Jeff Healey (March 25, 1966 – March 2, 2008)
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Norman Jeffrey “Jeff” Healey was a blind Canadian jazz and blues-rock vocalist and guitarist who attained musical and personal popularity, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.
Born in Toronto, Ontario, Healey was raised in the city’s west end. He was adopted as an infant; his adoptive father was a firefighter. When he was eight months old, Healey lost his sight to retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the eyes. His eyes had to be surgically removed, and he was given artificial replacements.
Early career and success
Healey began playing guitar when he was three, developing his unique style of playing the instrument flat on his lap. When he was 17, he formed the band Blue Direction, a four-piece band which primarily played bar-band cover tunes. Among the other musicians were bassist Jeremy Littler, drummer Graydon Chapman, and a schoolmate, Rob Quail on second guitar. This band played various local clubs in Toronto, including the Colonial Tavern.
Healey began hosting a jazz and blues show on radio station CIUT-FM where he became known for playing from his massive collection of vintage 78 rpm gramophone records.
Shortly thereafter he was introduced to two musicians, bassist Joe Rockman and drummer Tom Stephen, with whom he formed a trio, “The Jeff Healey Band”. This band made their first public appearance at the Birds Nest, located upstairs at Chicago’s Diner on Queen Street West in Toronto. They received a write-up in Toronto’s NOW magazine, and soon were playing almost nightly in local clubs, such as Grossman’s Tavern and the famed blues club Albert’s Hall (where Jeff Healey was discovered by guitarists Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert Collins).
After being signed to Arista Records in 1988, the band released the album See the Light, featuring the hit single “Angel Eyes” and the song “Hideaway”, which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. While the band was recording See the Light, they were also filming (and recording for the soundtrack of) the Patrick Swayze film Road House. Healey had numerous acting scenes in the movie with Swayze, as his band was the house cover band for the bar featured in the movie. In 1990, the band won the Juno Award for Canadian Entertainer of the Year. The albums Hell to Pay and Feel This gave Healey 10 charting singles in Canada between 1990 and 1994, including a cover of The Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps which featured George Harrison and Jeff Lynne on backing vocals and acoustic guitar.
Later work and life
By the release of the 2000 album Get Me Some, Healey began to concentrate his talent in another direction closer to his heart, which was the appreciation for another original American music form, jazz.
He went on to release three CDs of music of traditional American jazz from the 1920s and 1930s. He had been sitting in with these types of bands around Toronto since the beginning of his music career. Though known primarily as a guitarist, Healey also played trumpet during live performances.
Healey was an avid record collector and amassed a collection of well over 30,000 78 rpm records. He had, from time to time, hosted a CBC Radio program entitled My Kind of Jazz, in which he played records from his vast vintage jazz collection. He hosted a program with a similar name on Toronto jazz station CJRT-FM; as of 2010, the latter program continues to air in repeats.
He had also been touring with his other group, The Jazz Wizards, playing American hot jazz. (At the time of his death, they had been planning to perform a series of shows in the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands in April 2008.)
For many years, Healey performed at his club, “Healey’s” on Bathurst Street in Toronto, where he played with “The Healey’s House Band” on Thursday nights and with his jazz group on Saturday afternoons. The club moved to a bigger location at 56 Blue Jays Way and was rechristened “Jeff Healey’s Roadhouse.” Though he had lent his name to the club and often played there, Jeff Healey did not own or manage the bar. (The name came from the 1989 film, Road House, in which Healey appeared.)
Over the years, Healey toured and sat-in with many legendary performers, including Dire Straits, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, ZZ Top, Steve Lukather, Eric Clapton and many more. In 2006, Healey appeared on Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan’s CD/DVD Gillan’s Inn.
Healey discovered and helped develop the careers of other musical artists, including Terra Hazelton and Amanda Marshall.
In early 2009, Healey’s album Mess of Blues won in The 8th Annual Independent Music Awards for Best Blues Album.
Illness and death
On January 11, 2007, Healey underwent surgery to remove metastatic tissue from both lungs. In the previous eighteen months, he had two sarcomas removed from his legs.
On March 2, 2008, Healey died of cancer at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in his home town of Toronto. His death came a month before the release of Mess of Blues, which was his first rock/blues album in eight years.
Healey is survived by his wife, Cristie, and two children. A tribute concert was held on May 3, 2008, to benefit Daisy’s Eye Cancer Fund, which, according to Cristie Healey, had helped make major strides in research and future advances for people born with the same genetically inherited retinoblastoma which had plagued her husband since he was one year of age. Cristie and Jeff Healey’s son was also born with the same disability.
In 2009, he was inducted into the Terry Fox Hall of Fame.
Jeff Healey/Jeff Healey Band
- 1986: Adrianna/See the Light (Private Press)
- 1988: See the Light (Arista)
- 1989: Road House Soundtrack
- 1990: Hell to Pay (Arista)
- 1992: Feel This (Arista)
- 1995: Cover to Cover (Arista)
- 2000: Get Me Some (Eagle)
- 2002: Among Friends
- 2003: Live at Healey’s (Bolder)
- 2004: Adventures in Jazzland (Healeyophonic)
- 2005: The Jeff Healey Band Live at Montreux 1999 (Eagle)
- 2006: It’s Tight Like That (Stony Plain)
- 2008: Mess of Blues
- 2009: Songs From The Road (Stony Plain)
- 2010: Last Call (Stony Plain Records)
- 2011: Live At Grossman’s 1994 (Eagle Rock North/Convexe)
- 1998 The Very Best of Jeff Healey (RCA)
- 1998 The Very Best of Jeff Healey (MSI Music Distribution)
- 1999 Master Hits (Arista)
- 2004 The Platinum and Gold Collection (Arista)
- 2008 Super Hits (Sony)
- 2009 Legacy, Volume 1 (Arbor)
- 2002 While My Guitar Gently Weeps
- 2004 What’s Love? A Tribute to Tina Turner (Versailles)
- 2006 Ruf Records Anthology: 12 Years of Where Blues Crosses Over (Ruf Records)
- 2006 Saturday Night Blues: 20 Years (CBC)