Many musical artists overcome adversity to become successful musicians. Few musicians have had to overcome struggles as great as blindness and racial animosity. However, for these five blind black piano players, they were able to maximize their gifts to the fullest and leave their mark in music history.
Blind Black Piano Players That You’ll Love
Let’s begin with the immensely talented Ray Charles.
Regardless of sight, Ray Charles is among the most well-known and talented musicians of the last century. He was born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia in 1930, and passed away in Beverly Hills, California in 2004.
Charles was not born blind, but instead lost his ability to see at age 7. While doctors were never able to determine the reason for his blindness with certainty, it is thought that he lost his eyesight due to glaucoma.
Ray began learning to play the piano before he lost his sight, and he was able to maintain his ability to play the instrument once he became blind. His mother sent him to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, where he continued to learn the piano, among other instruments. While there, he also learned how to read, write, and arrange music in Braille.
Ray Charles earned his nickname the “Father of Soul” by combining elements of gospel, soul, blues, and country and western music. At age 16, he met Quincy Jones, with whom he would form a lifelong musical partnership. His early influences were Charles Brown and Nat King Cole, whose styles he emulated early in his career.
Charles released some singles to moderate success in the early fifties, but his big break came when “I Got a Woman” reached number one on the R&B charts in 1954. The song was an indicator of Charles developing his own style and sound. The blend of R&B and gospel used on this track made Charles an early pioneer in the soul genre.
Later in the fifties, he would dip his toes into the jazz world, while continuing to produce pop and R&B hits. In 1962, he released “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.” This album was his first formal foray into country and western music, in which he covered classic country songs.
Charles continued putting out music for decades, with over sixty album releases to his name. He was among the first inductees in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in its inaugural year, 1986. In 2021, he was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, making him only the third African American to receive this honor.
These awards are just a couple of examples of the legacy of musical excellence left behind by this amazing musician. In this interview with Ability Magazine, Charles discusses his legendary career.
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Thomas “Blind Tom” Greene
Blind Tom is the oldest example on our list of blind black pianists. Thomas Greene was born a slave in Columbus, Georgia in 1848, and passed away in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1908. Born blind, he was seen as an inconvenience to his family’s owner.
Their owner put the family up for sale, each to be sold separately; however, his mother begged a neighbor, General James Bethune, to save the family, and he ended up buying them. Tom showed an obsession with sound from an early age. If a rooster crowed, he would echo the sound. He could repeat a ten minute conversation he had overheard, and yet, could barely communicate his own needs verbally.
He would make his way into his master’s house and play their piano. Initially, the Bethunes would remove Tom from the piano, but eventually General Bethune realized he could benefit financially from exploiting Tom’s musical gifts.
Tom could imitate music at the piano after hearing it, especially if it was in a recognizable genre, like polkas or waltzes. Advanced classical repertoire, like concertos, were more difficult for him to memorize, but he could do so with practice. At eight years old, he was licensed out to Perry Oliver, a traveling showman.
Later, he would perform for President James Buchanan, making him the first African American to perform at the White House. Blind Tom performed all over America and Europe. In light of modern science, it is thought that Blind Tom was on the autism spectrum, as this would explain many of his idiosyncratic behaviors.
Little is known about Blind Tom’s final years, but he suffered a stroke at the age of sixty and passed away. His musicianship was an inspiration to the many audiences for which he performed throughout his life.
One of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, Art Tatum was born in 1909 in Toledo, Ohio and passed away in 1956 in Los Angeles.Tatum was born with cataracts, causing blindness during infancy. He initially took up the violin at age 13, but soon switched to the piano. He learned to play by memorizing reels from Victrola’s and by learning songs from the radio by ear.
Tatum spent most of his career playing in a trio with guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart. His technical virtuosity in the jazz idiom is virtually unrivaled. Tatum was also known for re-harmonizing pop songs with complex chords, as well as adding passing chords between the main chords. These practices set the standard for jazz musicians, who follow in Tatum’s footsteps by re-harmonizing tunes to this day.
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Blind Willie Johnson
Willie Johnson was born in 1897 in Independence, Texas, and died in Beaumont, Texas in 1945. Johnson was born with sight, but lost it at age seven. There is not complete certainty as to how he became blind, but among the most popular theories is that it was the result of a fight between his father and step-mother. It is said that the two were fighting about his step-mother’s infidelity, and she threw lye in Willie’s face, causing him to lose his sight.
While Johnson is known primarily for his guitar abilities, he was also a pianist. Very little is known about his early life and musical background. He grew up in the Baptist Church, and some of his music reflects his religious upbringing. He combined his blues prowess with his love of gospel music in songs like “If I Had My Way I’d Tear a Building Down,” which was inspired by the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah. Johnson died in poverty after contracting malaria. Recordings of his music were sent into space by NASA Voyager space probes.
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Stevland Hardaway Morris was born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1950. He was born with retinopathy of prematurity, which was exacerbated by receiving too much oxygen in an incubator. This caused him to become blind. Wonder’s family moved to Detroit when he was four years old, and his musical talents first displayed themselves when he sang in his church’s choir as a young boy.
Wonder taught himself to play the piano, drums, and harmonica, all by the age of ten. He eventually took classical piano lessons to refine and improve his technique. He recorded his first album at age 11, “The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie Wonder.” Interestingly, he does not sing on this album. Instead, he played keyboard, harmonica, and percussion. The album features two of his original compositions, as well as the studio version of “Fingertips,” the live version of which later became a hit single.
In 1971, he managed to negotiate a new contract with Motown. The new contract allowed him greater creative freedom over his music, and also greatly increased his royalty rate. Such a deal was rare at the time, which demonstrates how much Motown recognized Wonder as a unique and talented commodity.
Wonder combines elements of many genres in his music, including soul, blues, jazz, R&B, and funk. Many of his songs are considered classics today, including hits such as “Superstition” and “Isn’t She Lovely.” Wonder wrote several songs that discuss the struggles of African Americans in American culture. “Living for the City,” released in 1973, is one such example.
It tells the story of a young African American man who moves to New York City, and is then arrested and sent to prison for crimes he did not commit. Renowned for his musical talent, songs like “Living for the City” also cement Stevie Wonder as an important artist in our culture for shining a light on important social justice issues.
Hopefully, this list of amazing blind black piano players has perhaps opened your eyes to a few tremendous stories of overcoming adversity. On top of that, I hope this list encourages you to seek out these artist’s great music, and perhaps add one or two of their songs to your playlist!
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