Jeff Healey: “I came from two backgrounds; jazz and country. A buddy of mine, Rob Quail, was one of the first people to get me into playing and listening to a lot of pure blues. We’re close to the same age and he went to a neighbouring High School. Rob was the first one to introduce me to people like Clapton and then further back to Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and so forth. He’s one of those guys who has worked very, very hard to play guitar, and he plays very well. ” (April 1993)
I first met Jeff when we were in our early teens; we met at a party through a mutual musician friend named Jeff LeBar (now, sadly, also deceased). When I walked into the party I heard Jeff’s guitar playing before I saw him. Even then, at the age of 14, he had tremendous facility on the instrument, and I remember being bowled-over at what I was hearing as I entered the house. The distinctive warmth and expressiveness of his playing was already present, and he sounded incredible, even with the inexpensive equipment he was using at the time (no-name copy of a Gibson SG guitar, but with very unusual construction of maple body and neck, into a very plain Traynor Guitar-mate amplifier). Then, when I walked into the living room and saw what I had been hearing, I was speechless.
I had my guitar with me as well, and we played together at that party for much of the evening, and immediately struck a musical bond and an enduring friendship. Over the next few years we pulled together a succession of bands, and most Fridays would start with a phone call between me and Jeff to find out where there was a neighbourhood party where we could set up in a corner with our guitars and just play all night for whoever would listen.
We also played our first bar gigs together. We were just under-age kids and had no idea how to find work, so we’d just walk into a place where we wanted a job, ask to see the manager, pull out our guitars, and play until he agreed to hire us. We got many gigs this way in and around the Toronto suburb where we grew up, and even in downtown Toronto’s legendary Colonial Tavern, at the time one of the top clubs in the city. We had some oddball gigs back then too, including one at a cavernous shopping mall backing up two little girls singing country music, and strangest of all, at the grand opening of a flower shop. In later years Jeff would often talk fondly of the innocence and discovery of those days of just “playing music with our friends,” and he always sought to create that kind of atmosphere in the two nightclubs that bore his name.
It was a unique experience playing in a band with Jeff in those days. He was totally unknown, and I got to witness from the stage over and over again, the astonishment of audiences experiencing him for the first time. Like Jeff later said in an interview, from people’s reaction “it was kind of like I descended out of space.” His musical abilities were amazing. He seemed able to remember and recreate on the guitar literally anything he ever heard. He had what seemed to be a photographic memory for sound, and an innate ability to recreate with his hands for all to hear whatever he was hearing in his head. He never seemed to play the same thing twice the same way or run out of ideas. In all honesty, in all the years I knew him I don’t think I ever saw him bump up against any musical limitations.
When I first met him Jeff’s musical interests were limited to country, early rock and roll, and a very specific era of jazz. I introduced him to the music of Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, and then the Chicago blues guys, and he soaked up all the subtleties of those styles like a sponge and integrated them into his playing with a speed that was almost alarming. And even when playing the same notes as everyone else, he had an ability to bring them across with projection and expression and conviction that was surely his own musical signature. He made every note count.
Jeff’s career soon started on its inevitable trajectory – to anyone on the Toronto music scene who knew him at the time, Jeff’s successful musical career seemed an inevitability. For a brief time after he left high school he attended the music program at Humber College. I remember one evening during that period we were listening to a John Lee Hooker recording of mine which contained one of the brief flurries of random notes that were a signature part of Hooker’s style, and Jeff remarked bitterly, “I’d better not play this recording for them at school or they will make me write an analysis of that run.” Realizing that the school had nothing to teach him about music that he didn’t already know or feel, Jeff quit after only a few months. Shortly after that, he came to the attention of Texas bluesman Albert Collins, who in turn arranged an impromptu three-way jam session with Stevie Ray Vaughan at Albert’s Hall in Toronto. I was there that night and will never forget watching Stevie Ray’s initial amazement and then joy at seeing and hearing Jeff tear it up.
Shortly after that famous jam, our career paths diverged, and we alternated between periods where we spent a lot of time together and periods where were busy with our lives and careers and hardly stayed in touch at all. But I always kept a close eye on the arc of Jeff’s career and in a way it made me sad. Because while the accolades were great, for many people it always seemed that the novelty of Jeff’s disability and his unique playing technique, and the superficial resemblance of some of his guitar pyrotechnics to those of players like Jimi Hendrix, overshadowed his truly brilliant unique musical mind. To my mind he was pigeonholed way too quickly as a “blues rocker” and horribly ill-served by the music industry and many of the people who had a hand in his career. Through the 1990s he said he began to feel increasingly like a “circus freak,” to the point where he eventually withdrew altogether from the recording industry. That, in my view, is a crime. I agree with Mike Daley’s comments in his blog on this page; a big part of the loss some of us felt at Jeff’s passing was the fact that so few people really got to understand the true depth of his musical talent. I have met a lot of talented people in my lifetime. But I have never met anyone with anything even approaching Jeff’s natural gift for music.
Over the years Jeff and I played together from time to time, in pick-up situations or unannounced gigs with collections of local players we’d call to play with us. Then, in late 2007, in the thick of his final battle with cancer, Jeff asked me to play a gig as second guitarist in his band in front of a few hundred people in a small bar in Hamilton, Ontario. It was truly a magical night I will never forget; about friendship and joy. Just like when we were teenagers, I picked Jeff up from his house to drive to the gig, and I drove him home afterwards. In the car we talked about life and music and reminisced about our youth. I will always be grateful for that evening. Just a few months later he was gone.
People today ask me what Jeff was like as a person.
– First of all, more than anyone I have ever met, he loved to laugh. Jeff gave his whole being over to laughter, like the way a small child laughs.
– Second, he was a presence. The same confidence that oozed from his playing also emanated from him when he entered the room. It wasn’t cockiness. It was power. He had a full-bore enthusiasm for life that smacked you in the face.
– Third, he was a simple guy in terms of his life choices. He loved being at home, being a dad, listening to old records, being with friends, and playing music with his friends.
– Fourth, he was a loyal friend. Jeff always expressed interest in my musical exploits and faith in my abilities. To this day I always strive to be worthy of his faith in me, and of his loyal friendship.
– And finally, he was a man in possession of a staggering musical gift.