There have been several remarkable blind pianists and composers in the 20th century that have risen to great fame and are known for their pioneering sound. Predating Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder was a blind boy from Warrensburg, Missouri, who boasted an incredible stylistic range. He could play ragtime tunes like "Dat Only Chicken Pie" and just as easily switch to Chopin's "Military Polonaise." He was often billed as "the marvelous musical prodigy," and was known for being able to play back any tune after hearing it once. Blind Boone was a once in a generation talent, but due to the limitations and attitudes of his time, he never found the same kind of success that came to those who followed in his footsteps.
Born in Miami, Missouri, in 1864, John W. Boone was blind from infancy. Boone was the son of Rachel Boone, a slave, and a white army bugler. At six months he fell ill with cerebral meningitis and his eyes were removed to reduce the swelling in his head. In his youth, Boone was endearingly known to his family and friends as "Little Willie."
As a child, he kept busy performing, playing the harmonica on the street corners of Warrensburg with other children. Boone accompanied his mother to the homes of white families where she was employed as a cook. While she was in the kitchen, he would be in the parlor sounding out tunes on the piano while she prepared meals. His manager, John Lange, said: "It was impossible to keep his fingers off the keyboard."
He was popular and well loved throughout Warrensburg and the townsfolk came together to save money to send him to the St. Louis School for the Blind. Boone received music lessons for a year, but a new school director believed it was useless to teach a blind black boy how to play the piano. Relegated to making brooms, ten year old Boone would sneak out to the "tenderloin district" of Saint Louis to hear black musicians play. Unsurprisingly, Boon was expelled for his nocturnal excursions.
John Lange, Jr., a contractor who owned an entertainment hall in Columbia, hired Boone, who was now in his mid teens, to play the Christmas program there. After having been taken advantage of by others claiming to be talent managers, Boone found an able manager in Lange. Lange wrote to Boone's mother and asked for her permission to manage her son's career and promised to take care of him. She was promised a portion of his earnings every month until Boone turned 21. On his 21st birthday, "Little Willie," became a partner in the Blind Boone Company. Lange kept his word and Boone was treated as a partner and not as a commodity.
Scheduled to play a venue in Marshfield, Missouri, a tornado hit the small town on April 18, 1880. The twister killed nearly 100 people and injured many more. The deadly twister inspired Boone to compose "The Marshfield Tornado," which became his most well known and cited piece. Boone and Lange decided to play the Marshfield show anyway and donate the proceeds to help rebuild the town. His composition included effects that sounded like a tornado, which frightened audience members who then fled the concert hall. "The Marshfield Tornado" became a standard for Boone, but he would always play this selection last so as not to frighten the audience away.
Without the aid of radio and television, Boone never became a household name, but he traveled extensively in the Midwest. Boone and Lange endured incredible hardships including racial insults while on tour and even at one point someone stole the company piano. Despite hardships and derision, Lange stayed with Boone through it all. In his later years he said: "I have lost all I had more than once, trying to make Boone a success, but I am proud today that I have stuck with it."
Boone, an autodiadact due to his disability, had an uncanny ability to learn music entirely by ear while listening to other musicians play. In 1883 John Lange made the acquaintance of B. T. Raisor in Corydon, Iowa, where he served as Sheriff. Raisor took an interest in Boone and offered a partnership to Lange where he took care of Boone for the summer and helped further his music education. Lange accepted this arrangement and Boone spent the summer in Cedar Rapids under the tutelage of Mary R. Sampson. She helped him learn over 25 pieces of music from "Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin and other composers of note."
The musical stylings he learned that summer defined his career and he began to garner a great deal of attention. He could now appeal to both black and white audiences with his gift for incorporating stylistic elements of opposing genres of music. It was also around this time that Boone's musical group began billing themselves as the Blind Boone Touring Company. Printed on the concert programs was the proverb: "Merit, not sympathy, wins." Boone was no longer a curiosity to be gawked at. He was becoming a recognized and respected virtuoso.
Between 1885 and 1916 Boone earned between $150 and $600 a night. By 1916 Boone had toured extensively throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico. In 1889 he married John Lange's sister and built and "handsomely furnished" two-story home in Columbia, Missouri, on Fourth Street. In his home he kept a piano that cost him $1600 (which in today's dollars would be $50,000). His home on Fourth street is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
A sure sign of success came in 1912 when the QRS Piano Roll Company contracted with Boone to record eleven pieces, which they distributed. "He became such a famous entertainer that he was invited to cut piano rolls," Boone scholar, Lucille Salerno observed. "It's because of this that people could subsequently notate his music and experience his unique rhythm that was packaged into it." As the phonograph was not yet a household item, and commercial radio broadcasting had yet to take off, this was the 1900s equivalent of a recording deal. However, his playing style was so technical the machine used to create the player piano rolls could not keep up. Due to its complex and chaotic composure, his signature sound, "The Marshfield Tornado," was never recorded.
After 47 tours, 7,000 concerts, burning through 16 pianos, and the death of his friend and manager, John Lange, Boone retired from performing in 1927. His health gradually declined and on his way to a springs resort in Arkansas, he stopped in Warrensburg to visit his brother. While there, he suffered a heart attack and died on October 4, 1927 at the age of 63. His home in Columbia and $132.65 in a Columbia bank, comprised his entire estate.
The nationally known and beloved virtuoso was buried without a marker in the African American section of a Columbia cemetery. Finally, in 1971, a headstone was erected on Boone's grave and in 2000 the Blind Boone Park Renovation Groups in Warrensburg formed and fully restored the park and also erected a statue by noted sculptor, Ai Qiu Hopen. As a tribute to him, the park installed exhibits about Boone's life, which were made completely accessible for those with vision impairments.