I’d like to thank everyone who has come to my aid after my ill judged bit of Irish dancing at Sidney Myer Music Bowl on the evening of November 8, resulting in a nasty hamstring injury. All meaning I’m wheelchair bound for the duration.
Much has been written about it in the media so I don’t want to add to it, but I do want to thank the ambos, St. John’s mob, the hospital staff at Epworth Richmond, my family, the band, the crew, management and all the fans here and worldwide for their huge love and support. My stay in the wheelchair is likely to be temporary – however the experience has been completely overwhelming.
People look at you differently when you’re in the chair. As a result, I’ve gained a new appreciation for people in wheelchairs or with any disability for that matter, and what it takes to operate in this crazy world of ours from their perspective.
We sentient walkers take a lot for granted. In honour of these souls I’ve taken the liberty of putting together a Spotify playlist of musicians I love and admire who operate (or operated) from a wheelchair, including Jeff St John, Robert Wyatt, Jim Conway and the songwriter Doc Pomus amongst others. I’ve no doubt unintentionally left some out as well.
P.S. Everyone would like to be known for their music and not defined by or singled out for their disability, so I hope this is taken in the right spirit. The extra effort and support needed to operate make these artists and their people very determined and extraordinary individuals.
[Scroll below the playlist for Jim’s notes on each of the artists.]
Jeff St John I remember from growing up in Sydney in the 70s. He was born with spina bifida. A real showman with a bluesy voice, often doing wheel stands in his wheelchair, he was a stalwart of early Australian radio and live performance. He is involved in educating people about disabilities and is a member of spina bifida support group MOSAIC.
Robert Wyatt emerged from England’s Canterbury scene with Soft Machine and Matching Mole as a brilliant drummer and singer. He fell from a balcony in 1973 resulting in paralysis from the waist down. Undaunted, he began to then concentrate on his singing and keyboard playing whilst still playing some top end jazz influenced percussion. He soon released his solo album Rock Bottom and since the accident become a prolific solo artist and an articulate and much loved collaborator and member of the British rock scene.
Doc Pomus (born Jerome Solon Felder) was a polio victim. He started as a blues singer in the 1940’s performing with the likes of King Curtis and Mickey Baker, and then fell into a successful songwriting partnership with Mort Schuman. Their collaboration produced many hits including ‘Surrender’ for Elvis Presley, ‘Can’t Get Used To Losing You’ for Andy Williams and ‘Lonely Avenue’ for Ray Charles. Their most beautiful song was ‘Save The Last Dance for Me’, which has a lyric inspired by Doc’s wedding night (according to his friend Lou Reed) where the wheelchair-bound Pomus watched his wife, Broadway dancer Willi Burke, dance with their guests. The song reminds her to have fun, but reminds her who is going to take her home and “in whose arms you’re gonna be”.
Justin Hines is a Canadian born singer songwriter from Ontario. He has a rare condition called Larsen’s syndrome which leaves him wheelchair bound, and has started an eponymous foundation for people with disabilities.
Jim Conway is a singer and harmonica player who with his brother Mick Conway formed The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band with whom Midnight Oil supported many times in the 1970s. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1983. A well loved Sydney based harmonica teacher, session player and performer, Jim has performed with Backsliders, Shane Howard, Slim Dusty, Colin Hay amongst countless others.
White Room from Melbourne were led by Marc Collis, who suffers from brittle bone disease confining him to a wheelchair. Their album White Room Music was produced by Phil Mackellar (Grinspoon, Silverchair). He is now a solo artist and has recently supported John Farnham.
Staff Benda Bilili started as street musicians from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The core of the band is four singer/guitar players, paraplegic as a result of polio when they were young, playing in the soukous (Congolese rumba)style. They come from the area around the zoo in the city of Kinshasa, and move around in specially designed tricycles. They are backed by a younger rhythm section of street children taken under the protection of the older members of the band. Their name roughly translates as ‘look beyond appearances’.
Itzhak Perlman is an Israeli violinist who records for label Deutsche Gramophon and debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1963. Contracting polio when he was 4, he learnt to walk with crutches and uses an electric scooter for mobility. He has performed for Queen Elizabeth at the White House, conducted many orchestras and in 2015 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Vic Chestnutt was a singer songwriter from Athens Georgia. He released 17 albums during his career including 2 produced by Michael Stipe. He was injured in a car crash in 1983 and used a wheelchair and had limited use of his hands. His style has been described as “skewed, refracted version of Americana that is haunting, funny, poignant, and occasionally mystical, usually all at once” (Bryan Carroll, altmusic.com)
Gaelynn Lea from Duluth Minnesota is a folk, bluegrass and celtic violinist and singer. Born with a genetic condition that causes complications in the development of bones and limbs, and passionate about music from an early age, she developed a technique for playing the violin by holding the bow like a ‘baseball bat’ with instrument placed in front of her like a cello. A political advocate as well, she won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest In 2016, selected over six thousand other nominations, her sound being described as ‘a cross between Karen Dalton and Joanna Newsom’ by Dan Auberbach.
Maria Gombitova came from Slovakia and gain notoriety as singer with the band Modus. She took to a solo career but before the release of her second album she was involved in a car crash which has meant her life is now spent in a wheelchair. She is regarded as one of the most successful acts in Slovak history having six out of nine albums included in the Top 100 Greatest Slovak Albums of All time list and her work remains a radio favourite in the region.
Teddy Pendergrass came to fame as singer of Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes before a hugely successful solo career as an R&B artist. In 1982 he was paralysed in an auto accident from the chest down. He subsequently founded the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance that helps those with spinal cord injuries.
Curtis Mayfield: Shooting to fame in the early 70s with his album Superfly, a gritty and political view of life on the streets and leading light of the blaxploitation movement, Mayfield was paralysed from the neck down after lighting equipment fell on him during a live performance at Wingate Field in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York, on August 13, 1990. Despite this, he continued his career as a recording artist, releasing his final album New World Order in 1996. Mayfield won a Grammy Legend Award in 1994 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, and was a double inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as a member of the Impressions in 1991, and again in 1999 as a solo artist.