Guitar lovers usually get all excited about their favorite player, and often spend lots of time trying to convince their friends that their idol is a “great” musician. But what makes a musician “great?” Surely there are a lot of wonderful players out there with skills far beyond what most players will ever reach. And while these “guitar heroes” may be really good at what they do, are they all great musicians? Greatness suggests something done so well that it is groundbreaking and awe-inspiring, something that may never be repeated by anyone else.
The adopted son of a firefighter, Jeff Healey was born in Toronto in 1966. At the age of one he lost both of his eyes to a rare form of cancer known as retinoblastoma. His adoptive parents encouraged and supported his discovery of early American music. When he was three years old he started to play a guitar laying flat on the floor. At that age, the instrument was obviously too big for him to strap around his neck and play in the conventional way, so he played it flat on his lap, like a Dobro or lap steel guitar but using his fingers to fret the notes. A few years later, at a school for the blind, he was taught the usual way of playing but he still preferred playing his own way. Playing his Fender Stratocaster on his lap, he made longer stretches along the fretboard , giving him a wider range of notes in any one position. He could also play more powerful bends and very distinctive vibratos.
By the time he was a teen he had played in a few of the local blues-rock bands, including a band he founded at 17 called Blues Direction. They played covers of his favorite blues heroes: John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton. As a regular performer at jam sessions in Toronto bars, Jeff’s talents came to the attention of legendary bluesman Albert Collins, who invited Healey to share the stage with him one night. That connection soon led Healey, still a teenager, to share the stage with two other blues giants – B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
During this time he met drummer Tom Stephen and bassist Joe Rockman. He recruited them to form The Jeff Healey Band. This new band was so popular with both the crowds and the critics that they were playing nightly at the big name clubs in the busy Toronto Music scene, and in 1987 they were signed to Arista Records.
The band’s demo was given to American music producer Jimmy Iovine, who had produced albums by U2, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Dire Straits. Not only did Iovine co-produce their first album, he landed the band a role in the Patrick Swayze film Road House, playing the part of the “Double Deuce” house band. Their performances clearly showcased Healey’s unique talents and they had the bar band sound down good enough to also provide songs for the film’s soundtrack, which included a amped-up version of the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues.”
In 1988 the band released their first album See The Light. It was a big hit at the time with the band scoring the only top forty song of their career. The John Hiatt co-written “Angel Eyes” reached number five on the Billboard charts and the album received a Grammy nomination. Jeff Healey was now an artist to be reckoned with. For his followup album, Hell To Pay (1990), he was treated to guest performances by Mark Knopfler on “I Think I Love You Too Much” and George Harrison and his Wilbury brother Jeff Lynne on a cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Also appearing on the album were keyboardist Paul Shearer (yeah, that one) and Bobby Whitlock, from Derek and the Dominoes, on the Hammond B3 organ.
Touring steadily the band released one more album, Feel This in 1992. The album captured more of their live bar band personality but only sold 100,000 copies. That was enough for a gold record in Canada but earned the band a contract dismissal in the U.S.
Healey took a surprising turn mid career. Although becoming a well-known and widely respected guitarist, singer, songwriter who had sold millions of blues-rock albums, Jeff Healey had a wider interest in music to showcase. His enormous music collection included more than 30,000 78-rpm records. He drew from these archives for his own radio show called “My Kind of Jazz.” He’d actually been a radio host almost from high school onward. Modeling himself on his all time musical hero Louis Armstrong, and putting all the music theory he’d picked up on his own to good use, Healey learned to play trumpet and recorded two albums of traditional pre-war jazz: Among Friends and Adventures in Jazzland. Both albums featured Healey on guitar, trumpet and valve trombone and were released independently to modest sales.
He would undertake short tours of Europe a couple times a year but preferred to stay close to home most of the year and raise his family. He opened a club in Toronto called Healeys which featured international and local acts. When not touring he appeared there regularly with his new backing band the Jazz Wizards. Once a week he also hosted informal jams with special guests that favored the blues-rock covers that made him famous.
Jeff Healey died on March 2, 2008 at the age of 41. The cancer that took his eyes as a child had returned. He had made a total of ten albums of blues-rock and jazz that make it hard to believe the same artist created them all. Who else can play 1920′s and 30′s jazz on trumpet and ZZ Top blues-rock on guitar and do so with a unique style and voice?
When it came to guitar, Jeff Healey played the instrument all wrong and yet he was almost certainly a virtuoso player. Some people may have regarded his disability and unique style of playing as a gimmick. But he was no more of a novelty act than other great artists like Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder; whose loss of a single sense was more than made up for with a gift for music. The main lesson to take from Healey’s life and music is that there are very few physical barriers to continue learning and enjoying playing guitar.