Five Physically Challenged Rock Stars that are Killing it!

Ruth Patterson, lead vocalist and violinist for the folk rock band, Moly and the Crackers. Photo Credit: Darran Moore.

When we think of famous musicians, who are physically impaired, Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles immediately come into our minds. But, there are many more. How do they cope with chronic pain, fatigue, the physical demands of touring? Here are five amazing musicians, who are doing it! And who are adored by their fans…

1. Ruth Patterson - Holy Moly and the Crackers

Holy Moly and the Crackers formed in Yorkshire, England in 2011. They are a folk rock group are inspired by legends such as, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and The Velvet Underground. The lead vocalist of the group, Ruth Patterson is also an accomplished violinist and piano player. When you see her perform for the first time, it’s not always apparent that she usually has to be carried both on and off the stage. Unless the stage is wheelchair accessible, which is exceedingly rare… Patterson developed EDS (Ehlers Danlos Syndrome) and severe arthritis at the age of 16 and has been wheelchair bound ever since. 

The combination of these two diseases results in debilitating chronic pain and extreme fatigue. It can also cause severe depression and drive people to suicide… Fellow bandmate, Conrad Bird describes Patterson situation in an interview by Alex Payne by saying, “she’s a complete warrior…” He elaborated more on Patterson’s character and determination, “I think she’s finally come to terms with it, with that she’s starting to talk about it. She didn’t want to be identified by it. She wanted to be a singer and be more than the disease…”

It is evident, that Patterson has a tremendous amount of support from her bandmates, family and fans. Conrad Bird is also Patterson’s fiancé as well as a co – founder of the band. They have been a couple for over 10 years. Patterson’s ways of coping with her condition include getting as much sleep as possible before a show.

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Patterson also tries hard to eat well. She takes prescribed pain medication but, does not abuse it. She also gains a tremendous amount both emotionally and psychologically by talking to fans and supporters, who also suffer from chronic pain. All of these things can be a challenge, when you are on a big tour. Patterson and her band have found a way to make it work with her on going physical disabilities. Patterson hopes that her condition will raise awareness about disabled musicians. 

“I have rarely seen ANY support for disabled musicians. I know of a handful of venues that have wheelchair access on to the stage  – venues and promoters just don’t think that disabled performers exist. Well we do and there would be a lot more of us if we had the opportunity to succeed in the industry…”

~ Ruth Patterson

2. Mick Mars - Motley Crue

Early promotional picture of Mick Mars. Photo Credit: Coffman and Coffman Productions.

Ankylosing Spondylitis is a debilitating form of arthritis. Symptoms may vary from stiffness to severe inflammation of the spinal joints. There is no cure. Chronic pain and mobility issues are something constant with this condition. Mick Mars, known for his dark sense of humor had this to say about it, “I ended up bent. I can always see my guitar…” 

Born Robert Alan Deal, Mick Mars joined Motley Crue, (during the mid 80’s) when was in his late twenties and has been the group’s lead guitarist, as well as a contributing songwriter ever since. 

The disease has spread into his brain stem, which makes it difficult for Mars to turn his head. Before Mars, had the money to pursue different treatments, he said the pain was so bad, he thought about ending it all. While on the stage performing, a fan jumped up and tackled him. It took him time to recover from pain and injuries surrounding this incident. But, he’s still rocking out!

This incident was rumored to be the reason that Motley Crue was calling it quits. But, Mars denies this. “I’m doing fine and it has never stopped me from touring. Thank you for knowing the truth. When I’m done touring, you’ll hear it from me…” That pretty much sums it up doesn’t it.

Also… Mars underwent a successful hip transplant and that has helped to improve his physical condition. He also eats right and does regular physical therapy. Mars says that his condition has helped him to become a better musician. 

“Music is my whole passion, it’s what I do, it’s what I live for. I guess it keeps me alive. I’m just happy to be here. To make people smile and give people what I feel inside from my music…”

~Mick Mars…

3. Tony Iommi - Black Sabbath

For guitarist, songwriter and producer Tony Iommi, creating the dark undertones and sounds of his band, Black Sabbath was not just an aesthetic preference, it was also out of necessity. 

At the age of sixteen, Iommi took a job as a machinist at at sheet metal shop, located in his home town of Birmingham, England. He was cutting huge sheets of metal with a machine. He had not received adequate  or proper training in using this device. There was an accident, the machine cut off the tips of his ring and middle fingers on Iommi’s left hand.

“I was depressed and felt extremely down. The manager of the factory came to visit me at home during my recovery. He told me the story of Django Reinhardt, who had lost his two of his fingers…”

~ Tony Iommi

Reinhardt went on to become one of the most inspirational jazz guitar players the world has ever known. It inspired Iommi to find a way to keep pursuing his creative dreams.Iommi is a natural “southpaw.” He refused to stop playing left handed designed guitars. He felt it would take too much time to learn how to play right handed. 

He would cut, heat up and shape plastic from the tops of dishwashing soap bottles. With a sauntering iron, Iommi was able to create artificial fingertips. The reason songs such as, “War Pigs” sounded so low and ominous on the musical tone scale is because Iommi had tuned his guitar down, three whole notes from a traditional E on the sixth string. 

The reason? It was so Iommi could press down on the strings easier. It seems like these changes and modifications were quite successful. Black Sabbath became one of the pioneers of heavy metal rock music. Iommi also was successful in creating his own brand of super light weight gauge strings. Iommi is the only original founding member left in Black Sabbath today.

4. Jerry Garcia - The Grateful Dead

Yes.. There are more than a few of the best guitarists, within the world of rock and roll, who are missing a few fingers. One day,  Jerry Garcia future lead guitarist  of The Grateful Dead and his brother Till were helping their father cut firewood.

Supposedly, it was his brother, who accidentally cut off nearly 3/4 of Garcia’s right middle finger. Garcia was just five years old, when the accident occurred. I do not believe anyone has ever received the full truth behind how Garcia lost his finger. I also believe this is exactly the way Garcia intended it to be. He enjoyed all the conspiracy theories, genuinely got a kick out of perpetuating them.The story of Garcia’s missing finger has become a rock n roll urban, rock and roll legend. One theory is that he had it cut off in order to avoid being drafted. 

The latest conspiracy theory, that I have heard regarding Garcia’s missing finger is very close to home, near where I grew up in Northern California. This theory argues that it was not Tiff, but, it was actually Garcia’s cousin, who chopped off Jerry Garcia’s finger and buried it somewhere in the Santa Cruz mountains of Northern California somewhere on Zayante Road… It does not seem likely we will ever know the real story. Close family and friends of Garcia are not talking about this… Unless of Garcia’s former wives, children or bandmates decides to reveal the truth, I doubt anyone will ever know just what happened to Garcia’s finger,

5. Bill Withers

Bill Withers was truly one of the most impactful and inspiration songwriters in the music business. With songs such as the anthem, “Lean On Me,” “Lovely Day” and the highly popular blues inspired song, “Aint No Sunshine.” In this song, Withers used his disability to enhance the song dynamically. Withers was born with a stammer. 

As a boy, Withers was horribly insecure about his stutter, when music came into his life, it was at moment that, he started to use this disability to his full advantage and harness his true creative abilities. If you listen to the bridge of “Aint No Sunshine,” he sings, “And I know, I know, I know, I know, yeah, I better leave the young things alone, but ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone… This song has become both classical and timeless.

These five musicians all prove that with determination, courage and a desire to overcome obstacles, truly anything can be achieved. For me personally, as someone, who is physically and also a musician I was moved when, I did the research for this article.

 It is a reminder for me never ever stop! Keep doing the things you love, what you’re passionate about. Or… Try new things. You may not be able to go downhill skiing, but perhaps photography or music will be something that you discover that becomes a passion. Just keep doing what makes you happy!

Article by Ash Andersen

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