Tag Archives: wheelchair

Shakin’ All Over, number 5: Kata Kolbert, ‘Live your life’

SAO cover lo res… a bright girl with multi-coloured hair extensions called Kata Kolbert tried to break through [in the 1980s pop scene in Britain]. Her debut single ‘Live your life’ on her own Nevermore label had cool song-writing and soft vocals that invited comparison with Nico and Kate Bush. The only drawback was that, restricted to a wheelchair with severe arthritis, Kolbert was unable to promote it in the acceptable way. Her wheelchair was not sexy. While trucking her demo tape around record companies, she was met with both uncomfortable comments and blank rejection. ‘I couldn’t be a singer in a wheelchair in my own terms’, she said. ‘They wanted me to be a brave struggling cripple in a nice long dress.’ — Lucy O’Brien, She-Bop II


… So, some other versions of the real in disability pop, it seems, we do not desire—and in particular we do not want female pop singers in wheelchairs. Never heard of Kata Kolbert, or ‘Live your life’? Precisely. In her relative obscurity and pop failure, despite what O’Brien sees as her high promise, Kata Kolbert stands, sits as a symbol of the enduring masculinist imperative of the pop industry and media, the gatekeepers of which help a few disabled men up the steps to the golden stage, but try to keep the women off, or in the wings or the shadows, or (like 1930s singer Connie Boswell, who remains the one extraordinary exception) with their physical disability veiled. The press release for that 1987 single, ‘Live your life’, situates Kolbert’s story within the pop industry, in an awkward mixture of accusatory and plaintive:

  • Kata Kolbert has her first single out now. This is it…. She is wheelchair bound with arthritis, and was turned down by all the major record companies because of this, DESPITE her opera trained voice. She formed Nevermore to put out her own records….
  • Kata cannot play live more than once a month. It’s taken her eight years to get this far. She does not have the money for a concerted publicity campaign. All she asks is for a chance to be heard.
  • Is that too much to ask?

Kata Kolbert, 1987 single cover, 'Live your life'If the feminist English novelist Virginia Woolf—still writing on one side of the Atlantic when Boswell was beginning to sing solo on the other—could declare in the early twentieth century that she could not tell ‘the truth about my own experiences as a body’ (followed by a universalising addendum: ‘I doubt that any woman has solved it yet’), it is the case in popular music even in the early twenty-first century that we still can only tell (some of) the truth about men’s disabled bodies. How surprised should we be at such exclusions and silences? Even (even?) academics cannot hide their distaste for or discomfort with certain corporeal categories, as the cripping of, for instance, theoretical lacunae lays bare. Disability scholars have argued that ‘recent body theory has never confronted the disabled body…. [D]isability is as much a nightmare for the discourse of theory as for ableist society’, argues Tobin Siebers. Susan Wendell agrees: ‘In most postmodern cultural theorizing about the body, there is no recognition of—and, as far as I can see, no room for recognizing—the hard physical realities that are faced by people with disabilities’. Kolbert may not have made it on to the leading British charts television programme of her times, Top of the Pops—though, as the earlier experience of singer Robert Wyatt illustrates [read the book!], that could be a mixed achievement for a wheelchair user. Let alone a girl—but surely she is due more than the odd melancholy paragraph in popular music studies such as O’Brien’s or mine, a shade in a skirt in a chair to confirm the gender and disability limits of the industry….

[Note: I think Kata Kolbert is today writer, poet, performer Penny Pepper, who also blogs at Penny Pepper: writer, activist, disabled, passionate. I’ve written to her for confirmation, but will remove this if I’m wrong! I haven’t been able to locate a version of ‘Live your life’ online yet.]

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Shakin’ All Over, number 6: Teddy Pendergrass, ‘Reach out and touch (somebody’s hand)’

If he sang from a wheelchair, it wouldn’t be the same…. Who’s going to be the next Teddy Pendergrass?—Music journalist Dennis Hunt, 1982

Now what about this for a comeback gig, your first public vocal performance since a serious car accident put you in a wheelchair, with paraplegia, three years earlier: Live Aid, 1985. Still, at least it was your home town crowd (of 90,000, in Philadelphia; plus the watching global multi-millions on television). That was a big thing to do. It still blows my mind when I think of it, the sheer bravado. And that combined with so almost being overwhelmed by the emotion of it when you roll on stage … a fantastically powerful and moving performance by Teddy Pendergrass.

Pendergrass remembers how his ‘spirit collapsed’ on reading those words: ‘If I sang from a wheelchair, it “wouldn’t be the same”. What the hell did that mean? I was stunned, enraged, hurt, devastated. To say this added insult to injury—literally—doesn’t even start to describe how diminished, worthless, and inhuman those words made me feel’. Pendergrass was able to draw some strength in transition from other disabled black male musicians, including Johnnie Wilder of 1970s disco band Heatwave, himself a man with quadriplegia following a 1979 car accident. It was important for Pendergrass to see that, ‘[d]espite what had happened to him,… Johnnie had continued to write and record his music’, not least because there were those in the music press doubting precisely that Pendergrass would himself be capable of carrying on.  In due course Stevie Wonder suggested to Pendergrass the title of a new album, but more, too: ‘I also found talking to Stevie inspiring in a way I didn’t appreciate as much before my accident. In addition to everything else we had in common, there was now a disability. Only he, Johnnie Wilder, and a few other people could understand the challenge of appearing and sounding confident when in fact you feel vulnerable, even helpless’….

It was really an astonishingly brave return to live singing, as he said in a later television interview, the big smile on his face an acknowledgement of the retrospective realisation of the size of the challenge he had set himself: ‘in front of ninety thousand people, and millions of people around the world, I decided to find out what was going to happen’, that is, what sort of reaction he would now elicit from a live audience, and even whether he could actually sing again professionally. He was anxious about the audience perception of the before-and-afterness of it all, and about the vocal and physical performance: ‘Would an audience hear and see me, Teddy Pendergrass the singer, or would they see that poor disabled guy who used to be Teddy Pendergrass? I played out every imaginable scenario, from my being unable to control my chair to missing notes’….

The Live Aid film of Pendergrass’s single song that momentous day (above. Watch it), the 1970 Diana Ross hit ballad ‘Reach out and touch (somebody’s hand)’, with the song’s writers Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, is rather moving, because Pendergrass himself is clearly so very moved to be onstage in front of an audience. In fact, after his reception by the crowd as he has carefully manoeuvred himself in his powered wheelchair to his mark on the stage, he quietly cries centre-stage before he begins to sing. The film footage shows an aerial shot of the massive stadium crowd, and then focuses one of the large stadium screens in close-up on Pendergrass’s face as he wipes away the tears and the crowd erupts. The band vamps for a short while as Pendergrass composes himself. When he says to the audience, ‘I want you to know I feel your love’, it sounds not like a crowd-pleasing showbiz statement but a heartfelt recognition of support and validation: pop helping its own. The first note he sings is a little flat, and elicits a grimace from Pendergrass, but he soon tunes in. The choice of song resonated doubly: it was ‘the right message for the event, and the right message for me’.


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