Jeff Healey was a one of a kind. A kind man with a hearty laugh, and infectious sense of humor. He could get the whole place laughing, and at the same time poke fun at himself and the blindness which claimed his sight from retinoblastoma when he was only one year old. And he was one helluva guitarist, jazz trumpet player and keyboardist -- not to mention exceptional vocalist! He passed away suddenly this past Sunday evening March 2nd, 2008 of cancer at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Toronto.
Jeff just completed his first blues/rock album in 8 years, entitled Mess Of Blues. It’s scheduled for worldwide release (except Canada & the USA) March 20th from Ruf Records in Germany; and April 22nd on Stony Plain in the USA and Canada. Backing Jeff on his new CD is the Healey’s House Band, who are bassist Alec Fraser (who co-produced this CD with Jeff), drummer Al Webster, keyboard player Dave Murphy and 2nd lead/slide/rhythm guitarist Dan Nordmeer. They also toured with Jeff as the Jeff Healey Band.
Healey was a fellow Torontonian and in some small way a friend. I used to review shows at his Jeff Healey’s Roadhouse nightclub, and some CD reviews. Jeff could always be found performing live at his club every Thursday night, with his very special guest of the evening, when he wasn’t on tour. The Healey’s House Band was backing band, and also Jeff’s rock band for tours. Healey’s was and is a place that feels ‘just like home’, thanks in part to Jeff’s always welcoming personality when he was there as well as the informal atmosphere. He was a great host, and loved his fans with mutual adoration!
Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of The Band graced the Healey’s nightclub stage, as did Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan, and superstar bluesman James ‘Superharp’ Cotton both of whom performed there with Jeff. Jeff performs on Gillan’s recent Gillan’s Inn CD. Sir Bob Geldof (Live Aid/Live 8) was standing at Healey's stained wood bar one night, when Helm's Barnburners blues band performed, with Richard Bell (The Band/Janis Joplin/Colin Linden) on piano.
Another veteran bluesman sax player A.C. Reed (blues guitarist Jimmy Reed’s brother), also played Healey’s a couple of times before his passing, as did blues guitarist Son Seals, and the late great blues harp man Sam Myers of Anson Funderburg and The Rockets fame.
A favorite at Healey's is Juno-winning blues guitarist Jack de Keyzer who performed there many times, as Jeff's special guest, and with his own band -- including a very successful DVD launch for Silver Blues in January 2007, that received accolades as far away as Australia. Other extremely well-attended concerts at Healey's included teenage blues guitar prodigy Jimmy Bowskill's frequent appearances there with his own band, and as Jeff's special guest.
Downchild Blues Band co-founder Donnie Walsh, chose Healey’s to host his DVD release for Live at the Palais Royale in 2007. Walsh performed many times with Jeff over the years. In 2002 Downchild vocalist/harp guy Chuck Jackson and musical sidekick, Louisiana Hall of Fame tenor sax player Johnny Pennino from New Orleans, showed up at Healey’s and had an impromptu jam with Jeff, that was quite a treat for the audience.
Jeff’s sense of humor was almost as good as his guitar playing. He often called out funny one-liners to the audience, or returned one they called out to him. He was a quick wit when it came that.
Jeff’s nightclub Healey’s, later re-named Jeff Healey’s Roadhouse and relocated across from Wayne Gretzky’s on Blue Jays Way near Rogers Centre, became a Toronto blues and rock institution. Some of the finest artists of all genres got a chance to be showcased in "Jeff’s club", which bore his name. He gave many up-and-coming artists their first chance at playing in a ‘real club’ giving back, the way he was helped and nurtured as an artist decades earlier. It was 6 long years but in sad retrospect seems like only a few fleeting ‘seconds’ ago in this writer’s memory when Healey’s nightclub first opened their doors for business in 2002.
Jeff was ‘discovered’ in the early ‘80s by fellow iconic blues rocker Stevie Ray Vaughan. He made a cameo appearance as ‘Cody’, in Patrick Swayze’s Road House movie in ’89. His Jeff Healey Band played some of the finest rock and blues/rock around, and played festivals and clubs the world over. Ten Years After bassist Leo Lyons once shared a pleasant memory with this writer, about doing a show with Jeff.
Jeff performed with B.B. King onstage, and recorded with George Harrison. Harrison performed the Beatle classic "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" with Jeff on his second album, Hell To Pay in 1990.
Jeff played Toronto’s Sarstock concert July 30th 2003, with rocker Sass Jordan, to half a million people. He played guitar since he was 3, and got his start playing blues and rock as a teenager at Grossman's Tavern, Toronto's 'Home of the Blues'.
One of Jeff's longtime friends and fellow bandmates since those early days, is Chicago-born/Toronto-based blues harp player and fellow record collector Steven C. Barr, who's performed with Jeff many times over the decades. His 'Jeff' stories are numerous and always engrossing to listen to.
Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins always regarded Jeff as one of his favorites to perform with. Jeff played with rockabilly legend Hawkins at his 60th Birthday Bash at Toronto’s Massey Hall in January 1995, with equally iconic legends of rock ‘n’ roll Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis -- along with Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Richard Bell of The Band, Buzz Thompson, Robin Hawkins and Leah Hawkins. They sure played a lot of great rockabilly that night, and Jeff was in fine form!
Fellow guitarist Eric Clapton was in the audience that night, to watch Jeff play and to celebrate The Hawk’s 60th birthday. This writer attended that concert as well as two more appearances at Massey featuring Jeff. One was Hawkins’ Tribute Concert October 4th, 2002, that included Jeff with guitarists Domenic Troiano, Buzz Thompson, David Wilcox and Greg Godovitz, as well as blues harp players and long-time friends Jerome Godboo and Roly Platt, Crowbar vocalist Kelly Jay, the Weber Brothers, the Partland Brothers, with drummers Levon Helm and Doug Inglis. Another was a triple-guitar extravaganza which featured Jeff with fellow guitarists Randy Bachman and bluesman Duke Robillard, almost a year ago, in April 2007 that helped promote Bachman’s Jazz Thing ll CD.
One of my good friends, Buzz Thompson, lead/slide guitarist with Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks for the past 18 years, reminisced with me recently about Jeff: "One of the funniest Jeff Healey stories I remember is when we (The Hawks) were playing a benefit in Hamilton to raise money for the firemen and cops in New York after 9/11. Jeff was sitting in with us and when he did a guitar solo everyone cheered (naturally) and Ronnie said, "Don't brag on him too much. He'll want a raise". Just after that Jeff walked up to the mic and said, "Oh come on Ronnie. You know I never get paid when I work with you". Jeff used to sit in with my band (Mr. Soul) when we worked at Grossman's Tavern. It seems like decades ago now. (It probably was)".
As Christine Louie whose family has owned Grossman's Tavern, Toronto's 'Home of the Blues' for over 30 years, remarked to this writer after hearing of Jeff's passing, "Jeff got his start here!"
The Jeff Healey Band’s talent was phenomenal. The original lineup included bassist Joe Rockman and drummer Tom Stephen. Jeff’s million-seller hit "Angel Eyes" with Rockman and Stephan from ’89, was always an avid special request whenever this writer saw Jeff perform at his Toronto nightclub, which was often! Jeff’s fans flocked there every Thursday night to see him perform.
Every December there was an annual ‘Very Healey’s Christmas’ fundraiser for Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. It was hosted at Healey’s, and featured Jeff with special guests including singers Alannah Myles, Kim Doolittle, Suzie McNeil (of Rock Star - INXS fame), blues harp player Jerome Godboo (a Hawk with Ronnie Hawkins), former Healey guitarist Pat Rush (ex-Johnny Winter/James Cotton bands), guitarist Tony Springer (ex-David Bowie/Carole Pope bands) and bassist Leo Valvassori (Alannah Myles/ex-John Lee Hooker band). This was all for the kids, to help them have a better Christmas when they were in hospital.
For more than a decade Jeff was becoming equally well known and respected as a trumpet, clarinet and keyboard player in his Jeff Healey’s Jazz Wizards, who for years played a weekly Saturday afternoon matinee with singer Terra Hazelton at Healey’s as well as major jazz festivals internationally. This writer attended what was probably Jeff’s first important jazz concert, when he was broadcast live in concert playing trumpet with his jazz band on CBC radio from the lobby of the CBC building on Front St. W. in Toronto in 1994. In July 1994 I saw his Jeff Healey Band open for the Rolling Stones at a surprise concert at nightclub RPM (later called The Warehouse), on Queen’s Quay E. in Toronto. The Stones invited Jeff onstage that night to play the encore with them. Towards the end of this encore, Jeff had his guitar on the floor and was pumping it with his foot like a wah-wah pedal, to great effect!
Jeff was a Toronto landmark, like Skydome/Rogers Centre, Massey Hall, Maple Leaf Gardens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was even married in a fairy-tale-like setting to jazz singer Cristie Hall July 18, 2003, at another landmark, Casa Loma, Toronto’s famous ‘real castle’.
Jeff will be sorely missed his presence can not be replaced. But his legacy of music, friendship, kindness and good-natured fun was so deeply ingrained in many of our souls, that he will always be loved, appreciated and remembered the world over. He leaves behind his wife Cristie, 3-year-old son Derek, and 13-year-old daughter Rachel.
God bless you, Jeff!