million selling album "Pyromania" it seemed like he'd never be involved with music again. He worked with electronic drum manufacturer Simmons to create a new drum kit that enabled him to play parts with his feet and within two years of his accident was back playing live drums with Leppard at the 1986 "Monsters of Rock" festival.

The Leppard were from Sheffield but had a very American friendly sound that paid dividends for their global album sales. The first album they released after Rick's return sold twice as many as the previous one. I saw them live twice, both after the accident, and they were as good as any of the "hair metal" bands I was into at the time. Rick probably makes this top five less for the music he helped create and more for the inspiration he has provided in overcoming a seemingly insurmountable barrier to doing what he loved.


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