~Jeff, Mike Daley and Chris Bruce in Gananoque, Ontario – 2007~
Like many a guitarist around my age, I grew up watching Jeff Healey videos on MuchMusic, amazed at his guitar playing and his soulful voice. His wild Hendrix-like style, playing the guitar in the seemingly impossible technique of laying his guitar flat on his lap captivated my guitar playing friends and I. We were also fascinated by the fact that Jeff did all of this as a totally blind man. It was the independently produced “See The Light” video, the one that got him signed to Arista in the States, that I saw first. This video doesn’t seem to be on YouTube for some reason. I remember that, in the video, Jeff had slightly dorky short hair; this was prior to his late 80s makeover into a permed, mulleted guitar hero. Jeff became an international musical star in the wake of his appearance in the Road House movie. His late 80s appearance on the cover of Guitar Player magazine was, as far as I was concerned, the pinnacle. His star dimmed in the dark days of grunge, a time when instrumental skill lost a great deal of its cultural cachet. Jeff’s guitar pyrotechnics seemed suddenly out-of-date when the zeitgeist was defined by the four-chord loop of Smells Like Teen Spirit.
Jeff was about to release Cover to Cover when I first met him in the fall of 1994. I was in grad school, starting a master’s degree in musicology at York University. My first grad essay was to be on the 1920s jazz guitarist Eddie Lang, and my prof recommended that I try to get in touch with Jeff, who was a renowned 78 RPM record collector. I must have found the Forte (Jeff, Joe Rockman and Tom Stephen’s record company) office number, and I called to leave a message for Jeff. The receptionist told me that Jeff was on tour, and that he might get back to me in a couple of weeks – a classic blow-off. I hung up and five minutes later, the phone rang and it was Jeff. He said “I hear you’re writing an essay on Eddie Lang.” “Yes,” “Congratulations. When can you come over?”
A couple of days later, I was at Jeff’s McCaul Street apartment as he expertly navigated his 30,000 disc record collection, stacked vertically in custom built shelves. Among those of us who spent any time with Jeff at his home, Jeff’s prodigious random-access memory in regards to his record collection is legendary. This was immediately apparent to me that first day, as he would pull a record out of what seemed to be identical unsleeved records, and be able to tell me the names of the songs on both sides, the names of all of the musicians and the approximate date of recording, usually within a month. I know this because I was holding the two 1000 page volumes of Brian Rust’s Jazz Records discography, and Jeff’s knowledge always checked out. I have to admit that I found Jeff’s knowledge of his record collection even more amazing than his guitar playing.
Jeff spent 15 hours over two days with me, recording his Eddie Lang records to cassette tapes, letting me interview him about Lang’s music and even showing me some of Lang’s techniques on the guitar. I never forgot his generosity with his time and expertise.
I saw him again briefly at a club off of Queen in 1997. I was playing with my band of the time, Uncle Violet, at a North By Northeast showcase. Jeff came in with a group of friends and got up to play “Angel Eyes.” I backed him up on bass while he played my guitar. We caught up that night at a party at his apartment, while Jeff played DJ, spinning 78 after 78 on into the night.
Shortly after I moved to Toronto from Hamilton in 2003, Jeff and I reconnected through Terra Hazelton, the singer in Jeff’s new musical venture, Jeff Healey’s Jazz Wizards. Terra and I were working together in a band called the Hogtown Syncopators, and one afternoon at the Wizards’ regular Saturday afternoon gig at his namesake club, Healey’s, Jeff invited me up to play with the Wizards. Jeff liked the way I played traditional jazz, and I began to regularly sub for the group’s regular second guitarist, Jesse Barksdale. Soon after, I began to sub for Dan Noordemeer, the guitarist in Jeff’s rock band, with Dave Murphy on keys, Alec Fraser on bass and Al Webster on drums.
Playing alongside Jeff on stage was a thrill that I will never forget. In the jazz band, his energy, knowledge and inventiveness on tunes like “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter” and “Stardust” was awe-inspiring. The Wizards’ regular lineup was Colin Bray, bass; Gary Scriven, drums; Jesse Barksdale, guitar; Reide Kaiser, piano; Drew Jurecka, violin; Ross Wooldridge, sax and clarinet; Terra Hazelton, vocals; and Christopher Plock, sax and vocals. In this band, Jeff played an old Gibson L-5 archtop through a little Pro Junior amp, and would also play trumpet and sing. His knowledge of 1920s jazz was extensive, and the Wizards introduced many a Road House fan to the music of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.
In the rock band, I played second guitar and contributed the odd vocal – one time, Jeff insisted that I take the lead vocal on “Roadhouse Blues” – he was tired of the song. I’m sure that the fans didn’t come to hear me sing it! Playing alongside Jeff in this context was very different from the Jazz Wizards experience. For one thing, Jeff played at very high volume. He used a special Fender Twin amplifier that was 120 watts, and he cranked it, sitting right in front of the speakers. The other thing was that he was tearing up the guitar in a way that can only be described as “face-melting.” I know that I was fortunate to be in the rare, close-up presence of guitar greatness.
Somewhere along the way, Jeff and I became friends, and he would often ask me to drive when we were on a gig together. Sometimes this would involve a side trip to check out a 78 collection that was for sale. I remember one trip where we made a long detour to “look over” a few thousand 78s at a storage locker somewhere in Ontario. Jeff would file through the stacks of records, feeling the labels and sometimes asking me to read the information for him. As often as not, he would buy the whole collection for a few thousand dollars. Of course, many of these new arrivals would not make the cut for Jeff’s fine collection, and that meant boxes of 78s for myself and a few other friends. Jeff tried hard to turn me into a 78 collector, and I would take the records, but I didn’t get the collecting bug until a couple of years after his death. To this day, a great many of the records in my modest collection are Jeff’s castoffs.
My few experiences with Jeff doing out-of-town concerts were always memorable. What I remember most are the times after the show when we would hit a local bar, to the amazement of the starstruck fans. Jeff liked to party, but would not imbibe on anything stronger than the junk food that he loved. And he would sometimes sit in with whatever band was playing that night, giving those musicians bragging rights that I’m sure they are still trading on. Jeff was constantly approached when were out and about, and I sometimes felt like I needed to protect him from being constantly bothered. He could certainly handle himself though, and was always gracious with the many people who came to introduce themselves.
When Jeff began his chemotherapy, he ramped up a long-dreamed project to digitize his 78 collection as mp3 files so that he could share the rare records that he had amassed with the world. At this point Jeff would hire me on an hourly basis to come to his house and input the information about the records into iTunes. We would work all day, tagging hundreds of files; Jeff was determined to get his music into a shareable form. He never did finish this project, but the thousands of songs that he did manage to digitize were eventually collected together and tagged by the record collectors’ group Toast Of New York and I now have much of Jeff’s collection on a hard drive. After his death, some of the more valuable records were sold to collectors around the world and the rest of his collection was donated to the University of Toronto.
Jeff’s illness and his death from cancer hit all of us hard, and in different ways. Jeff himself never seemed to accept that his life was coming to an end, and he and Cristie always spoke about the future with hope. Jeff wanted to see his young son, Derek, and his daughter, Rachel, grow up. When Jeff passed away in March of 2008, I felt like I had lost a good friend, but also that the musical world that mourned him never really understood the depth and breadth of his talents. He was a complex man with many abilities, some of which were only known to those of us that knew him well. Jeff Healey was much more than a blues-rock guitar shredder, and he only had time to make the first steps in what I know would have been a brilliant second act.
-Mike Daley is a guitarist and singer versed in blues, country, rock & roll and jazz. He has performed and recorded with Jeff Healey’s Blues Band, Jeff Healey’s Jazz Wizards, Classic Albums Live, Suzie Vinnick, Justin Rutledge, Rita Chiarelli, the Hogtown Syncopators and countless others over a twenty-five year professional career. Mike is also a trained musicologist, with a Ph.D from York University and publications in international academic journals and books, including his acclaimed study of Bob Dylan’s voice, which won the York Thesis Prize.