John William Boone was born on a federal camp in Miami, Missouri to Rachel Boone Hendricks, a runaway slave, who was owned by descendants of Daniel Boone. Once his mother moved to Warrensburg, Missouri, John was diagnosed with “brain fever” (which was later called cerebral meningitis). The only way his mother could save his life was to have his eyes removed. Baby John lost his sight, but not his intelligence.
His mother would provide him with musical instruments as a toddler, and he began making music at age 3. He imitated birds with a tin whistle and learned music tunes. It was only a matter of time before John Boone would start his own band. Recognizing his talent, the fathers of Warrensburg, Missouri got together and purchased a train ticket for John so he could study at the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis.
A gifted student, Boone wanted desperately to play music on the school’s piano, but they forced him to make brooms. He was taken on as a secret student by one of the older students and would play back music after only hearing it one time. One year, after returning from break, Boone found that the new superintendent banned blacks at the Missouri School for the Blind from playing the piano. So John Boone sought other ways to feed his love of music.
He would sneak out to the nightclubs in the adult part of town called the Tenderloin District. After being continuously absent, the school would finally expel him for his actions. Looking for a way home, a friend and train conductor would allow him to ride the train back in exchange for entertaining passengers on his harmonica. Once he returned, he was playing on the streets again, and came to be managed by swindler Mark Cromwell. Cromwell let Boone play, but refused to pay him the money. He even lost Boone in a gamble, and he was locked in a room for three days until Cromwell stole him back.
During a Christmas performance at church in 1897, John Boone’s life would change. He performed alongside another man named Blind Tom Bethune.
Once Entertainment Hall owner, John Lange Jr., saw Boone play, he signed on as his manager and sent him to college to study music. He then started the J.W. Boone Music Co. They funded the company by asking anyone to challenge Boone with a song – not knowing that he played from memory. The men toured overseas and gave six concerts a week. Now called Blind Boone, John married his manager’s sister and started a family.
When J. Lange passed, Blind Boone performed for charity, giving back to churches. Blind Boone died in 1927 from a heart attack and had one of the largest funerals in the black community of Columbia, Missouri.