I’m not a person who’s very good at overcoming adversity. Just the other day one of my contact lenses was bothering me and I called out sick from work. So I know little of what it takes to reach the heights of my profession despite — or sometimes because of — a major obstacle like a serious injury or illness. Fortunately for the rest of us, these seven brilliant musicians were made of sterner stuff.
Depending on your age, you either remember Peter Cetera as the man who helped bring Chicago to prominence — first as one of the premier jazz-rock outfits in the land, later as one of the permier purveyors of schmaltzy ballads in the land — or as the man who would fight for your honor. What you may not know about him is that the distinctive, clenched-jaw style of singing he utilized for all of that was less a choice than a necessity.
During the summer of 1969, Cetera was accosted by four men — he stated they were Marines — while attending a baseball game at Dodger Stadium. His jaw was broken in three places and had to be wired shut so it could heal. Cetera went back on the road with Chicago and learned to sing through his clenched jaw, and before long it was incorporated into his singing style.
Reinhardt’s status as a jazz and guitar legend is without dispte, and it’s all the more amazing when you consider what he had to overcome to reach that point. When he was 18 years old, Reinhardt was caught in a fire in his home and received first- and second-degree burns over half his body. (His right leg was paralyzed and the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand were badly burned in particular.)
With rehabilitation and intensive practice he relearned his craft in a completely new way, even as his fourth and fifth fingers remained partially paralyzed. He played all of his guitar solos with only two fingers, and used the two injured ones only for chord work.
Check out this clip of Reinhardt from 1939; he makes his entrance at about the 4:38 mark.
The list of guitarists influenced by Reinhardt is as long as your arm. In fact, one of them had an injury of his own to overcome relatively early in life…
The story of heavy metal architect and Black Sabbath co-founder Tony Iommi is well-known by now, but worth revisiting. As a 17-year-old factory worker, Iommi suffered the loss of the tips of the middle and ring finger of his right hand in an accident (on his last day no less). In despair he nearly gave up playing guitar, until his factory foreman played him some Django Reinhardt music and told him how Reinhardt had to overcome his own horrific injury.
Iommi tried a number of things to make guitar playing less painful, including crafting prosthetic fingertips and even attempting to switch to a right-handed playing style. But it was his decision to downtune his guitar — thereby lessening some of the tension on the strings — that had the greatest impact not just on his sound, but on the future of heavy metal in general.
I always screw up the proper usage of the word ironic, but I’d say it’s ironic that the co-founder of a group that once billed itself as “The Loudest Band in the World” has actually been deaf in one ear his whole life. And yet that’s just the case for Kiss frontman Paul Stanley. Stanley was born with microtia, a congenital malformation in which the external ear and middle ear canal fail to develop. The resulting closure of his ear canal also significantly impaired his hearing.
Oddly enough, however, was that it wasn’t the hearing loss that impacted his future rock and roll career the most. It was the relentless teasing he took from other kids that did it. To hide his condition, Stanley grew his hair long. That look, he says, is what helped steer him towards a career in music. He is now an advocate for others with microtia and works to raise public awareness of the growing problem of hearing loss in general.
While guitarist Chris Poland’s condition hardly makes for a dramatic story like Iommi or Reinhardt, it does help explain how he developed his unique and, dare I say, awesome playing style. A schoolyard prank turned horribly sour led to Poland getting a door slammed on his hand. The resulting injuries — a severed tendon on the index finger on his fret hand and a loss of feeling in the pinky finger — had a direct impact on his playing.
The tendon injury in particular allows Poland — who was a member of Megadeth in the mid ’80s — to stretch his index finger farther than he normally would. So basically, he can go places — both literally and musically — that a lot of other guitarists can’t.
Depending on who you believe, the reason for Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson being mostly deaf in his right ear range from a childhood bully to an abusive father to a birth defect. Whatever the reason, it undoubtedly shaped the way that Wilson both heard and interpreted music. On a more practical level, it was one of the main reasons that Beach Boys albums were mixed and released solely in mono until 1968. There were other considerations as well to be sure (such as Wilson’s admiration for Phil Spector’s production style), but there’s no denying that how Wilson heard music had a direct impact on how he recorded it.
One of the greatest voices in 20th century music might not have sounded like it did if not for a serious childhood illness. When country legend Patsy Cline was 13 years old — and still known as Virginia Hensley — she developed a case of rheumatic fever. Cline sunsequently developed a throat infection that led to her being admitted to the hospital. Doctors put her in an oxygen tent and at one point her heart stopped beating.
Cline recovered, of course, and credits the illness with what became her trademark expressive contralto voice. “The fever affected my throat and when I recovered I had this booming voice like Kate Smith,” she later stated. A few years later her singing career began in earnest, and of course we know the rest of that semi-tragic story.