Applauding new talent with shows like American Idol, Star Search, etc., so common in our culture, energizes and offers hope to up and coming performers. However, are we placing too much emphasis on new talent and failing to recognize existing talent? When a mature man completes a singing performance and an entire room full of staunch Republican men are humbled to tears (which actually happened most recently in Santa Rosa, CA) – it’s time for us to take a really good look at Turley Richards. Although Richard’s life has been filled with what others perceive as tragedy, he exudes a positive spirit contagious to all who are fortunate enough to cross his path. Woven throughout his life story, he routinely demonstrates the ability to direct energy from life challenges into an optimistic attitude that continues to drive him forward.
Turley Richards, youngest of five, was born in Charleston, West Virginia. His Dad was a pipe fitter-plumber and his Mother a seamstress-housewife. At four years old, Turley was playing a silly game, bent over holding a pillow to his bottom while an older neighbor took aim with a bow and arrow towards the pillow. Curious Turley looked around to see what was taking so long and the arrow pierced his left eye which led to total loss of vision in that eye. With improper medical treatment sympathetic reaction set in and slowly but surely infected the right eye. Years later he lost sight in that eye as well. To keep young and energetic Turley occupied (he has continued to remain high energy by the way), his Dad’s plant workers pooled some money together to buy a Victrola and some records, including “I Don’t Want Her, You Can Have Her, She’s Too Fat For Me”, and “Open The Door Richard”. His Mom bought him a kazoo (shaped like a saxophone) at a five and dime store. Through the use of these tools, Turley developed one of the largest vocal ranges in the world.
Richards endured eight operations from ages 6-16 and every time they pulled the bandage off he just knew that he was going to see better. Unfortunately it never happened. Each time he faced frustration and rejection. When others might crawl into a dark cave of depression, Turley saw it as setting him up for the challenges in show business. At 15, he started a group called the Five Pearls, with one other White kid and three Black kids. He did the old “Shoo be doo be wa” stuff. The inception of his music was in the R&B field leaning towards jazz such as the Drifters, Clovers, Midnighters, and Joe Williams and The Count Basie Band. In the late 50s he appeared on the Dick Reid Record Hop, which cloned American Bandstand, traveling throughout the state. He became literally the W. Virginia Super Star with girls screaming and turning over his car to get to him. He was forced to lie down on the floor board to escape his over eager audience.
Before turning 18, he signed his first record contract with Fraternity Records out of Cincinnati, with a record called “All About Ann”. In the early 60s, Richards purchased a Ford Station Wagon and sound equipment and moved to Los Angeles with two musicians with high hopes of becoming a famous recording artist. Soon after arriving, the other two musicians decided to quit music and secure regular jobs and left him tranded with the car and the equipment, neither of which he could use. He soon ecame destitute, sold everything, and took a train back to W. Virginia. At this point he was frustrated and what he believed at the time to be through with the music business.
An incredible athlete who would have made All State All American in college and probably the MBA, Turley also excelled in baseball, and track and field. However, because of his poor eyesight, he could never pursue sports to his full potential. At 18 he was already filled with frustrations of not being able to fulfill his dream on the basketball court or on a record label. “I seem to get my foot in the door but can not pass through it.”
Not accepting defeat and giving music another go during the mid-sixties, with $87, a suitcase, and a guitar, Richards decided to go to New York to make something happen. The $87 disappeared quickly and near starvation, going almost a week without food, Turley tried to sell blood for money. Because he was so weak, he passed out during his appointment. While walking back to his flea bag hotel, he found $1.83 in the gutter. After buying a soda and a candy bar, he returned to his room and with a knife and fork, ate the candy bar as if it were a filet mignon, saving the last bite and tossing it to the roaches.
During the next week as he slept in Central Park with his guitar and suitcase strapped through his belt, he asked himself, “What do you do best?” He responded, “Well, singing, sports, being lucky with the ladies.” He was 23 years old and he refused to go back home with his tail between his legs and be considered a failure. Therefore, he started singing at pubs for food and befriending ladies who took him in. One of his lady friends was the one who introduced him to Norman Schwartz who managed Stan Getz and Gary McFarland, all jazz artists. This led him to the first record deal with MGM/Verve.
Then Richards was signed by 20th Century Fox, cutting “The Many Souls of Turley Richards”, with Toots Thielemans on the harmonica and guitar. He also played in Grenwich Village at the Café Wha with Ritchie Havens, David Frye, the great impersonator, and the funniest man in the world — Richard Pryor. Pryor and Richards struck up a great friendship.
Many artists do not get even one record deal. Turley was fortunate enough to be signed to nine record labels including Warner Bros., Atlantic Records, CBS/Epic, CBS/Columbia, MGM, and 20th Century Fox. Every record that was ever released was chosen as a “hit pick” by Billboard, Cashbox, and Record World. Even though Richards cumulatively sold one million 400 thousand records, poor management of his career prevented him from achieving the stardom that everyone predicted. In ‘85 he started losing his voice due to a genetic problem. “I was scared to death because for the first time even though I had been blind for 17 years, I felt really blind because without my voice I could not make enough money to make a living and put food on the table for my family.”
Not giving up, he enrolled in occupational rehabilitation courses to learn alternative job skills including massage therapy, computer operation, and typing. The computer and typing skills benefited him with all of the technological aids available to assist blind persons and the massage therapy proved to help him with the ladies. Fortunately, his voice returned. Without this scare, he would not have explored other life options which he considers a gift. This time was a real turn around in his life. For the past 15 years Richards has been working as a vocal coach, custom record producer, and performing in small clubs and concerts. He has also continued to write and produce his own music and lyrics.
Daughter Amber is now 23, and son Adam is 26. “They are two wonderful children who I share an incredible relationship with. They’re the greatest gifts in this world.” They have been telling Richards over and over, along with all of his friends and acquaintances that he needs to share his talent with the more than 40 or 50 people in small pubs in Louisville, Ky. “And now that the kids are on their own and doing well and I’m single, I’ve decided – why not give it a shot?”
He has recently jump started a come back beginning the process of recording an album in January of 2003, accompanied by some of the greatest studio musicians in the world, titled Blind Sighted. Soon Richards will be presenting the CD to record labels. ”I guess you can capsulate my life from 4 ½ years old until now as being……There was a girl who wrote a great song back in the 60s which I recorded called ‘It’s an Uphill Climb to the Bottom.’ Sometimes I feel that no matter how much I climb I feel like I’ve been pushed back to the bottom rung of a step ladder.”
“I know that I have been given a gift. I know that I need to be heard. Maybe I’ll never be a Superstar but if I can make a positive difference in one life, then I will have succeeded. I continue to hear from many people what an impact I have had on them.” ”This time maybe something will happen. Maybe my book will come through and I’ll have the opportunity to appear on Regis or Oprah and share my story (No one can take my dreams away from me, right?) I do know that I’ll never stop doing my best.” ”What has been the most difficult thing about being blind? I’ve never seen my babies and I can’t go back and look at their photographs.” ”I have been asked what keeps me going and how I overcome so many obstacles. It’s very simple. My inner strength is drawn from my mother’s words of wisdom and her unconditional love. She used to say, “Richard, it’s a tough world and you have to be tougher than the toughest.”
“Blindness will never defeat me. It will never defeat me. I’m still singing, and I’m still singing, and I’m still singing. And I ain’t gonna stop.”
This author had the pleasure of joining Turley in Laguna Beach, CA. I watched his large muscular body tempt each 6-1/2 foot wave with his solid stance and a large grin on his face. He shared with me when he returned to the beach that he had beat the waves 12-2. Only 2 waves knocked him down. If we could all attack life this way. Turley has “Turley” made a positive impact on me for a lifetime. Turley’s vision is more insightful than any sighted person whom I have ever met and the title to his future book “Blind Sighted” perfectly reflects his amazing ability to see.