A blues singer with ‘gift of blindness’
Originally published: October 13, 2011 5:21 PM
Updated: October 14, 2011 7:20 PM
By JIM MERRITT Special to Newsday
Vinny St. Marten, of Glen Cove, performs at Cedar Creek restaurant. He says blindness has helped him focus on being a musician. (Oct. 4, 2011) Photo credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz
Vinny St. Marten traces his beginnings as a blues artist to a burst of light while growing up in Glen Cove, and to being blind.
He lost his eyesight when he was 7 or 8, he says. “After that, I couldn’t visualize anything in my head until one night, I was lying on my cot by an open window and listening to the crickets, and all of a sudden I saw this green and white flash.”
At first scared by the colorful vision, he eventually began to associate colors with sounds. Church bells, for instance, create a Fourth of July explosion of purple and orange in his mind.
Now 66, he still imagines those colors while performing before audiences, from Glen Cove to the East End. “When I sit behind the drums and sing, it’s like flying,” he says, “like being a bird and being free.” Some might call him a Long Island find.
Thrice married and divorced, St. Marten has five children and three grandchildren. His life has been a roller-coaster ride of eye surgeries, worldwide travel and a midlife revelation that he could emerge as an original artist. Life would be impossible, he says, without “the gift of music and blindness.”
It’s a philosophy that might surprise those who perceive blindness as a disability. “Most people I’ve met assume that being blind is horrible,” he explains, but to him, it has become a blessing. “Being blind is probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” St. Marten says.
He was born Vincent Basile (a name he still uses among friends), but likes the sound of St. Marten — his American version of an Italian middle name. The youngest of 16 children, he was raised in The Orchard, a largely Italian neighborhood in Glen Cove. He had glaucoma and cataracts in both eyes; one eye was removed at age 5 because of an infection from a cataract operation. The other clouded over with a cataract, slowly leaving him blind. When he was 12, he was featured in two Newsday stories. The headline on the first article read, “Blind Boy Awaits Phone Call That Could Bring Back Sight.” A photo shows St. Marten with his dog, Bootsie. His family didn’t have a car then, and the story was about the local fire departments that were rallying to make sure he would be taken to the hospital within the critical two-hour window if a cornea transplant became available.
He was featured, again in 1956, when he received a cornea transplant in his left eye. “Firemen Rush Boy to City in Fight to Restore Sight” told of the race to get him to the hospital.
The two-hour operation failed, but St. Marten said it wound up being a relief to him. “I’d rather be blind totally and know it was over and get to my music,” he remembers thinking at the time.
The next year, when he was 13, he began performing as the lead vocalist in local bands, giving them names that played off his vision problem, like “Vinny and the Venetian Blinds.”
St. Marten was 11 when he first heard legendary blues singer Ray Charles. “I knew he was different than any other black singer and when I found out he was blind, that gave me the encouragement I needed to follow my musical dream,” he says.
Despite his challenges of getting around (he uses guide dogs), St. Marten’s friends say he rarely wavers from his eternal optimism.
“He is for real,” says Elysa Sunshine, 61, of Glen Cove. A friend since 1973, she sometimes plays keyboard and bass guitar as part of St. Marten’s Seeing Eye Dog Band. Together, they toured Russia in 2007 and 2009, performing St. Marten’s personal tribute to Ray Charles.
He and Sunshine collaborated on an original soft rap song, “Think About It.” She wrote the music; he penned the lyrics. St. Marten performs the autobiographical piece in a YouTube video (bit.ly/oi9SUA). He calls it a true story about “a young white blind boy who was being raised a racist.”
The video, which includes the voice and images of Martin Luther King Jr. and shots of St. Marten hanging out with a multicultural group of Glen Cove kids, tells about how an African-American boy named Roy was assigned to help St. Marten from class to class in the eighth and ninth grades. They become friends, and when Roy drops by to see St. Marten at a local lunch counter, Roy is asked to leave because he is black. St. Marten leaves with him and vows never to return.
The video has received more than 9,000 hits on YouTube. St. Marten is hoping Roy will see it and give him a call. “I haven’t seen Roy since high school,” St. Marten says.
The past 15 years have brought changes to the way he approaches his music. Although St. Marten says he has been influenced by Ray Charles and performs songs recorded by the blues giant, he wants to be appreciated for his own talent as a singer and drummer.
After decades of trying to imitate other singers, he says he really began to develop his own style when he turned 50. “Anybody can go out and emulate Billy Joel, then eventually they’ve gotta find themselves,” he says.
His originality was demonstrated on a recent evening at the Cedar Creek restaurant in Glen Cove, where St. Marten performs on Tuesdays. His two sets included the Beatles hit “Something,” the Eagles’ “Desperado” and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” a Righteous Brothers standard.
He’s at ease with the audience and likes to mingle. Sunshine says that St. Marten is very aware that some might be intimidated by his disability. “He’s very social, very gregarious,” she says. “He puts people at ease.”
That night, St. Marten drops by a table of four. “I’m going to sing Happy Birthday — the Ray Charles version,” he tells Steve Dallahan, 58, of Sunnyside, Queens, who is celebrating his birthday with three friends.
With his arm on Dallahan’s shoulder, St. Marten belts a bluesy version of Happy Birthday, ending in a sustained note that would make Barbra Streisand jealous.
“I think he’s an incredible blues singer,” Dallahan says.
A performance can seem like a family gathering, with St. Marten hugging friends, pinching cheeks and generally working the room. “He’s so cool,” says Colleen Ross, 58 of Massapequa Park, a friend of St. Marten since 1985, who has come to see him perform.
Besides Cedar Creek, St. Marten takes his show to Harbor Mist in Cold Spring Harbor, Page One in Glen Cove, and recently started performing at Mill Creek Tavern in Bayville.
He sees himself as a kind of musical ambassador to the sighted. St. Marten says, “My job is to make people around me comfortable with a blind guy.”