Jeff Healey and Why He Still Matters
By Richard Flohil.
Every year a bunch of Jeff Healey’s family and friends meet at a pub off Toronto’s Yonge Street called The Artful Dodger. It’s a birthday party, if you will — we should have gathered there last week, on March 25, to celebrate what would have been his 55th birthday.
We’re a motley group — several guys who played with Jeff, some fans, a woman who made a documentary on him, his wife (now happily remarried) and son, and his erstwhile publicist.
Dunno why we meet there (pre-pandemic, of course) because if Jeff was artful, he never dodged an opportunity to play, and he rarely had a night when he didn’t knock it right out of the park.
For folk who came too late, Jeff Healey was one of the most innovative blues-rock guitarists ever to come out of Canada; immensely original, he played sitting down, with the guitar flat across his lap. He could shred like a metal head, power-chord his way through blues, play acoustic guitar with a gentle precision, and he understood power rock as well as old jazz songs from the ‘30s. An underestimated and expressive singer, he could sing powerhouse ballads as well as old jazz songs from the ‘30s. He played trumpet in his own old-school traditional jazz band.
And he was blind.
True Story #1
Jeff is 19, and he’s playing at Grossman’s Tavern, a funky Toronto bar which has always welcomed the blues, and always gave a stage to newcomers. With a packed house, he is getting standing ovations as he pours new energy into blues-based power rock
In the audience, one person is unimpressed. The A&R rep from the Canadian branch of a major multi-national record company — the man who’s responsible for discovering and signing new talent. He listens, watches the crowd, and sniffs: “This blues shit is never going to last…” He pauses, and adds:
“Anyway, the kid needs a gimmick.”
When he was still a baby, Jeff’s adoptive parents discovered that he had a rare eye cancer called retinoblastoma. Before it could spread, surgeons removed his eyes, replacing them with prosthetics.
As far as Jeff was concerned, he had always been blind. He never demanded special treatment, and was impatient and even dismissive with well-meaning folk who sympathized with what they saw as his handicap. When he was three, he was given a guitar and he mastered it, accidentally discovering his unique playing style — he initially thought that all guitarists played the instrument across their laps.
What he learned later was that people with retinoblastoma had a 50 per cent chance of acquiring other cancers later in life — and that, in fact, was what happened. He died on March 2, 2008.
True story #2
Jeff Healey’s record collection was legendary. The basement of his suburban Toronto home was packed with some 27,000 — yes, 27 thousand — 78 r.p.m. records, stacked on specially built shelves. Lots of jazz, of course, but mostly dance band music from the 20s, 30s and 40s.
They were not in cardboard sleeves with neat braille labels, but just packed together touching each other — and inevitably battered, scratched and in poor shape.
Despite this, he could find anything instantly. I once asked him if he had anything by an arcane British hotel dance band led by Harry Roy. “Oh yes,” he replied, Leaving his easy chair and walking to the shelves; within seconds he pulled a record out, ran his hands over the grooves, and said. “Here you go — Harry Roy, ’Piccadilly Rag’ — it’s on Parlophone R 3965.”
Astonished, I asked his dad how the heck he did that. Tapping his head, he said: “Oh, you’ve got to remember that Jeff doesn’t have a brain — he’s got a computer in there.”
By the time he was nine, he played his first TV show on a children’s programme; six years later he formed his first band which he named Blue Direction, which played bars all over Toronto. Shortly after, he formed a trio with bassist Joe Rockman and drummer Tom Stephen — the Jeff Healey Band.
On the heels of the band’s first major label album, 1988’s See the Light (which sold 300,000 copies in Canada and was a platinum album in the US) Jeff Healey and the band became an international touring outfit. The top 10 hit single from the album, “Angel Eyes” (written by Nashville songsmiths John Hiatt and Fred Koller) certainly helped, and soon the band was touring Europe and Australia.
True Story #3
Down Under, Jeff found a treasure trove of old jazz and dance band 78s, since there were few avid record collectors there and second hand shops and Salvation Army stores had not been pillaged as they had in Canada and the United States.
Of course, he wanted to play them immediately, so he purchased a second-hand wind-up gramophone. And then racked up major long distance phone bills, calling his friends in Canada to play his new finds for them.
On the road, the Jeff Healey Band played sold-out venues and festivals, and Jeff became a favourite with a who’s-who of musical luminaries, playing with countless artists including Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, ZZ Top, and recording with Ian Gillan of Deep Purple; George Harrison contributed a guitar solo to Jeff’s recording of “When My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
There’s a ton of YouTube videos of Jeff playing with superstars, but among the best is his version of “Little Sister” recorded in Hamilton, Ontario with Stevie Ray Vaughan. If you check it, watch how Jeff suddenly stands up in the middle of his solo and starts to move around the stage. Vaughan doesn’t move an inch — he knew that Jeff ‘s second sense told him he knew exactly the space he could move about in, and would find his seat again when the solo was done.
But as much as Jeff loved playing powerhouse blues rock (even though he came to dislike having to sing “Angel Eyes” every night) he was equally passionate about early American jazz. He made four albums of high energy traditional tunes from the repertoires of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Hoagy Carmichael and others. In addition he released a 3-CD reissue set of every song Armstrong recorded with the Fletcher Henderson band in the ‘20s.
With Armstrong as his model, he played trumpet on these records (as well as on an album he produced for singer Terra Hazleton). And while his horn playing was never as fluid and inventive as his guitar work, his enthusiasm and joy was obvious.
Jeff Healey and Stevie Ray Vaughn, CBC Studio's Toronto, 1987
True Story #4
If I could get personal here, let me tell you that when I was a teenager, one of my favourite bands was led by the trombone player Chris Barber. In 2006, on holiday in the UK, I went to see Barber’s band in a provincial concert hall, almost 50 years after I’d first heard it. After the show, I asked him to autograph the record I had purchased at the merchandise table.
As he signed, he asked where I was from, and he surprised me when he told me he was coming to Canada to play with Jeff’s band, the Jazz Wizards. When I got home I called Jeff and offered to do publicity for the dates with Barber with no charge; he was bringing a childhood hero to Toronto and I wanted to be involved.
Instead, Jeff asked me to promote a date; he had offered Chris his airfare, his hotel for a week, and $500 a date — and had only found two dates.
I quickly put together two shows at Hugh’s Room, a now- vanished acoustic music supper club, made sure that both packed-house performances were recorded, and persuaded my friend Holger Petersen to put out a live album on the Stony Plain label..
The record still sounds pretty damn good, 13 years later.
L to R: Holger Petersen, Richard Flohil, Chris Barber and Jeff Healey
When Jeff died, in March 2008, his closest friends knew that it was coming. In advance, I wrote an obituary and waited. His friend Colin Bray called me in the evening; Jeff had died. I wrote the first paragraph, with the details of his passing, and sent it out to some 3,000 media people.
Then I planned to go for a drink in his honour — but the response, from all over the world, was immediate; getting back to so many people meant that I didn’t get to bed until 2 a.m.
Even today, his friends miss him. He was a fine musician, a good man, and he left his mark.
Jeff Healey still matters; Canada is proud of his work.
And it won’t be forgotten.
This tribute video was created by Mako Funasaka and is used by kind permission.
Richard Flohil is a now semi-retired publicist, writer, concert promoter and editor, based in Toronto.
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