Sight and Sound
Six famous musicians with eye conditions
While Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles are well known examples of vision-impaired musicians there are many others who have also taken to the spotlight despite the challenges of their eye conditions.
1. José Feliciano
Born blind as a result of congenital glaucoma, José first taught himself to play an accordion at age 7. Then, at age 9, his father handed him a guitar and hours and days of careful practise followed. Since the 1960s his music has entertained listeners around the world, with his Christmas staple, “Feliz Navidad” and cover of The Doors ‘Light My Fire’ becoming hugely popular. On being born without sight José simply stated, “Vision is also what you feel inside and that’s what makes a great visionary.”
2. Missy Elliott
In the past the larger than life hip-hop musician has been affected by Grave’s disease, an autoimmune thyroid condition that can cause eyes to bulge prominently and, in severe cases, lead to loss of vision. The ‘supa dupa’ star had to ‘work it’ to mitigate the affects of Grave’s and she says regular eye exams, treatment and a healthier lifestyle have all contributed to a significant improvement.
In 2014 the U2 lead singer revealed to the world that he had glaucoma, a condition he had been having treated privately for over twenty years. Many saw this news as a good reason for wearing one pair of outlandish sunglasses after another. However for some it was more proof that a diagnosis of glaucoma doesn’t mean an end to sight and, provided there’s an early discovery and expert treatment, a ‘beautiful day’ doesn’t need to slip away.
4. Brittany Howard
The lead singer of the Alabama Shakes is blind in one eye, having survived retinoblastoma as a child. This type of eye cancer is often genetic and, tragically, her sister died from the disease when she was thirteen. In 2019 Brittany released a solo album, Jamie, to honour the memory of her big sister who taught her “how to write a song, taught me how to draw, taught me about art.”
5. Ella Fitzgerald
The renowned jazz singer lost her vision in her later years due to the onset of advanced diabetes. Diabetic retinopathy occurs when the high blood sugar levels damage the retina’s blood vessels, which leads to bleeding and swelling inside the eye. For the ‘First Last of Song’ a stellar career in the 60s and 70s was curtailed in the 80s when she lost her vision and had both legs amputated. That didn’t stop Ella forging ahead however – she made her last recording in 1989 and gave her last public performance in 1991 before passing five years later.
6. David Bowie
David Bowie’s iconic eye colours were well-known, with some believing the Ziggy Stardust singer’s ocular appearance irrefutable proof of Bowie’s alien origins. Others believed the singer’s appearance was due to heterochromia, a rare condition in humans where the iris is a different colour. The truth is different – he actually had anisocoria, which is when an individual’s pupils are different sizes. According to Bowie his left pupil was permanently dilated after a teenage fistfight, one that left him with faulty depth perception and a loss of colour vision in the affected eye.