It’s hard to believe that we’ve already reached the end of our Blind Musicians and American Composers series—but here we are in our final installment! Since we couldn’t cover everyone we wanted to in this series, it’s only right that the last post should highlight blind musicians that we couldn’t get to on the first round. There are many more musicians that we didn’t cover, and perhaps we will feature some more of them in the future. For now, here are “those we missed.”
Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk was born Ronald Kirk in Columbus, Ohio in 1935. Becoming blind at age two, Kirk later studied at the Ohio School for the Blind. It’s unclear when he first picked up the saxophone, but by his teenage years he was playing with rhythm and blues bands. One of his most defining musical talents was his ability to play two (or sometimes even three) instruments at one time. Besides the saxophone, Kirk was also proficient on the clarinet and flute, and sometimes constructed his own unique instruments. He went on to become a well-known jazz band leader through the 1960s and 1970s and released nearly 30 records between 1960 and his death in 1977. Here’s a fun fact about Rahsaan Roland Kirk: He’s the one playing lead flute on Quincy Jones’ “Soul Bossa Nova.”
Dianne Schuur was born in 1953 in Tacoma, Washington. She was born two months premature, and complications from that resulted in her blindness. She grew up in a musical family, and started singing at an early age. She later went on to learn piano by ear, and soon after began performing gigs on the weekends while a student at the Washington School for the Blind. At age 22, she was hired for Ed Shaughnessy’s orchestra, and later Dizzy Gillespie invited her to sit in with him at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1979. In the early 1980s, she was featured on a televised music showcase at the White House featuring up and coming talented musicians, and her music reached a wider audience from that event. She’s toured extensively, and has also recorded 23 albums from the early 1980s through today.
Selected materials in the NLS Collection about jazz:
The Jazz Piano Book (BRM37020)
Complete Jazz for the Young Pianist (BRM34061)
Favorite Jazz for Flute (BRM34964)
The Real Book of Jazz (BRM36832)
Just Standards Real Book (BRM36374)
The Art Tatum Collection: Artist Transcriptions – piano (BRM36131)
Piano Improv 1 (DBM02408)
Elements of Jazz (DBM0154)
A History of Jazz: The New York Scene (DBM03615)
Swingin’: Big Band Swing and Jazz from the 1930s and 1940s (DBM03697)
Warren Bernhardt Teaches Jazz Piano (DBM03759)
Blind Willie McTell
Piedmont blues guitarist Blind Willie McTell was born William Samuel McTier in Georgia in the early 20th century (the exact year is unclear, but it is estimated to be sometime between 1898 and 1903). He was born blind in one eye, and lost his remaining vision in his late childhood. He attended the school for the blind in Georgia, learned to read and write braille music, and later learned guitar in his early teens. In his 20s, McTell became an itinerant musician, and later recorded a number of songs for various record labels. In 1940, John Lomax recorded and interviewed McTell for the Archive of American Folk Song Collection for the Library of Congress. McTell died in 1959 from a stroke. Following his death, his music became very influential in the folk music revival of the 1960s.
Blues harmonica player Sonny Terry was born Saunders Terrell in Greensboro, Georgia in 1911. Although he was not born blind, he sustained eye injuries in his childhood, and became fully blind at 16. Since Terry had limited options for work, he took his harmonica playing to the streets at age 18 and, like Blind Willie McTell, became an itinerant street musician. Later he played the blues in North Carolina with Blind Boy Fuller. After Blind Boy Fuller died, Terry teamed up with guitarist Brownie McGhee, whom he would play with until his death. Sonny Terry recorded nearly 20 albums over his career, and was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Sonny Terry died in New York in 1986, and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame that same year.
Selected materials in the NLS Collection about blues:
How to Play the Guitar: Folk, Blues, Calypso by Jerry Silverman (BRM24631)
The Flat-picker’s Guitar Guide by Jerry Silverman (BRM36152)
10 Minute Self Instructor for the Harmonica (BRM12474)
Hal Leonard Guitar Method, Book 1 (BRM35281)
Blues Guitar 1 by Bill Brown (DBM02231)
Blues Harp: An Instruction Method Playing the Blues Harmonica by Tony Glover (DBM00680)
Country Blues Guitar by Stefan Grossman (DBM00485)
Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (DBM00316)
Classic Harmonica Blues (DBM03629)
Country music singer and pianist Ronnie Milsap was born in Robbinsville, North Carolina in 1943. He was born with a congenital disorder that caused his blindness, and he grew up with his grandparents in the Smoky Mountains. Later, he attended the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, North Carolina. While at the school, he developed a love of music, and began formally studying piano. He was inspired by rock and roll artists of the time, such as Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and Little Richard. After playing in a few different bands in his youth, Milsap moved to Memphis in the late 1960s where he worked as a session musician. After a chance meeting with Charley Pride in Los Angeles, Milsap changed focus to country music and was signed to RCA. Between 1976 and 1978, Milsap had seven No. 1 country singles. He’s been honored as the CMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year and won six Grammy Awards. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014. In 2018 NLS was honored to have him speak at our annual conference (yes he’s an NLS patron too)! Listen to Ronnie Milsap in concert at the Library of Congress in 2013 for the CMA Songwriters Series.
Selected materials in the NLS Collection about country and rock music:
If you’d like to order hard copies of any of the material mentioned in this post for loan, would like to download the materials from BARD and need some guidance, or if you would like to explore more materials of the NLS Music Collection and learn about our service, please email us at [email protected], or give us a phone call at 1-800-424-8567, extension 2. We are happy to help and look forward to hearing from you!