Before there was Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, there was Thomas Wiggins, aka Thomas Bethune or Blind Tom. Wiggins entertained large crowds in the 19th century. Born a slave in 1849, he was purchased at two years old, along with his parents, Charity and Mingo Wiggins, by James Neil Bethune, a prominent Georgia lawyer and anti-abolitionist.
Wiggins was blind and autistic but a musical genius with a phenomenal memory. Music fascinated him and he could pick out tunes on the piano and reproduce them by the time he was four. By the age of six Wiggins was improvising on the piano and composing music. He made his concert debut at eight-years-old in Atlanta. Eventually Wiggins could recite any poem and play any piece of music on the piano after hearing it only once.
In 1858, Bethune hired out Wiggins as a musician for $15,000. He published his piano pieces "Oliver Galop" and "Virginia Polka" in 1860. During the Civil War, Wiggins and Bethune raised funds for Confederate relief. By 1865, 16-year-old Tom Wiggins, now "indentured" to James Bethune, played the works of Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, and Thalberg.
Mark Twain called him an 'inspired idiot,' who could 'play two tunes (on the piano) and sing a third at the same time, and let the audience choose the keys he shall perform in.'
By 1868 Wiggins and the Bethune family lived on a Virginia farm in the summer, while touring the United States and Canada the rest of the year. He averaged $50,000 a year in concert revenue.
Although he sustained a career that spanned 50 years and performed for all manner of distinguished critics and adoring crowds, Thomas Greene Wiggins, known to his fans as Blind Tom, is virtually unknown today.