Speech-Language Pathology/Stuttering/Famous People Who Stutter/Singers and Actors

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Stuttering is a difficult and demoralizing disability, but with persistence many stutterers overcome the disorder and go on to successful lives.

Singers and Actors

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Some stutterers are afraid to open their mouths. But other stutterers earn their living with their voices.

Carly Simon, Singer-Songwriter

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Carly Simon (1943- ) began stuttering severely when she was eight years old. She blames her stuttering on her then 44-year-old mother's affair with their 20-year-old live-in tennis instructor. The affair caused jealousy, anger, "lies and a train of deception" in the Simon's affluent household.

A psychiatrist tried unsuccessfully to cure Simon's stuttering. Instead, Simon turned to singing and songwriting. "I felt so strangulated talking that I did the natural thing, which is to write songs, because I could sing without stammering, as all stammerers can."[1]

Simon wrote some of the most-loved songs of the 1970s, including "Anticipation" and "You're So Vain." She won an Oscar and a Grammy. She was married to James Taylor for nine years. They have two children.

Mel Tillis, Country Music Entertainer

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As a child, Mel Tillis (1932- ), was laughed at because he stuttered.[2] He said to himself, "Well, if they're gonna laugh at me, then I'll give them something to laugh about."

In 1957 he began working as a singer for Minnie Pearl, Nashville's great country comedian. Pearl encouraged Tillis to talk on stage, but he refused, afraid that he'd be laughed at.

Pearl replied, "Let 'em laugh. Goodness gracious, laughs are hard to get and I'm sure that they're laughing with you and not against you, Melvin."

Little by little, Tillis increased his speaking on-stage. He developed humorous routines about his stuttering. Then "word began to circulate around Nashville about this young singer from Florida who could write songs and sing, but stuttered like hell when he tried to talk. The next thing I knew I was being asked to be on every major television show in America." Tillis' career took off.

But before Nashville and fame and fortune, Tillis was looking for a job in Florida. No one hired him. At the last place he applied, the owner said that he had once stuttered. He wouldn't hire Tillis, but gave him a piece of paper to read every night, saying that it had changed his life.

On the paper was a prayer:

Oh Lord, Grant me the Courage to change the things I can change, the Serenity to accept those I cannot change, and the Wisdom to know the difference. And God, Grant me the Courage to not give up on what I think is right, even though I think it is hopeless.

Tillis concludes his story,

For the first time in a long time, I slept well that night. I woke the next morning with a different outlook on life. I told myself that if I couldn't quit stuttering, then the world was going to have to take me like I was. What you see is what you get. From that day on, things started looking up for Mel Tillis. Soon after, I headed for Nashville in a '49 Mercury with a wife and a four-month-old baby girl—her name was Pam.

In 1976, Tillis was named Country Music Entertainer of the Year.

More Singers and Musicians

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Other stutterers with successful singing careers include Metropolitan Opera singer Robert Merrill (1917-2004), jazz vocalist "Scatman" John Larkin (1942-1999) and pop singer Gareth Gates.

In 1965, Roger Daltry (1944- ) of The Who used stuttering in the song "My Generation": "The stutter was introduced because the 'My Generation' character was supposed to be a mod blocked on pills —and amphetamine abusers stammered like mad."[3]

Also in 1965, stutterer Ian Whitcomb recorded the hit "You Turn Me On." According to radio host Dr. Demento, "Whitcomb stutters quite a bit in conversation, but very rarely when he's on mike." Whitcomb had a popular public radio show in Los Angeles for many years.[4]

In 1975, stutterer Gary Bachman was managing his brother Randy's band, Bachman-Turner Overdrive. The song "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" was written as an inside joke, about Gary's stuttering. The band didn't intend it to be heard by anyone else. But a record label executive heard the song and insisted on releasing it. The song went to #1 on the Billboard charts.[5]

James Earl Jones, Actor

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James Earl Jones (1931- ), the most in-demand voice in Hollywood, is a stutterer.

Jones was "virtually mute" as a child.[6] With the help of his high school English teacher, Jones overcame stuttering by reading Shakespeare "aloud in the fields to myself," and then reading to audiences, and then acting.

Jones is proudest of his role as Shakespeare's Othello, but is best-known as the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars. He portrayed a stutterer in the movie A Family Thing (1995).

More Actors

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Other stutterers who found fluency in acting include Bruce Willis (1955- ), who said of his childhood, "I had a horrible stutter…I couldn't talk"[7]; Peggy Lipton (1947- ), who starred in the television series The Mod Squad and Twin Peaks[8]; and Nicholas Brendon (1971- ), who played Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.[9]

Sculptor and theater director Robert Wilson (1941- ) overcame stuttering at 17 with the help of his dance teacher.[10] Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) used a breathy way of speaking to avoid stuttering.

Peter Bonerz (1938- ), who played Jerry the dentist on The Bob Newhart Show, and directed Friends, Murphy Brown, and Home Improvement, said about his stuttering:[11]

I'm 58 years old, and if I stutter while giving Candice Bergen a direction, who cares? If (the stuttering) is really difficult, I exaggerate it and get everyone on the set to laugh with me. A stutter can really be quite charming. We are human and not perfect.

Gracie Allen "was looking for [vaudeville performer] Billy Lorraine who was a terrible stammerer. He was shy about his stammering. Gracie approached him and asked him if he was Billy Lorraine. Billy said he wasn't and pointed at George Burns. George Burns pretended he was Billy Lorraine for a while."[12] Thus the most famous couple of comedy met.

In her autobiography, Marion Davies (1897-1961) wrote, "Mother decided that I was kind of a problem. Because I stuttered, no school wanted me. When I'd get up to recite, all the kids would laugh at me. So my mother decided to put me in a convent."[13]

But then, "Fifty-two-year-old publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst was smitten the first time he saw eighteen-year-old Marion Davies in a chorus line. A year later, when she was given one speaking line in Ziegfeld's Follies, she botched it. Hearst, determined to make her a star, provided coaches to work day and night on her stammer. She improved, and starred in a number of films."[14]

The story of Hearst and Davies became the basis of Orson Welles' classic movie, Citizen Kane. But Welles changed Davies' stuttering into an inability to sing opera!

  1. ^ Brenner, Marie. "I Never Sang For My Mother." Vanity Fair, 58, August 1995, p.128.
  2. ^ Nefsky, Art. Letter from Mel Tillis, Sept. 30, 1997, http://www.nefsky.com/tillis.htm
  3. ^ Marsh, Dave. Before I Get Old (St. Martin's Press, 1983).
  4. ^ Hansen, Barry. Personal correspondence, 1999.
  5. ^ Morthland, John. "Guitar Rock 1974-1975." Time/Life Music, 1993.
  6. ^ Jones, James Earl. Voice and Silences, 1993.
  7. ^ Willis, Bruce. 20/20, October 13, 1999; # ^ Kaylin, L. "Big Bad Bruce." Gentleman's Quarterly, v66, n6, June 1996, p.159.
  8. ^ Hutchings, D. "Can You Dig It? The Mod Squad's Peggy Lipton, One Marriage and 15 Years Later, Returns To Acting." People Weekly, 29:13, April 4, 1988; Carlson, T. "Peaks pique viewers interest; Series is Lipton's cup of tea." TV Guide, 38:16, p.41, April 27, 1990.
  9. ^ Stuttering Foundation Of America newsletter, Summer 2002.
  10. ^ Wilson, Robert. ArtNews, December 1996, p.98.
  11. ^ Drew, Polly. "A Stutter Won't Stop You," Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal, July 27, 1997, p.4L.
  12. ^ Gottfried, Martin. George Burns: And the Hundred Year Dash.
  13. ^ The New Yorker, March 23, 1998, p. 70.
  14. ^ Wallichenski, David. Book of Lists (Boston: Little, Brown, 1995)