In July of 1985 a 19 year-old Jeff Healey cut his teeth at an impromptu jam at Toronto’s legendary Albert’s Hall with blues/rock giants Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was a defining moment in Jeff’s fledgling music career and it served to propel him full tilt into the local spotlight, opening doors and creating new opportunities. But that, as they say, is another story.
Today’s missive concerns a chance encounter on the other side of the country a little over a year later that would provide an unexpected bookend to Jeff’s decade-long ‘overnight success’ story. It marked the start of a 22 year friendship and was a meeting that served to further set his path in stone.
Officially formed in late 1985, The Jeff Healey Band decided early on to remain a self managed unit. From the get go (and as the years progressed) this provided its own set of pitfalls as well as rewards.
In August of 1986, Jeff and the freshly minted JHB embarked on a cross country club tour. A grueling business at the best of times for a young band in Canada, touring usually involved a tonne of hard travel, punctuated by a flurry of gigs. Rinse. Repeat… but it was a proving ground, a make or break proposition for many Canadian musicians.
In those early days, while charting their course and making their own decisions regarding their burgeoning careers, the band had yet to build a support team to ensure the smooth running of the day to day operations. As a result, sometimes things fell through the cracks.
This time, the inevitable mix-up would prove most auspicious…
Arriving in Vancouver 4000km from home, the city was bustling, completely taken over with Expo ’86 fever. Much to the band’s chagrin, when they arrived at the appointed club to prep for their shows, there was no record of the booking and the staff had no knowledge of who they were.
Jeff Healey: “It became a question of do we go home or what?”
After some quick scrambling, the band managed to set up a couple of matinees as part of the Expo celebrations. As it turned out, also playing there that evening was multi-award winning Blues guitar legend, B.B. King.
JH: “B.B. King was playing there those two nights, but between his personal security and Expo’s, we couldn’t get near him. Tom (Stephen) suggested I pull out my guitar and start playing. So I did.
Well everyone in B.B. King’s show was still busy backstage getting ready for the gig that night and not paying much attention to us. But then you saw one head poking out from backstage, then another. Finally, Mr. King sticks his head out the door and says, ‘Bring that fella in here… Play a couple.'”
With the show set to start in just a few minutes, B.B. started calling on the members of his band, bringing them all in for an impromptu backstage jam with Jeff.
B.B. King: “I’ve never seen any style like it. Your execution is the best I’ve seen!”
Jeff was over the moon. “It was magic. When it was all over, Mr. King said, ‘Jeff, you’re better than Stevie Ray Vaughan, better than Stanley Jordan and you’re better than B.B. King. Keep it up because you’re going all the way.'”
Stevie Ray Vaughan and now B.B.’s endorsement of a very young Jeff Healey helped to legitimize his talents with the media and went a long way towards shaking the dismissive ‘novelty’ label (blind guy who plays guitar in a ‘funny’ way) he had found himself stuck with all too often in those early days (…although from time to time throughout his career it would still occasionally pop up to dog him, much to his endless irritation.).
Over the next two decades, Jeff and B.B.’s paths would cross a number of times, almost always leading to epic jams in all corners of the globe. Jeff loved B.B. and any time they would play together the joy radiated off of the stage. B.B. would often take those opportunities to tell audiences that Jeff was his “Canadian son”.
B.B.: “Jeff Healey, out of Canada, is a helluva bluesman.”
Indeed Jeff was asked to join the star studded line-up playing at B.B’s 70th birthday concert in 1995 and was even asked to perform at the opening of B.B. King’s club in New York City in June of 2000…
JH: “I’ve been fortunate to run into B.B. King a couple of times a year and we’ve ended up performing (together) quite a bit. …I’ve been very fortunate to know him as well as I do… so that’s been quite a thrill.”
B.B.: “(Jeff Healey)… That’s my guy, that’s *my* guy. He plays with his soul… and it all comes out in his playing. His soul. He’s a beautiful young man and a talented young man. …he plays with all he has. We need more people like him…”
In a 2008 interview for XFM shortly after Jeff’s passing, B.B. was asked for his thoughts. He was caught off guard, clearly stunned and kept repeating, “I didn’t know…”
B.B.: “He was like another one of my sons… Jeff Healey… (exhales hard)… oh my God.”
Live in Montreux 1997 (with Ronnie Earl & many more…)
B.B.: “Jeff’s passing is a tragic loss to the world of blues. He was courageous throughout his battle with cancer and his special talent will be greatly missed.”
B.B. King himself passed away in May of 2015, just a few short months shy of his 90th birthday. A force of nature, B.B. continued to tour and thrill audiences right to the end.
(Special thanks to Grant Shilling & his 1986 interview of Jeff Healey for the Georgia Strait, Lisa Zimmer & her 90’s interview with Jeff, and Holger Petersen & his 2005 interview with B.B. King for his book ‘Talkin’ Blues’)