Jeff Healey loses his battle with cancer

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Jeff Healey loses his battle with cancer

Postby scottz » Wed Mar 26, 2008 6:43 pm

If his name isn't familiar to you, Jeff was the ultra cool blind guitar player, who played with the guitar in his lap. Not like a lap steel, but with sort of a piano styled left hand. and he could bend notes along with the best bluesmen in the business. In the movie Road House, Jeff Rocked the double-deuce the day Dalton showed up to bounce the place into shape. I love Jeff Healey and will miss him greatly.
*note - original article can be read at www. richardflohil. com

Jeff Healey 1966-2008

When Jeff Healey died in the early evening of Sunday March 2, many of Toronto’s musical communities lost a unique friend.


A simple word, but one that’s been so overused that we try, these days, to add to it for emphasis: “Specially unique,” “Really unique” or even “Very unique.

Well, Jeff was all of those, too. And the fact is that, here in Toronto, we took him for granted. Oh, we can catch the Jazz Wizards next Saturday afternoon at Healey’s, or what about next Thursday when the blues band is playing at the club? Oh, there’s a hockey game on TV? — We’ll go next Thursday.

And, suddenly, there are no more Thursdays or Saturdays to hear one of the most inventive guitarists in the world, live in our own backyard.

Healey’s energy and his musical curiosity took him in many directions. Apart from the apparent schizophrenia between blues rock and classic jazz (and his leadership of two entirely different bands), he loved old pop songs from the 20’s and 30’s, he got a major kick out of classic country music, and he could roar into Hendrix-like psychedelia with over-the-top bravado and chops to burn.

He sat in with B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Rolling Stones, he recorded with Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan and with blues folk from the late Jimmy Rogers to Walter Trout, and he treasured a letter from George Harrison, who had played on Healey’s recording of My Guitar Gently Weeps.

Jeff’s story is well enough known, but a quick recap is in order. Born in 1966, he lost his sight to a rare form of cancer, retinoblastoma while still a baby. At three, he was learning to play guitar, laying it across his lap. Later attempts to teach him to play in the “normal” way were quickly abandoned.

By the time he was 17 he had a band called Blue Direction, and was something of a regular at Grossman’s and other local clubs. Even then he was a surprisingly inventive guitarist, and there was a music industry buzz. One major record company a&r man was impressed, but was convinced there was no commercial prospect for a hybrid of blues and rock, and that the young guitarist “needed a gimmick” to get attention.

By 1988, with a newly named Jeff Healey Band, he was signed to Arista, and the first album, See the Light, produced a massive hit single (the John Hiatt-Fred Koller song Angel Eyes), earned a Grammy nomination, and sold well over a million copies.

Healey was also featured in the Patrick Swayze film, Road House — and spent the next years on the road throughout North America, Europe, and the UK. Two more Arista CDs followed, but the first major hit was not repeated and the endless touring — and growing dissention in the band — robbed him of much of his enthusiasm for the brand of blue rock on which he had built his reputation.

Jeff Healey certainly had an “old soul” — and his fascination with early American music merely increased. Jazz Wizards bassist Colin Bray remembers a call from Jeff, then in Australia. “He had discovered a treasure trove of 78 rpm records there — there were no other serious collectors, as there were in Canada and Europe — and after scouring second hand stores, picking up some major finds, he acquired a wind-up gramophone, and called me so he could play them for me, long distance.

Jeff’s passion for early American music — including early jazz, blues, and hundreds of now totally forgotten dance bands — resulted in a collection, at his passing, of more than 25,000 78s, all ranged in shelves (without sleeves) in the basement of his house. And, in the manner of a conjurer’s legerdemain, he knew every record he had, and exactly where to find it on the shelves.

With Louis Armstrong as his hero, he learned to play trumpet, and while he certainly never matched his idol (who has?) he became a more than competent player, and sat in with the city’s traditional jazz bands whenever he got the chance. The formation of the Jazz Wizards was the logical step when his blues-rock career began to wind down, and, like Armstrong he wanted the band to be as entertaining as it was musically strong.

That said, he never lost his interest in blues-based rock — while he sometimes tended to put it down (especially in the company of trad jazz purists), he knew what had buttered his bread early in his career — and he relished the opportunity to take the blues band to Europe for frequent tours.

Mind you, he rarely stayed a second longer than he had to. As his publicist, he called me one Friday afternoon from Switzerland. He had a gig on Saturday night he explained; would I call him at home on Sunday evening. “Hey, you’re in Europe:” I said, “aren’t you gonna hang around for a few days?” His response: “Why? I can’t speak the language I don’t like the food, and I can’t look at the scenery.

His blindness was never an issue for him — except when people commiserated with him for his “handicap,” and then he lost his normally sunny disposition. To paraphrase Muddy Waters, “You can’t miss what you ain’t never had,” and he was as self-sufficient as you and I.

He was an excellent typist (he once wrote the sleeve notes for an album on my assistant’s keyboard, and in a 500-word piece made only one minor error), he rarely needed a guide, once he had covered a route once (say, for instance, the distance between the dressing room at Healey’s and the bar, where he would stand during intermission, chatting to people and sipping Coca Cola).

He handled e-mail, during the last year of his life, with the ease of a professional; he continued his well-researched classic jazz radio shows each week on Jazz FM.

When Jeff Healey died on March 2 from the cancer that had reappeared — first with sarcomas in his thigh, then with growths in his lungs — the response was heart-felt.

And the outpouring of grief came — for that musician we loved in Toronto but who so many of us took for granted — from The Times of London and the New York Times and from dozens of jazz magazines, blues websites, and (most importantly) from thousands of individual fans from around the world.

In the first half hour after his website (www. jeffhealey. com) put up a page for messages of condolence, 300 people wrote — more than 3,500 have sent messages since. FaceBook groups looked hundreds more messages, and there were messages from blues giants, the Prime Minister, the Mayor’s Office, and the Ontario Minister of Culture.

Now, to celebrate his music and his life, friends and family are putting on two major concerts in Toronto on May 3 and 4. The first, at the Sound Academy (The Docks, re-branded) will feature a star-studded line-up of the musicians he mentored and played with in the blues and rock fields. The second, Jeff Healey’s Jazz band Ball, is to be held on May 4 at Healey’s, and will include a who’s who of the Toronto classic jazz bands and some visiting American friends.

The money raised will build a trust fund for the education of his three-year-old son, Derek (incidentally, a promising drummer!), and for the Daisy’s Eye Cancer Fund, an organization for which Healey played many benefit performances.

When he heard that Jeff had died, Steve Lukather, the brilliant American rock and jazz guitarist, and a former member of Toto, wrote a brief summary: “I guess every guitarist in the world just moved up a notch.

Richard Flohil knew Jeff for some 18-odd years, and handled his publicity and press for the last four years. His company also handles publicity for Stony Plain Records, which is releasing Jeff Healey's final blues/rock recording - Mess of Blues in early April 2008.


"Jeff’s passing is a tragic loss to the world of blues. His life was cut short. He was courageous throughout his battle with cancer, and his special talent will be greatly missed." — B.B.


“It’s hard to imagine losing such a unique artist who was so young in every way. I am grateful that I got to count him as a friend and fellow bluesman on the occasions that we played together. He will truly be missed.

” —John Mayall

“ I got to know him a bit in the recent past from our work together with Randy Bachman. He not only was a fabulous musician in multiple genres but a great guy. He will be missed by everyone who heard or knew him.

” — Duke Robillard

“It was weird for any guitar player to see how he played. I mean, the first time you saw it, it was unbelievable. There's been players that played upside down and backwards - Jimi Hendrix, Albert King - that's unorthodox enough. And then Jeff made that look trite.

" — Colin James

"He was a wonderful spirit, a stunning guitar player, a soulful singer and a real Canadian treasure. I feel a great sense of loss.

" – Randy Bachman

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Postby Turk » Sat Mar 29, 2008 8:37 am

I remember seeing Jeff in the movie Roadhouse. He was an awesome and very unique musician.

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