12 Musicians Who Had Absolutely Tragic Childhoods

...And lived to sing the tale.

By Frank Donovan

Many artists come from difficult backgrounds: physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, freak accidents, illnesses, among other trials and tribulations. We’ve assembled 12 such musicians who rose up from the lowest of lows in their youth to create the music in adulthood that we all know and love. Let’s take a moment to recognize and appreciate their tenacity and openness in addition to their musical talents.

  • Michael Jackson

    It’s no secret by now that MJ’s father Joe Jackson was verbally and physically abusive to his kids. Jackson went into detail on several occasions, including in the famous BBC special with Martin Bashir.

  • Brian Wilson

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    Similarly to MJ, The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson suffered verbal and physical abuse at the hands of his father Murry Wilson. Wilson offers detailed accounts in his autobiography Wouldn’t It Be Nice, not to mention first-hand evidence in the audio of the Help Me Rhonda sessions.

  • 50 Cent

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    When 50 Cent was just 8 years old, his mother was murdered. He was from then on raised by his grandparents.

  • Christina Aguilera

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    Aguilera and her mother were both abused by her father until they managed to leave for a new life in Pennsylvania when Aguilera was 6 years old. Her song “I’m Ok” alludes to the pain he caused.

  • Nicki Minaj

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    Nicki Minaj’s father abused drugs and alcohol and once set their house on fire while her mother was inside.

  • Eric Clapton

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    The first of several traumas in Clapton’s life came when Clapton was 9 years old and learned that the woman he thought was his sister was actually his mother. She had already remarried and had other children, and continued to play a sisterly role in his life.

  • Axl Rose

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    In addition to witnessing abuse of his mom, Axl Rose was sexually abused by his own father at age 2. “I…picked up a lot of distorted views that I’ve had to live my life with,” he told Rolling Stone in 2012.

  • Mary J Blige

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    At age 5, Blige was molested by a family friend. She’s said the trauma followed her all her life and led to alcohol and drug abuse as a teen.

  • Ray Charles

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    Charles had an incredibly traumatic childhood. At age 5 he witnessed his own brother’s death by drowning, and went blind the following year.

  • Ringo Starr

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    Ringo was a sickly child, in and out of the hospital for various afflictions for a cumulative 2 years. After one 6-month stint, he reached down to the floor to show a friend a toy bus he’d gotten for his birthday. He fell from the bed and ripped open all the stitches from surgery, forcing him to remain in the hospital another 6 months. After age 13 he never went back to school.

  • Tom Petty

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    Petty was beaten and verbally abused by his dad who wasn’t exactly understanding of his son’s interest in the arts, and preferred to take him on hunting trips. Petty has said he continues to have nightmares about father.

  • Fiona Apple

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    Read any interview with Apple and you know she’s a tortured soul. She was raped at age 12, which she’s said has contributed to her self-loathing and an eating disorder.