About a year ago this past weekend, Canadian guitarist and singer Jeff Healey passed away. He was just 41 years old, and had battled retinablastoma (eye cancer) his entire life. Born on March 25, 1966. in Toronto, Ontario, Norman Jeffrey Healey went blind in both eyes by his first birthday. By age three, he had adapted a way to play guitar on his lap, like a lapsteel or dulcimer, which enabled him to generate both a unique playing style and licks. His musical icons included John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton. By age 14, Healey was performing in coffeehouses and bars hear his high school; he met his future bandmates at an open jam session.
His first band, the Blues Direction, did not last, but the next one would--the Jeff Healey Trio, featuring Joe Rockman on bass and Tom Stephen on drums. They released a single, "Arianna", on their Forte label, and Stephen, acting as band manager for most of the 1980s, sent demos to everyone who was anyone in the Canadian music business. This effort paid off in spades---the band received an expanded touring range, won roles and soundtrack work for a major box office movie, scored major label deals for a debut album as the Jeff Healey Band (JHB), and were invited to tour with Bonnie Raitt, herself on verge of a major career breakthrough with Nick of Time.
JHB's debut album was 1988's See the Light; it featured the single, "Angel Eyes", cowritten by John Hiatt. It was a major pop hit in the States and back home in Canada. The album went platinum and Healey became a legend in Blues rock circles. Their movie debut was the Patrick Swayze film "Roadhouse Blues" (called simply "Road House" in the States) playing the house band at "The Double Deuce", a rough Missouri nightclub. JHB also provided a number of songs for the soundtrack, including the title track, a Doors song. This paved the way for Healey to release two albums dedicated to his pop music heroes of the '60s-'80s: these albums were 1994's Hell to Pay and 1995's Cover to Cover. Hell to Pay featured backing vocals by Mark Knopfler, George Harrison, Paul Shaffer, Jeff Lynne, and Sas Jordan; the latter features covers of tunes by Hendrix, Led Zepplin, Steeler's Wheel, the Beatles, and the Yardbirds. In his lifetime, Healey played alongside Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, BB King, ZZ Top, Steve Lukather, and Eric Clapton. Clearly, regardless of album sales that paled in comparison to the JHB debut, Healey had the respect of his heroes and peers in the music business.
Healey also released a blues album that captured the spirit of JHB's live shows called Feel This in 1992. In 1998, ten years after their initial success, a greatest hits collection was released--The Very Best of the Jeff Healey Band. Healey released one more cover album on his Forte label, Get Me Some, but it went largely unnoticed. Healey turned his attention to jazz as the 90s drew to a close; JHB officially broke up in 2002. He learned to play trumpet and playing more jazz of 1920s and 1930s. His next two album releases were classical jazz--It's Tight Like That (2006), Among Friends (2007), Adventures in Jazzland (2007). All three were released on his label, Healeyophonic. He started a new jazz group, The Jazz Wizards. He continued to tour, occasionally playing blues rock shows in addition to jazz shows. Other non-jazz releases include and Live at Montreaux 1997 and 1999 (2006). During his very busy and prolific career, Healey was continually being treated for cancer. In 2007, growths in his legs and lungs had to be surgically removed. Healey's last album, Mess of Blues, was released in April 2008, but he did not live to see it. Later in the year, SuperHits was released.
Healey is survived by his wife and two children; his website is www.jeffhealey.com. If you're ever in Toronto, there is a bar named in his honor "Jeff Healey's RoadHouse" but it was never owned by him. Last year a number of Canadian and American musicians joined together to perform and remember Healey, but no word on whether this is a yearly tradition. If we hear of it, it will be attached to this blog entry.
Until next week...
kwehle March 2009