Singer-songwriter lives with losing his sight poised at the brink of stardom

Written by Monica Orosz

Daily Mail staff
Charleston Daily Mail
Thursday, March 31, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Whether you call him Turley Richards or Richard Turley is your choice - he answers to both.Folks who remember the blind musician and his family from South Charleston will go with the latter. Folks who know his history as a singer-songwriter-guitarist signed on with eight record companies during his career know him as the former, a professional name that came about by accident when a fellow musician - who was dyslexic - accidentally switched the names.

The name stuck, though Richards said his mother was none too happy about it, particularly when she was interviewed once and the writer called her "Miss Richards."

"My name is not Miss Richards," she told the writer. "He went off to New York and changed his damn name."It's one of many stories Richards is likely to tell when he performs at South Charleston's LaBelle Theater Saturday night, his first visit back to West Virginia in a while.

The stories, enough to fill a book - which he actually is working on - weave nicely with the topics of his songs.When he was 4, Richards lost sight in one eye during a childhood mishap with a bow and arrow. Infection spread to his other eye, although for years he could see a bit from it.

He lost sight completely in his late 20s."The thing about it, if you're going to go blind, I think I was the luckiest guy in the world because I was in the music business," Richards said by phone from his home in Louisville, Ky. 

"What if I'd been an electrician?" He said because he never saw well, losing sight in the second eye wasn't really a physical blow - he'd already adapted to daily living skills.

"The process for me was mental. I saw myself as a ladies man, a basketball player and a pool shark. When I lost my sight completely, I saw myself as a frail little guy tapping my way around with a cane. It took me 18 months to deal with it. One day, I said to myself, 'You know, man, you don't live on a two-way street. You live on a one-way street and you need to get off this pity pot.' 

"On the bright side, Richards, who turns 70 in June, laughs that the photographic memory he has of himself was from his last album cover before he lost his sight, a photo taken when he was 28.

"I'm 28 and I'm going to stick with it," he said, laughing.Interestingly, Richards notes that of 650 songs he's written in his career, 50 are about mirrors.His last hit was in 1980, "You Might Need Somebody," recorded with Atlantic Records, though Richards was asked later to consider making a country album. He declined."I can't be a country singer. I started out as a jazz singer - I can't be phony," Richards said."This is an awful thing to say, but it's the state of the music business today," Richards said, noting that he particularly dislikes "acrobatic singers" who wind their way through their range for the sake of showing it off.

"I had a five-octave range, but I never did any of that because I grew up in jazz, where you have to have a dynamic flow," he said.These days, Richards stays busy singing once a month at a local pizza place "to keep my chops together" and at private parties. He's also a vocal coach and a songwriting coach.

While he's had opportunities to move back to New York, Richards said he didn't want to move away from his now-grown son and daughter. Daughter Amber will be coming to South Charleston with him to perform a couple of songs Saturday night."She's an incredible singer. She's a cross between Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt," he said.

As for his own repertoire, the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame nominee said he likes to let the audience determine that.

He may include his songs that made the charts - 1970's "Child of Mine," "I Heard the Voice of Jesus," "Love Minus Zero - No Limit" and 1980's "You Might Need Somebody" and perhaps a jazzy cover of Bobby Hebb's "Sunny."

"I think for this one I'm actually going to have the first nine songs worked out," he said. "And I wrote a special song for this, 'It's so Nice to Come Back Home,' because this is my first actual concert in my hometown. And I'll be doing a medley of 'Please Come Home to Boston' with 'Desperado.'"

Richards said he is content with his current schedule and honestly, with his life, which he figures will make a good book - he even envisions a movie deal coming from it.

"I wouldn't trade my life with anybody else. I would like to see, but it's just a hangnail. Two things bother me about being blind. "The second one is that I have to depend on other people to get me from Point A to Point B. But the first one is that I've never seen my kids and I won't be able to see my granddaughter."

He then tells a story of being in a Kroger store with his daughter one day and telling her that he could talk about his regret over not seeing his kids without getting emotional, but if he talked about never having seen his 'babies' he got emotional.

"And she stepped around the cart and put her arms around me and said, 'Our daddy sees us with his heart.' "