'In some situations I feel inferior—onstage I'm in control'

When the legendary developer of Elvis Presley, Sam Phillips, heard her sing, he just shook his head. "That's the female voice I searched 17 years for and never found," he said. The voice in question belongs to an astonishing newcomer, a 26-year-old woman named Terri Gibbs, blind since birth. Within weeks of its release last August, Terri's unheralded first single, Somebody's Knockin', had landed in country's Top 10 and was on its way to the pop Top 20. It all happened so quickly that Terri had to rush back to Nashville to cut more tracks so MCA Records could crash out a Somebody's Knockin' LP. "I knew I might have something to offer," says Terri modestly, "but I'm still in shock. It's like magic."

The key to her unexpected good fortune was a long-forgotten five-year-old demo tape that producer Ed Penney heard by chance more than two years ago. "Her voice just jumped out at me," he recalls. "Since there was no address, I thought it must be a star I didn't know about. I couldn't conceive of her sitting somewhere undiscovered." Or, for that matter, singing in bars and nightclubs around Augusta, Ga.—the hometown where Terri had worked for eight years. When Penney, now her manager, finally tracked her down, she was living in a two-bedroom trailer next door to her parents' house. Her simple world revolved around a few childhood friends, a flock of chickens, soap operas and music. She was more than receptive to making a change. "Augusta's a great place," she explains, "but I always figured there ought to be more to a music career than that. Now my dream has come true."

The daughter of an appliance installation supervisor and his wife, Terri grew up on her paternal grandparents' dairy farm with two younger brothers, both sighted. Two uncles sang in a gospel quartet, her grandmother was a church organist, and her own musical aptitude became apparent when she was only a toddler. Later she took piano lessons, but quit, she says, "because I was too impatient to read the Braille. I just wanted to play the music."

Unlike country crooner Ronnie Milsap, she chose not to go to a special school for the blind, and attended public schools in Augusta. Though she put up with some teasing at first, and had a limited social life later on, she received a standing ovation at her high school graduation. "I considered it a real special achievement," she recalls. "By going to the public school and growing up with sighted children, I felt like I was one of them. Plus I think I had to show people I could do a lot of things they didn't think a blind person could do."

Though her caressing contralto suggests a certain depth of romantic experience, Terri admits she's been singing vicariously. "I've never been deeply involved with anybody," she says. "It'd be nice to have a boyfriend, but I don't want anybody to tie me down now." "She used to wonder if she would get asked out more if she could just see," remembers an old school friend, "but after graduation it didn't seem to bother her so much anymore." Certainly her sightlessness is no obstacle to her singing. "In some situations I feel inferior," she concedes, "but when I'm out onstage I feel like I'm really communicating—that I'm in control."

Currently, Terri is considering moving to Nashville, but manager Penney is taking care not to push her too fast. "I've turned down many bookings, and a lot of people are critical of that," he says, "but I want her to be ready. She has the opportunity to accomplish what she's wanted to ever since she was a little girl, and there's no reason she can't—unless she becomes frightened by the whole thing." What does Terri think? "I can't picture myself a big star because I'm such a simple person," she says. "It's all a bit scary, yet I have this need to experience things. I'm ready now to go with it."