-submitted by Rich Hwang:

It was the evening of Sunday July 14th, 1996.  An unremarkable, hot, sticky, humid summer night in Pontiac, Michigan like any other.

My band The Sidewinders had hosted a blues jam for years prior at another club right down the street, before it changed ownership and got rid of live music altogether… the end result was moving the same Sunday night gig to a new venue nearby known as Beale Street.  Beale Street’s forte being barbeque and live blues…

I knew of Jeff from TV… I had recorded this performance of Jeff on ‘Night Music’ and watched it many, many times.  Having been a student of Hendrix and several other wild, great guitarists I loved Jeff’s over the top style… and he really went wild on that TV performance!  I had also been asked to learn some of Jeff’s material before (Angel Eyes), which….despite my best efforts, I was never happy with the result… It’s harder than it sounds… So I had an appreciation for Jeff’s work going in…

Midway through the opening set, a couple of the band members noticed a sweaty, long haired young man wearing a pit-stained gray T-shirt hanging around just outside the door.  Nobody could identify him from that vantage point…  The familiar “oh great, another panhandler scaring away customers” thought did not last very long, because there was something different about this guy… whoever he was…

We finished the first set, a couple of us stepped outside for a smoke break and got a good look at the young man standing there:  “Oh my God, holy crap, it’s Jeff Healey!”  We found it odd he was standing there all by himself, but tried to be calm and treat Jeff like any other musician or human being in spite of our excitement… we asked him what he was doing hanging around town, and he mentioned the H.O.R.D.E. festival at Pine Knob in Clarkston… we had heard of it, but Jeff was not promoted very strongly for that festival.  As far as we knew, the festival was supposed to be mostly about Blues Traveler and Lenny Kravitz.  We couldn’t attend those events… we had gigs…

A couple of our friends had showed up to sit in with us, but when they saw us getting Jeff situated with a guitar, mic, chair and so on… after a few seconds of being awestruck, they understood what was happening and were willing to sit it out and watch.  They also offered up their guitars for Jeff to play, as did I.

Where it gets strange:  The gig was a fairly hardcore blues jam.  The bar wanted blues material.  Jeff was almost situated and we ask him what he wants to play?  His response:  “Ahhhh… anything but the blues”…Uh oh… we then had to explain as diplomatically as possible that we have to kind of stick to the blues…  Jeff wanted me to start off with vocals so I sang the first few tunes… after we got warmed up a bit, Jeff took over on vocals and the audience ate it up.  We kept on going with Jeff on vocals/guitar for quite a while, and then decided we needed a break and needed to figure out how Lenny Kravitz and his crew would sit in, since they had just walked in and sat down as if nobody would notice!  In the end, Lenny didn’t want to play guitar, so he jumped in on drums!

That’s my guitar Jeff is playing in the picture 🙂

After Lenny Kravitz played for a bit, everyone took a break but the audience made it clear they wanted Jeff to come back up.  Jeff was complaining he was running out of material, and said “Why don’t we let that guy sing?  He’s got it goin’ on!”  Little did I know that Jeff was referring to me with that statement… and being that I had a few confidence issues with singing at that point… I can tell you, when Jeff Healey gives you a compliment like that it turns your head around.

This time around Jeff really dug deep, even managed to play a tune he said (in interviews) he would never play… Stormy Monday Blues, along with a few other standards… then I joined him, and I can’t describe how much fun we had jamming.  Jeff did not act like a rock superstar in any way, shape or form… he stayed out of my way musically when I needed him to, and I did the same for him… so many of us guitarists aspire to throwing thunderbolts and lightning with our lead guitar solos.  Of course Jeff could certainly do that!  But what a lot of folks don’t know is how good of a rhythm player Jeff was also.  I don’t think Jeff had many chances to comp (back up a soloist) in his own band and I could tell he kind of enjoyed the change of pace, and trading leads instead of feeling all the pressure on him.

But make no mistake… Jeff and I both tore it up as hard as we could, and nothing was held back at any point… there were some amazing moments that night, musically… I could tell Jeff was feeling it and I was way into it too.

Jeff and I were born the same year, but he gave me the feeling that he had the grace of someone at least a decade older than either of us, and I couldn’t help but look up to him for that.  It may have been a product of his disability, more life experiences than me, having his notoriety at a fairly young age and going on the road and playing to a much higher level than I did… but whatever made him that way, gave the same end result in my eyes.

I never saw, or spoke with Jeff again after that night.

Many things changed in my life over the ensuing 12 years, between ’96 and ’08…  It seems like a whirlwind… but I remember being told Jeff had passed away, and I remember the terrible sinking feeling that came with it.  I found my heart broken in a new, unusual way I had never experienced before, nor do I have the words to describe.  Then later, after reading about his battle with cancer, the fact that he kept playing right up until the end, working as hard as he could until he just couldn’t take it anymore, I found inspiration in Jeff once again… my heart may still be broken knowing that he is gone, but my head is held high and I am still beaming with pride that I had the opportunity to share the stage with Jeff Healey and that we both had such a wonderful time.

RIP Jeff… you earned it!  Hope to see you again on the other side buddy.

Rich Hwang

Every Friday we share stories from fans about their experiences with Jeff and his music in our Fan Scrapbook feature…

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