The Tale of Blue Direction:  (1981-1984)

In 1981, at the ripe old age of 15 Jeff Healey joined Graydon Chapman, Jeremy Littler, and Rob Quail to form Blue Direction.  While Jeff had already been performing for years by that time, this was his first experience in a band of his own.  It was a time of innocence, fun and teenage exuberance that everyone would remember fondly as the years rolled on.

Recently, Graydon, Jeremy, and Rob graciously took time to share some of their memories with us…

***

Blue Direction @ the Purdue Battle of the Bands

***

Graydon Chapman (Drums – Blue Direction): It was around Grade 10 a (guitar playing) buddy of mine in High School, Steve Wey, put an ad in the Oakville paper for musicians to put a band together.

We’d gone through a few folks until I came upon Jeremy Littler, who also lived in Oakville at the time.  We would practice endlessly in his parents’ unfinished basement with really no direction at all in terms of genre.  If I recall, Steve was really bent on doing Rush covers all the time. 

Jeremy Littler (Bass – Blue Direction): I met Jeff through a mutual friend, Sharon Apsley. At the time Graydon Chapman and I were in a band called Sequence.  Our lead singer’s name was Zena. The fact that I, and I think Graydon, dated her sporadically did not make our various popular covers sound any more polished. We practiced in my parent’s basement every Saturday or Sunday.

Graydon was so proficient at keeping time he could be watching the baseball game on a bar’s TV and still drum with perfect tempo.

GC: At some point around then, somebody brought Jeff by one Saturday afternoon to check us out.

JL: Sharon just happened to call me and tell me she had a friend named Jeff who played guitar, and would it be ok if he came over to our practice session. When Jeff showed up he was a young lanky looking blonde haired “kid” that just happened to also be blind. After listening to us play for a while Jeff asked if he could join in. I think he had a light maple Gibson SG looking knockoff guitar with him. Everyone was blown away by his playing. It wasn’t just the amazing sound, it was his crazy fret work.  His hand floated above the fretboard and he had an inexplicably wild strumming style. We all started to sound better at that point. I think our guitarist, Steve had been losing interest prior to this and it looked like Sequence was just about finished anyway. Interesting timing. When I met Jeff he was already becoming a very accomplished guitarist. I think he was about 15 at that time. Really quite stunning to already be that good a player at such a young age.

Jeff @ Purdue Battle of the Bands

A few weeks went by and Sharon called again. We had a practice planned, but I think Steve and Zena had quit by that point. Jeff asked if it would be ok if he brought a friend. So Jeff Healey and Rob Quail showed up and I asked Graydon to join in.

GC: Something triggered and Jeff with the help of Rob Quail contacted Jeremy and myself to put a group together.  Of course, Jeff was extremely multi-talented and his playing “oozed” of Eric Clapton riffs…no doubt an early start on that issue.

Rob Quail (Guitar/Vocals – Blue Direction): Jeff and I had met a couple of years before at a party and were immediately simpatico; we just got along and had passion for the same things in music.  We played together as a duo, as a trio with bassist Jeff LeBar (at whose party we had originally met) and with various pick-up things mostly at parties but had nothing like a real, regular “band” with a setlist and regular rehearsals and the like.  Any paid gigs we had played had been unstructured things with other local musicians.  (I remember one bar gig in Mississauga, playing country; Jeff was very adept and knowledgeable about country music.  I knew nothing about it but was relieved to find out that most of it had two or three chords, so I could follow along).  But until Jeremy and Graydon, we never really had what I would call a “band.”

Rob Quail & Jeremy Littler

JL: Looking back, l was living in Oakville and Jeff and Rob lived in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, so that must have meant they were pretty keen to have a jam session. Rob showed up with the driest sounding Yamaha amp ever, and I think Jeff plugged into my ancient Traynor tube head. The cab was an ex-Rush Celestion unit and it sounded great. But, the stack was always electrically alive as the ground lift was broken. It royally zapped me on a semi-regular basis. Having Jeff act as a potential ground would have evened out the odds at least! It could have been all over for some of the members of the Blue Direction had the basement floor ever gotten wet. Sorry everyone.
(RQ:  Jeff had his own little Traynor Guitar Mate amp on wheels, which he carted around everywhere; he used to store his vocal mic and cables in the back of it, and I remember him using it in Jeremy’s basement.  But now that Jeremy mentions it, I do remember something about someone getting electrical shocks…)

RQ: Up until the fall of 1983, Jeff and I were playing pretty cheap generic guitars.  As Jeremy mentioned, Jeff had a strange all-maple no-name knock-off of a Gibson SG that his dad had bought at Hudson Music, and I had a cheap Washburn electric.  We were both into Eric Clapton at the time, and when Fender came out with their Squier line of lower-priced Japanese imports, I bought one, black just like Clapton’s.  I remember bringing it to a party that Blue Direction played in someone’s basement in Etobicoke, and I remember overhearing Jeremy say to Jeff between sets, “wow, with his new Strat, Rob sounds just like Clapton.”  Jeff couldn’t stand that, and the next week he convinced his dad to take him out and buy the exact same guitar; same colour and everything.  This was the start of Jeff’s long association with Squier Strats.

Outside @ Oakville Trafalgar High School

JL: We all clicked really well musically and we decided to form a band. My close friend Jennifer Robinson became loyal groupie number one. I had a really hard time convincing Jennifer’s very concerned Mom that band practices weren’t a cover for orgies and drug taking.

GC: Jeff and Rob coined the name “Blue Direction”.  Blues was the common denominator of where Jeff wanted to take the band.

RQ: I remember how we named the band.  Jeff and I were on the phone trying to come up with something and I was flipping through the TV guide, closing my eyes and randomly putting my finger on the page, reading out whatever word I was pointing at, with hilarious results. One of those words, I remember, was “Chairs”, and Jeff thought that would be a particularly funny band name (I used it for another band I was in years later).

So that was where the word “direction” came from; Jeff’s idea was to put “blue” in front. It seemed perfect because the idea of the band was to play blues-based music but not strictly blues.

JL: Our first gig was at the Raven in Mississauga. The place had absolutely no vibe. I was in grade 11 or 12 at the time. The only thing I remember from that gig was the lead singer from the band that was playing before us was trying to learn the lyrics of Stairway to Heaven from an album sleeve as she was going on up stage. I recently looked at a photo from that show and we had actually dressed up for it. Wearing business attire in Blue Direction was never to be repeated.

Blue Direction @ the Raven in Mississauga

After that, we played some shows at my high school. We played on the front lawn during a homecoming event, and we did a Coffee House show that really impressed the audience.  If someone could not make a gig Jeff would find an alternate musician to fill in. I got to play with some very skilled players. Very early on we were recorded live for a CBC TV show called Going Great with Chris Makepeace.

GC:  It was really fun as we shot it in Jeff’s parents’ small house on Bonnyview Crescent in Etobicoke. That would have been around 1984?

RQ: Yeah, it was early 1984.  I remember that some of the crew were heading next to cover the Olympics in Los Angeles that year.

JL: We rehearsed at Jeff’s place from time to time. His parents and siblings were really nice people.  If you can ever find the ‘Going Great’ video listen for the birds in Jeff’s backyard at the end of the song.

If it hadn’t been for the support of our friends and families, Blue Direction would never have existed.

RQ:  Jeff’s dad could never understand why we had to rehearse so loud all the time.  We rehearsed in the living room of their modest bungalow so there was no avoiding the noise.  Decades later when I saw Jeff’s dad at various gatherings, he would always bring that up.

GC:  Both Rob and Jeff set out to get us gigs across Mississauga and the surrounding area.  We had played at Jeremy’s High School (Oakville Trafalgar High School) at a “coffee house” one night and brought the house down… Great Show!

Jeff & Jeremy @ Oakville Trafalgar
(pic courtesy Dave Keast)

RQ: We were just under-age kids and had no idea how to find work, so we’d 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. 

We had also very little experience seeing other bands play or knowing what was expected.  So for example we played ridiculously long shows; usually started at 8pm and played four long sets with short breaks ending right at 1am.  We just didn’t know any better.

JL: We ended up playing in bars all over Toronto and Mississauga, including Brankos, Larry’s Hideaway, Grossman’s Tavern, the Colonial, the oh so “scenic” Mississauga Belle and probably a few other places I have long forgotten. 

Friends like Tony Springer would pop in and Steven C. Barr would often join us on stage for harmonica solos.

RQ:  Yes it was around that time that Jeff met Tony.  Tony had a huge impact on Jeff’s musical vision.  Jeff became a completely different guitarist after he met Tony.  Jeff’s solos went from succinct tidy melodic guitar solos in the style that Jeff would have heard in the country and rock n roll records he knew by heart, to the longer, more expressive and exciting solos that people associate with Jeff Healey today.  It was also due to Tony that Jeff started playing with distortion and feedback, and started listening extensively to Jimi Hendrix. 

GC: We’d also played at my High School in Oakville (GE Perdue) in the Battle of the Bands only to lose to a heavy metal outfit called Force (to whom I was friends with the drummer, Jeff Drover).  A lot of people thought we should have won…

Jeremy @ Purdue Battle of the Bands

RQ:  I also remember coming in second in that talent contest at Perdue high school.  (laughing)  Jeremy had made up a home-made “flash pot/smoke bomb” in a coffee tin, placed it behind a monitor at the front of the stage, and lit it at the start of one of Jeff’s solos. Unfortunately he put too much in the can, and the molten, burning contents in it overflowed, scorching the wooden stage. We figured at the time that our second-place finish was punishment for that bit of destruction.

That was definitely in the fall of 1983.

I wonder if the stage still has that burn-mark.

JL: I was living by myself in Oakville by Grade 13, and my parents had left me a car when they moved to Calgary. Before that, our rehearsals were so loud that the neighbours presented my parents with a miniature band set, including a riser for toy drums made from a house brick. Blue Direction had very loud practices.

Blue Direction @ the Mississauga Belle, 1981

My trusty old green ‘75 Volvo station wagon became the band’s van, and Rob and Graydon employed their cars as well. We moved the entire band around this way.  We were lucky if we made enough money to cover our bar bills and gas at these gigs.

RQ:  We were so keen to play and would go to ridiculous lengths.  I can’t quite remember why, but for gigs in clubs without house PA (including the Mississauga Belle, which we played many times) I decided I just had to rent PA systems from an out-of-the-way place in Rexdale, 45 minutes from my house in traffic and in the opposite direction from most of our gigs.  So getting all the gear together and getting everyone to the gig involved a lot of driving around in my dad’s Ford LTD.  Usually picking Jeff up at his parents’ place fell to me as well, and we often had girlfriends along for the ride.  So we would be literally packed into that car, with people on each others’ laps or lying across speakers in the back seat.

Another thing I remember about those days was that Jeremy and I had a shared interest in jazz-rock fusion; bands like Return To Forever.  Jeff’s disdain for post-war Jazz is legendary, but back then, he REALLY hated fusion.  Sometimes after rehearsal Jeremy and I would torture Jeff by playing the latest Al DiMeola record…

JL: The Larry’s Hideaway show was a lot of fun. The bar put the Last Waltz on the projection screen and someone from Teenage Head showed up. I remember the staff were scarier than the clientele. I also remember that we had to be careful with Rob’s songs as one or two of these was about past girlfriends and there was always a chance that one of the exes might decide to show up. 

RQ:  we played a show in August of 1984 at Larry’s that I will never forget.  That club had no air conditioning, we were in the middle of a heat wave, and the stage had these huge lights that were recessed into the ceiling right near the stage.  It was insanely hot; so much so that my sweat soaked right through my leather guitar strap.

JL: Both Rob and Jeff wrote and co-wrote songs while in Blue Direction.  Jeff actually wrote Adrianna during that time.  A really close friend and co-worker of mine, John Hajdu (of Random Killing fame) ended up working on the video for that a few years later.  It’s a small world. We always had a loyal fan base that showed up for our gigs.

RQ:  Jeff and I were both writing songs for the band at that time and we had kind of a rule, I believe it was his idea: we always played lead guitar on each others’ songs.  He would play the lead on my songs and vice versa.  We also tried our hand at writing together.  To my memory we only finished one complete song with lyrics together, a thing called “Amazing Woman”; I still have a demo tape of it somewhere.  We also wrote instrumentals for the band, including one called “Turn It Down” which Jeff later used as the instrumental hook for his song “My Little Girl,” from the first Jeff Healey Band record.

Blue Direction @ the Colonial 1984

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.

JL: One of our last shows was at the Colonial.  I think we were either the last band or one of the last bands to play there, and sadly a few other bars as well. That became a bit of a Blue Direction theme. 

(RQ: And actually, the very last time we were set to play there, we were double-booked, and showed up at the Colonial with all our gear the afternoon of the gig to find that another band was already set up onstage.  We were pretty angry until a few days later, when the landlord that owned the building padlocked the doors; I guess there was a substantial unpaid rent balance and the place was shut down.  I imagine the other band who took our gig had a subsequent challenge getting in so they could all their gear out of there.)

JL: My indestructible Ampeg amp caught on fire when the sound engineer plugged the speaker output into an input. Long and McQuade came to the rescue with a precious replacement tube.

We played four sets of blues and rock songs for three nights and a Sun reporter even showed up and wrote an article.

Sometime around 1:30am or so we would pack up and I would drive back to Oakville, trying really hard to not fall asleep on the QEW. Rob always gave Jeff a ride or Jeff found his own transportation. Rob really took care of Jeff and steered him out of trouble on a number of occasions. We all needed to do that at times, but Jeff could take care of himself when pressed. 

Colonial setlists
Toronto Sun article

GC: This era lasted until sometime after I graduated in 1984, unto which it was very clear that Jeff was moving on rapidly with his career.  It certainly was exciting to watch him excel and for me to be a small part in the shaping of the Canadian Music Scene… one I’ll never forget.

RQ: By then, Jeff had enrolled in the music program at Humber College and was meeting lots of new players and broadening his musical horizons.  So Blue Direction fizzled out late that year.  Interestingly, Jeff only lasted a couple of months at Humber, mostly because it bored him and the fixation on post-war jazz turned him off.  So he quit.

JL: People have occasionally asked me if I regretted not continuing to play with Jeff. I knew that being in a band was not the career for me, and it was Jeff that had the skills and ambition to aim for the very top. It’s really hard work to get there and you need a strong desire to drive you. Blue Direction simply wound down as we all wanted to go our separate directions and pursue our own dreams and careers. I don’t recall a single argument or even a disagreement in the band about the expectations. That is pretty rare I think. It never stopped being a blast, even when I had to drive home at 2am with homework and school the next day.

RQ: In later years Jeff would often talk fondly of the innocence and discovery of those days of just “playing music with our friends,”… Years later he talked about wanting to seek out Jeremy and Graydon for a Blue Direction reunion at his club.  I think a big reason for his fondness was exactly the point Jeremy made:  there was no conflict and a lot of fun.

GC: This may sound a little corny…..For a guy with no eyesight in life, he certainly had a lot of vision.  God rest his soul and may his music be everlasting.

JL: And there it is.  Jeff was a really generous, kind and fun loving person, and I was very sad when he passed. He had his challenges and used his nine lives and then some. He was a fearless friend who confronted cruelty if it was ever dumb enough to stand in his way. Jeff did amazing things in his career and I am grateful that I had many memorable times with him on that path.

***

A big Thank You again to Graydon, Rob & Jeremy for taking the time to share their memories with us here. You guys rock.

Stay safe everyone.  See ya all soon.

Rog

(All pics and memorabilia courtesy Graydon, Rob, and Jeremy unless otherwise noted.)