I awoke this morning to the distressing news that Jeff Healey had died. He was taken by cancer, the same disease that robbed him of his eyesight at the age of one.
My first thought was, What a terrible waste. Healey was such an intensely talented musician, with so much potential for great work in the future.
I knew Healey fairly well, during the early phase of his career, and you'd be hard-pressed to meet a more decent person.
Eerily, I had watched an episode not too long ago of "Songwriter's Circle" on CBC TV, which had both Healey and Susan Aglukark as guest performers. I had personal encounters with both performers and contemplated writing a blog post about it at the time, but didn't because there were other, more pressing local subjects.
I first met Healey back in 1987, when I was a writer with The Herald. The band's bass player, Joe Rockman (yes, that was his real name), called and invited me down to the Fishing Admiral to be among the first to see someone destined for fame.
I had heard that kind of talk before, but there was something in Rockman's quiet, matter-of-fact tone that made me listen. (What I didn't know was that Healey was a musical prodigy who was all ready legendary in the Toronto area.) I came out to the Admiral and was blown away. For those who don't remember the nightclub (now the Taj Mahal restaurant), it was small and cozy. I sat right in front of the stage to be sure I didn't miss anything.
Right from the first song, it was clear that Jeff Healey was a remarkably talented guitar player. He had a fluid, bluesy-rock style, in the Jim Hendrix / Stevie Ray Vaughn mould. He played with the guitar flat on his lap, a style I hadn't seen since Fred McKenna of the Don Messer's Jubilee band. It's a style that is apparently unique to blind players, as McKenna was as well.
Healey's style was fast and complex, and it was astonishing to watch him play. A few times, he stood and played a solo with his teeth, or with the guitar held behind his head; little flourishes that had me piling expletives upon exclamations.
I interviewed Jeff and the band the next day, at the Fishing Admiral's band house on Victoria Street. It was a lengthy and sprawling interview, in which we discussed everything from musical tastes and influences to the challenges of being a blind musician. We spoke several times after that, whenever Healey came to town, and he was always approachable and available despite the sudden onslaught of celebrity.
In that first meeting, there was much talk about the band's debut single, which hadn't been released at that point.
They had settled upon Angel Eyes, a romantic ballad. I didn't agree, and suggested they launch with a rocker that would get more attention, something like Confidence Man. I ate my words some time later, when Angel Eyes was released to wide acclaim and became a top five hit in Billboard magazine (followed by appearances on David Letterman and Johnny Carson). It was the start of an illustrious recording career that produced some great albums, but I am not sure that Healey won the commercial success he deserved. In any event, he put the rock thing on pause after 2000 to focus on his true love, vintage jazz, recording a few jazz albums and hosting My Kind of Jazz on CBC Radio (where he played selections from his collection of 30,000 vintage albums).
Healey died just weeks before the scheduled release of Mess of Blues, his first rock recording in eight years. Unless there are some gems hidden in the vault, it is the last album of original material we will be hearing from this virtuoso.
There's a decent bio of Healey at his official web site.