No Excuses: Seven Artists Who Beat The Odds

By Delaney Willson

"Beethoven Deaf' by Artigas -

"Beethoven Deaf' by Artigas -

Two days ago I sprained my right wrist. Any one who's done the same knows it's mostly just a nuisance; lifting textbooks, writing papers, and tying shoes just takes a little more grit. All in all, not a big deal. Until I picked up my guitar.

Immediately I knew that I wouldn't be able to play the way I wanted, and having never faced any obstacles to playing since I started, I didn't realize how debilitating that would feel. After a few minutes of self-pity though, I got to thinking "what if it was like this for the rest of my life?" Like any good college student, my curiosity turned into research and before long I had a running list of musicians that had overcome incredible odds to become virtuosos, rock stars, and story-tellers. 

The best part about inspiration is that it often strikes when you didn't know you were looking for it. If you're ever feeling like you can't overcome an obstacle to your dreams, remind yourself of the legends on this list. I promise it will put a sprained wrist into perspective faster than Kanye can interrupt an awards ceremony. So without further adieu, here are a few of the greatest physical obstacles ever overcome by famous musicians: 

7. Jimi Hendrix

Okay, this one wasn't so much a physical ailment but that's why it comes in at #7. Jimi didn't ever have an issue with his hands (have you seen the way they fly across those frets?!), but as any blues lover can tell you, he did have a strange issue with his equipment. His guitar, to be exact. Born a left-hander, Jimi was gifted his first guitar by a friend. Naturally, he modified the guitar by flipping the stings and the corresponding nuts to play lefty. But there's a catch. Jimi's dad, Al Hendrix, thought left-handedness was a sign of the devil. So any time Al was around, Jimi would flip the guitar upside down and play the chords in reverse! Call it crazy, but some people swear this is one of the reasons Jimi was able to shatter all the rules of rock and roll with those sweet, sweet blues licks. 

6. Bill Withers / Ed Sheeran 

So on the surface, these two are nothing alike, right? Right?! Wrong. Their musical styles may be night and day but they share an important trait from their childhood: they both stuttered. Withers claims that his speech impediment wasn't physical, but rather stemmed from his fear of how those listening would perceive him. Using silly tricks like imagining everyone naked, Withers was able to garner the courage he needed to leave the Armed Services and move to California where he eventually wrote the smash hit "Ain't No Sunshine." 30 years and 3 Grammys later, Withers has walked away again, this time from the music industry - and he couldn't be happier. Sheeran, on the other hand, points to a laser eye surgery where a doctor forgot to apply anesthesia as the source of his childhood stutter. Luckily, it doesn't seem to plague him too much while he's singing, and the red haired dorky kid from the UK is now the world's most recognizable singer-song writer. 

5. Hank Williams 

A lot of people don't realize it, but Hank Williams was plagued by spinal problems his entire life. His condition, spina bifida, left him unable to even walk normally by 1950. In fact, it got so bad that he underwent corrective surgery at Vanderbilt (hey that sounds familiar) in 1951. After having to cancel several shows, Williams was able to return to a successful career, spinning off hits like "Hey Good Looking" and "Honky Tonk Blues." Eventually however, the pain returned and Williams turned to alcohol and drugs to numb it. The substance abuse ultimately led to his untimely death, but before he died Williams left his fans a hauntingly vivid depiction of his condition with the song "Walk a Mile in My Shoes." 

4. Stevie Wonder 

Blind since shortly after his birth, Stevie has got to be one of the most gracious musicians the world has ever seen considering his circumstances. Perhaps it's because of the success he's had since an early age. By the age of 11, Wonder was signed by Motown Records. In classic Barry Gordy fashion, Wonder was offered a five-year contract that withheld his royalties until he turned 21, and was paid $2.50 per week while on tour with his mother. By the age of 12, Wonder had landed his first hit with "Fingertips" which eventually went #1 on Billboard's Top 100, making him the youngest to earn the honor at age 13. Wonder would leave Motown as soon as he could collect his royalties, and went on to write the hits we all love like "Superstition" and "Isn't She Lovely." 

3. Ray Charles 

Arguably the father of modern pop music, Ray Charles is beloved across generations, whether we millennials realize it or not. Charles's songs have been sampled in hip music since the early 80's but most recently in hits by artists like Kanye West, D.R.A.M., and Wiz Khalifa. Raised in a poor household in South Carolina, Charles lived an incredibly difficult life. Before going blind at the age of 7 as a result of glaucoma, he witnessed the drowning of his little brother. Determined to make something of himself, he learned to read sheet music in Braille. For the pianists out there, I know what you're thinking. He had to learn the left hand parts while reading with his right hand, then learn the right hand parts while reading with his left. After memorizing each note, he'd synthesize the two together and before long he was playing masterful renditions of Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. By 1948 Charles was composing with Quincy Jones and Dizzy Gillepsie, and by 1951 he was signed to Atlantic Records. The rest is history. 

2. Rick Allen (Def Leppard)

Rick Allen had already had years of success with Def Leppard before a severe car accident in 1984 took him out of commission for two years. The accident left Allen without a left arm entirely and he fell into a state of depression, thinking he'd never play again. With some encouragement from his bandmates and some help from a drum manufacturer, he set out with a team of engineers to design an electronic kit he could play. Replacing some of the arm motions with kick pedals, Allen was able to return to Def Leppard in 1986. The incredible feat earned him the nickname "Thunder God" from adoring fans, and Allen went on to record Hysteria which sold over 20 million copies. 

1. Ludwig Van Beethoven 

I guess there isn't much surprise here. In an art form that celebrates sound, you just can't beat a deaf composer. Born in 1770, Beethoven had just begun to impress the crowds of Vienna with his musicianship through pieces like his 2nd piano concerto. But in 1796, he started complaining of "buzzing sounds" in his ears and by 1801 he had come to terms with the fact that he was going deaf. Take a look at the timeline of his discography and you'll see how incredible this is. Some of his most famous works that are still performed around the world today were composed when he was almost entirely unable to hear melodies or distinguish pitch. Fur Elise, the 5th Symphony, Ode to Joy...I could go on and on.