Jeff Healey, arguably one of the most distinctive guitar players of our time, died yesterday in St. Joseph’s Hospital, Toronto. He was 41, and leaves his wife, Cristie, daughter Rachel (13) and son Derek (three), as well as his father and step-mother, Bud and Rose Healey, and sisters Laura and Linda. Funeral and memorial arrangements are pending.
Robbed of his sight as a baby due to a rare form of cancer, retino blastoma, and he started to play guitar when he was three, holding the instrument unconventionally across his lap. He formed his first band at 17, but soon formed a trio which was named the Jeff Healey Band.
After his appearance in the movie “Road House,” he was signed to Arista Records, and in 1988 released the Grammy-nominated album See the Light, which included a major hit single, “Angel Eyes.” He earned a Juno Award in 1990 as Entertainer of the Year.
Two more albums emerged on Arista, with lessening success as the ’90s passed. Various “best-of” and live packages were released, and he recorded two more rock albums, before turning to his real love, classic American jazz from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.
By then, however, Healey was an internationally-known star who had played with dozens of musicians, including B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and recorded with George Harrison, Mark Knopfler and the late blues legend, Jimmy Rogers.
A family man with a three-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter he preferred to stay close to home. “I’ve traveled widely before — been there and done that,” he told friends, determined to avoid the lengthy, exhausting tours that marked his life in his twenties and early thirties.
A long-running CBC Radio series saw him in the role of disc jockey — “My Kinda Jazz” was a staple for a while, but in recent years he had hosted a program with a similar name on Jazz-FM in Toronto. A highlight of his broadcasts was always the use of rare — and rarely heard — music from his 30,000-plus collection of 78-rpm records.
As his rock career wound down as the millennium came, he recorded a series of three album of early jazz, playing trumpet as well as acoustic guitar in a band he called Jeff Healey’s Jazz Wizards. The most recent was It’s Tight Like That, recorded live at Hugh’s Room in Toronto in 2005, with British jazz legend Chris Barber as guest star.
At the time of his death he was about to see the release of his first rock/blues album in eight years, Mess of Blues, which is being released in Europe on March 20, and in Canada and the U.S. on April 22. The album was the result of a joint agreement between the German label, Ruf Records, and Stony Plain, the independent Edmonton-based label that has released his three jazz CDs.
Mess of Blues was recorded in studios in Toronto, with two cuts recorded at the Jeff Healey’s Roadhouse in Toronto and two at a concert in London England. The backup group on the upcoming CD — the Healey’s House Band — played with him regularly at the downtown Roadhouse, and at a previous club bearing his name in the Queen-Bathurst area.
Early last year, Healey underwent surgery to remove cancerous tissue from his legs, and later from both lungs; aggressive radiation treatments and chemotherapy, however, failed to halt the spread of the disease.
Despite his battle with cancer, he undertook frequent tours across Canada with both his blues-based band and his jazz group; he was set for a major tour in Germany and the U.K. and was to be a guest on the BBC’s famed Jools Holland Show in April.
Remembered by his musicians — and his audiences — for his wry sense of humor as well as his musical playfulness, Healey was a unique musician who bridged different genres with ease and assurance.