There ain’t a soul alive who doesn’t love a story about someone earning everything they’ve got, especially when what they’ve got is a stellar career as a famous musician. That’s why today we’re taking a look at some musicians who were dealt a band hand or given a raw deal, but managed to come out on top and turn themselves into famous figures in the music industry. Whether it was a rough childhood, a Nazi occupation or a lost limb, everyone on this list had to overcome extreme adversity in order to achieve the heights of their careers, and damn if we aren’t tearing up over here thinking of all the hard work that went into overcoming these hard times. But there’s a happy ending, right? It all paid off! So here are 10 influential musicians who earned it the hard way.
10. Rick Allen (Def Leppard)
There’s some events in life that just seem cruel, especially when placed in a context of irony and coincidence, like a painter going blind or a sprinter losing his legs. One individual who overcame an instance like this was Rick Allen, the drummer from hard rock/hair metal band Def Leppard, who continued to drum for the band after having his left arm amputated in 1985. Known as “The Thunder God” to his fans, Allen had to re-teach himself to play his instrument after a driving accident forced the removal of his arm. But with the help of a custom-made drum kit, which allows him to use his left foot in lieu of his arm, Allen has maintained his position as the drummer of Def Leppard, who would go on to have a long and productive career in the music industry. Allen, who has also started a charity called the Raven Drum Foundation, is exactly the kind of individual we want to kick off a list like this; he overcame some severe adversity to become the rock legend he is today.
9. John Rzeznik (The Goo Goo Dolls)
Something about the way The Goo Goo Dolls went all pop-rock towards the end of their career makes people forget they were one of the best garage rock bands of their generation, with great song after great song produced up until the point they went soft on everyone. That they even got that far in their career is a testament to the strength of the band and, in particular, lead vocalist and guitarist John Rzeznik, who had to overcome some tough obstacles on his way to rock stardom. Rzeznik, who was born and grew up in Buffalo, New York (like that isn’t tough enough, right?), lost both of his parents at a young age and was left to care for his four sisters, somehow finding time amongst all this tragedy to become one of the strongest songwriters of his generation. We’re not sure where he found that time, mind you, but we’re mighty happy that he did, even in light of The Goo Goo Dolls’ recent mediocre efforts.
8. Django Reinhardt
We’ve written about some hard times in the past, but so few of those times seem harsh in comparison to the life of acclaimed jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, a man who overcame so much adversity we’re legitimately shocked that we haven’t started calling overcoming adversity “pulling a Django.” A Belgian born French man, Reinhardt is one of the most influential guitarists of all time, one consistently cited as pushing the limits of the instrument to places nobody had before…oh, and he did all this while overcoming significant hand injuries and the Nazi occupation of France. That’s right, this guy overcame critical burns to his hands, paralysis in two of his fingers AND SURVIVED THE NAZIS to become one of history’s most important musicians. Remember that the next time you’re sitting on your couch struggling to pick the intro to “Stairway to Heaven” and you want to whine about how it’s too hard. Ask yourself, what would Django do?
You had to know that given his status and the previously established narrative about his tough upbringing, Eminem was destined to find his way into this list. With a semi-autobiographical film to his name that speaks to his rough upbringing (8 Mile), Eminem and music fans have already had plenty of chances to catch an in-depth look at what sort of life gives birth to a talent of this magnitude, of what hardships go into fostering the ferocity evident in every single word of game Eminem has ever spit. Despite his controversial status, Eminem remains one of the cornerstones of contemporary music, a feat made all the more impressive considering the harsh reality of his life growing up in a poor area of Detroit. Despite an unstable home life and a chosen profession which was dominated by African American males, Eminem managed to eke out a musical career as one of the most important and influential rappers of all time, and his contributions to rap and hip hop cannot be understated, nor can his tenacity and strength in overcoming some really tough times to become a musical icon.
6. Tina Turner
Tina Turner, the acclaimed songstress who was at one time coined “The Queen of Rock and Roll,” knows a thing or two about earning it the hard way. After overcoming a tough childhood to find success in the music business, Turner engaged in a long and well-popularized marriage with Ike Turner (of Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm), a marriage defined by scandal and frequent physical and mental abuse. Tina, who wrote of these engagements in her autobiography and describes a relationship based on manipulation, fear and intimidation, managed to overcome the difficulties of her spousal abuse and continue her career as a successful musician, and her courage and determination in doing so earn her the number six spot on this list.
5. Ray Charles
Nicknamed “The High Priest of Soul,” Ray Charles was something special, but that something special sure didn’t come easy. Blind from the age of seven, Charles became one of the most important pianists of his generation, blending gospel, soul and blues music into a signature style that’s even more impressive when one realizes he did it all without the gift of sight. Charles, who learned to read music via Braille (an excruciatingly difficult process, we’ve been assured), was often referred to as a type of musical genius, a man who understood the medium in ways most regular folks can only aspire to. Perhaps this is why he was able to become the musical icon we remember him as, despite not being able to see the piano keys in front of him.
4. Billie Holiday
We can’t imagine it’s possible to overstate the influence Billie Holiday has had on music, and in particular the genre of jazz and the intricacies of singing; people as varied as Frank Sinatra have cited her as an influence, with the Rat Pack member once stating she was “unquestionably the most important influence in American popular singing…Every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been influenced by her in some way…” High praise from one of history’s most famous crooners. Holiday, who no doubt faced an astounding series of roadblocks on her way to stardom as an African American woman in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, overcame a poor childhood to reach success, even spending time working as a singer in gentleman’s club and overcoming an attempted rape at the hands of a neighbor. Despite all that, Holiday is one of the most influential vocalists in the history of music.
3. Ringo Starr (The Beatles)
It’d be easy to throw Ringo in here based solely on the fact that he had the misfortune of being the only non-genius in a group of geniuses; that in itself might make Ringo eligible for this list, because we know we sure as hell wouldn’t have wanted to go through our musical career being “the other Beatle.” Attitudes towards Ringo soften a little bit when learning of his tumultuous upbringing that included an often absent and drunk father and an overbearing mother, a 12-month recovery from an infection stemming from an early appendix surgery, and struggles with illiteracy and poor mathematics skills. Ringo, who would find his salvation in music before eventually working his way into a position as the drummer for the greatest band of all time, was quite literally struggling to survive at numerous points in his youth, making his now-legendary career even more impressive (though still not as impressive as John Lennon’s…Kidding, Ringo!).
2. Jimi Hendrix (The Jimi Hendrix Experience)
A recap of Jimi Hendrix’s youth plays more like the story of how a serial killer is created, not how a man grows into the greatest guitarist of all time and an icon for peace, love and the power of the human race. Born to a single mother and an imprisoned father, Hendrix was raised mostly by family friends until his father returned at age three, wherein he began to drink heavily and fight often with Hendrix’s mother. Routine household violence, frequent moves between apartments and hotels, poverty and alleged sexual abuse all factored into Hendrix’s childhood and left him a shy and withdrawn child, characteristics he would retain even after becoming the legendary musical icon he is still remembered as today.
1. Johnny Cash
We’d be hard-pressed to place anyone else atop this list, and there’s a whole slew of reasons why Johnny Cash, The Man in Black himself, belongs here. The topic of several biographies, autobiographies and an extremely popular biopic (Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, remains one of the more well-executed “musical biopics” in recent memory), Cash’s difficult life has been explored in numerous mediums, all of which stand to highlight a life defined by hardship and confrontation. A rebellious man with an anti-establishment air to him, Cash battled addiction, trauma, self-destructive behaviour and overcame an extremely poor and difficult upbringing to become the musical icon that he is today; however, as with many of the individuals on this list, it’s easy to argue that without those hardships to overcome, he never would have blossomed into the legendary artist he’s since become.