Wednesday, March 05, 2008

It was 1987, and I was only a year out of college when I got a job working for the local entertainment paper, Pulse Niagara. One of the first music stories I had to work on was about the appearance of a new, young, up-and-coming guitar talent who was playing a show at a nearby golf course clubhouse.
The unique thing about this musician wasn't only his young age and his incredible ability on his instrument, but also the fact that he was completely blind. His playing style was unusual too. He usually sat in a chair with the guitar across his lap, and played it almost like a piano or a pedal steel guitar, making the chords backwards with his hand. The advantage to playing this way was that it gave him the ability to perform amazingly large bends on the strings, as he was pulling on them rather than pushing.
His name was Jeff Healey, and the first time I heard him play I knew he was going to be one of Canada's, and the world's, true 6-string stars. It didn't take him long. His first album, See The Light, would go on to sell over 1 million copies in the United States and be nominated for a Grammy Award, with its hit single, "Angel Eyes."
Jeff also became well-known to American audiences because of his appearance in a hit film called "Roadhouse," which starred Patrick Swayze and Sam Elliot. To this day, the film remains a cult classic, featuring Jeff and his band performing in a typical southern redneck bar with chicken wire strung in front of the stage.
His next album, Hell To Pay, was equally as popular, and Jeff became a familiar performer at festivals and concerts across Canada. The first time I actually saw him perform live was at a show that was a guitar player's dream - he was the opening act for Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan at one of the first concerts at Toronto's Skydome.
Jeff seemed to kind of fade from the public consciousness over the following years, or maybe he had just become such a familiar sight that he was almost taken for granted. He opened a bar on Bathurst Street in Toronto called Healey's Roadhouse, and it became a very popular spot. The big draw was that Jeff himself performed there every Thursday night with different guest artists, and the last time I saw him play was at that bar. It was incredible, being able to sit a scant ten feet or so away from him as he performed a selection of his own hits and amazing covers, some of which were totally unexpected. Jeff definitely still had it. That night I finally got to meet him in person and shake his hand, and see for myself the dry, sarcastic sense of humour for which he was famous.
During his show a young lady yelled out "Angel Eyes" as a request. Jeff had probably played this song so many times he was getting sick of it, so he said to her, "If you want me to play that song it's going to cost you $50. Of course, I'll have to take your word for it that it's $50, because I can't see it!"
When I spoke to him I mentioned that I had seen him play at the Beck and Vaughan show, and he replied, "You know, over the years I think I've met nearly everyone who was at that show!"
Once he had opened his club, Jeff was able to indulge in one of his other musical pursuits - playing jazz. He was an expert on the jazz music of the 1930's and 40's, and had a personal collection of over 30,000 78 rpm records, which he would later go on to feature on his own radio program on Toronto's Jazz FM. Jeff didn't play guitar with this band in live performances, though; he played trumpet, and he was very good at it. [Jeff played guitar, trumpet and valve trombone on the Welcome to Jazzland release - D.D.]. Occasionally he would also play drums.
In recent interviews Jeff made it clear that this was where his true passion and interest lied [sic]. He had grown tired of playing rock and blues, he said, and found jazz to be much more challenging and less restrictive. He knew that playing rock was what brought the crowds into his club, but his heart was in jazz, and remained so right up until his death.
Jeff fought a lifelong battle with cancer. He lost his eyesight when he was only a year old, to a rare form of the disease called retinoblastoma. A childhood prodigy, he took up the guitar at age three and had formed his first band in his early teens. As a adult he developed lung cancer and thought he had it beaten once, but it apparently flared up again and spread through his body, and nearly everyone was shocked when his death was announced this past Sunday, March 2nd, at the age of 41.
He had recently moved his club to a more prestigious location across from Wayne Gretzky's bar on Blue Jay Way, and was set to do a European tour in April with his jazz band, The Jazz Wizards.
Jeff leaves behind his wife, Cristie, a daughter, Rachel, and a son, Derek.
During his life he played with some of the best, sharing the stage with Stevie Ray Vaughan, BB King, Albert Collins and George Harrison. One can only hope, now freed from the restrictions of his body, that he can finally see the faces of his wife and his children, and the many fans who loved him and drew inspiration from his music.
Rest in peace, Jeff, and God bless.
Below I've included a few comments from people who knew Jeff and performed with him. This first comment is from Gene Scarpelli, the son of Gino Scarpelli, the guitarist from Goddo. Gino also makes his own comment.
"I'm sure you all heard the sad news about Jeff Healey. I had the honour to see Jeff play through the years and to meet him a few times when Jeff and Goddo played together. He was an amazing talented guitarist/songwriter and a kind hearted man. He was an inspiration to me as a guitar player. Jeff will be sadly missed. Thank you Jeff for all the great music you have given us. My father [Gino] also wanted to send a note to you all as he has had many more years of knowing him and playing with him. Dad's note is posted below.
We hope to see you all at the Goddo show March 20th at Healey's where we will pay tribute to Jeff."
Note from Gino:
"It pains me to hear the devasting news about Jeff. I am blessed to have known him. I will always treasure his true genius. Kind and soft-spoken, he touched me and his audience to our very soul. l will miss you dearly Jeff and will always treasure the feelings your guitar brought me. RIP"
Gino Scarpelli
And one more comment, this one from Tony McLean, a former Ottawa radio personality and artist manager.
"I remember it like it was yesterday. A little 7" 45 rpm record came in from an independent record company (as in self-produced) in Toronto. Jeff Healey's "See the Light." Let's plop it on the turntable. YEOW! Shortly thereafter it was a regular on my show and I was the first person in town to play the record, to interview Jeff and to have him live on my radio show at CKCU-FM. I remember vividly us going through the Hendrix albums in the library: "What's this one, Tony?" "Monterey. That was a very 'fuzzy' sound Jimi got there." "Yes it was very fuzzy." Heh we had a blast. I introduced Jeff to Paul Fenton at the Rainbow Bistro and they immediately had a good natured but competitive Beatles trivia argument which Paul later admitted Jeff was probably right about. Jeff was a totally down-to-earth no bullshit, no star trip kind of guy, and thought nothing about phoning you at home himself. A great unique spirit who overcame so much and who now leaves us too soon. Fly on, Jeff. They called another blues stringer back home."
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