“He was like another one of my sons… Jeff Healey… (exhales hard)… oh my God.” BB King
“He was SUCH a great musician… a voice that is missed.” Steve Lukather
“Jeff was one of the sweetest, most humble and talented artists I’ve met…” Bonnie Raitt
No one embodies the defiant spirit of rock and blues quite like Jeff Healey. Born in Toronto on March 25th, 1966, the Canadian’s childhood was shattered with the diagnosis of the rare ocular cancer, retinoblastoma… yet it never broke his stride. Through the late-’80s, ’90s and post-millennium, Jeff’s jaw-dropping guitar style and soul-drenched vocals saw him rise to multi-platinum sales, worldwide acclaim and collaborations with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, John Mayall, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Lenny Kravitz, George Harrison, Mark Knopfler and Ian Gillan.
Jeff Healey, after all, was a stone-cold phenomenon. Receiving his first guitar at the age of three, he quickly developed a groundbreaking style: by placing the guitar flat on his lap and playing it like a lap-steel, he was able to fret with all five fingers and attack notes with the strength of his whole hand. “Technically, he had a unique approach,” explains Jeff’s friend and fellow guitar virtuoso Sonny Landreth. “He had great sensibilities and instincts. When he would bend strings, play double-stops and chords, it just sounded totally different. It had a big open sound to it. He was so fluid and soulful.”
“Jeff was one of the most unique players of all-time,” picks up session ace and Toto legend Steve Lukather. “He redefined what the guitar can do and how you can play it. Pure soul and fire.” That trailblazing guitar technique drove Jeff’s career through two thrilling decades of material, taking in rock, blues and traditional jazz. With his earliest vehicle – The Jeff Healey Band – he recorded five studio albums and contributed to the soundtrack of the cult classic, Road House (a film in which Jeff was featured prominently alongside Patrick Swayze).
After The Jeff Healey Band’s final album Get Me Some (2000), Jeff’s career moved on apace. A Grammy nominee and Juno award-winner, he was also a radio personality, a noted jazz historian and world-famous record collector (owning a collection of ’20s and ’30s jazz 78s that would ultimately top out at over 30,000 platters). In addition to his countless recording sessions as a guitarist, trumpet player, singer and producer, Jeff also recorded three albums of the traditional American jazz that was so close to his heart. Just prior to his passing, Jeff put the finishing touches to the award-winning Mess Of Blues, his first blues-rock album in eight years.
Jeff would have turned 50 years old in 2016 and as part of a year-long celebration, the world-wide critically acclaimed ‘lost’ Jeff Healey album, Heal My Soul was released. Rescued from the vaults and lovingly restored by the guitarist’s estate, it is alive with his spirit. “I think Jeff would have been so proud of this,” notes his widow, Cristie Healey. “It’s up there with his best work, by far.”
“He was a musician’s musician,” remembers Steve Lukather. “We shared a common bond of loving so many different types of music outside our respective genres, but I was very surprised that he was such a jazz buff when we first met. He played so many instruments. A bad-ass trumpet player as well.”
Jeff’s impact on the world went far beyond music. An advocate for the blind, as well as for literacy, he showed his support by lending his name and time to various CNIB fundraisers (as well as Toronto’s Word On The Street festival). As a childhood cancer survivor himself, Jeff took every opportunity to help support Sick Kids Hospital, focusing on World Eye Cancer Hope, (aka ‘Daisy’s Eye Cancer Fund’, a childhood retinoblastoma research foundation). WeCHope has made great strides and even helped the amazing progress of his own son’s retinoblastoma treatment. One of the many ways Jeff helped support Daisy’s was through his annual It’s a Very Healey Christmas charity show at his eponymous club (opened in 2001, it was one of two nightclubs that would bear Jeff’s name in his hometown of Toronto). “He was an unbelievable gentleman,” remembers legendary blues guitarist, Walter Trout. “A gentle, beautiful soul.”
His high-profile career meant that Jeff was a beacon of inspiration to disabled people around the world. Awarded an honorary doctorate from McMaster University and inducted into the Terry Fox Hall of Fame, the guitarist represented determination, equal opportunity and a passion to stay true to your dreams, no matter what the obstacle. “I really admired him for overcoming a handicap like that,” notes Sonny Landreth, “and for
how he just rose to the occasion, big-time, in other ways. It was so impressive and I just had a great deal of respect for him.”
Stoical and good-humoured in the face of his ongoing health setbacks, it was a seismic blow to his legion of fans when Jeff finally passed away aged just 41, following a three-year battle with sarcoma cancer. “He was always growing as a musician,” sighs Walter Trout. “He was always trying to get better and expand. I think it’s really a tragedy how he died so young, and it was a tragedy how he went, too. A sad thing.”
“I was able to say goodbye and tell him how much I loved him the night before he passed,” remembers Steve Lukather. “We spoke on the phone – he was kind enough to take my call. I will never, ever forget him and his unique genius. He will be remembered as one of the best of the best. I’m honoured to have known him as a friend and also as someone I can say I played with.” “It’s great that his legacy is being kept alive,” says Sonny Landreth. “Certainly, his music lives on, and for his fans, it’s stronger than ever. But it’s important to turn the next generation on to people like Jeff. He’s right up with the all-time greats…”