Rock and blues guitarist Jeff Healey fit a lot of music into 41 years.
Blinded by retinoblastoma at the age of 1, the child prodigy began to play guitar at age 3. The Juno award-winner performed and recorded with the likes of B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins and George Harrison. An acclaimed jazz trumpet player, clarinetist and keyboard player, Healey helmed the Jazz Wizards at their weekly gigs, and he hosted his own jazz radio shows, too.
His new blues-rock album, Mess of Blues, drops April 22 (Stony Plain). Co-produced by Healey and Alec Fraser, his bassist and an award-winning producer, Mess of Blues features a blend of live cuts and studio tracks, and is the artist’s first blues-rock album in eight years.
Unfortunately, Mess of Blues arrives too late for Healey to fully appreciate the fruits of his labor. Healey, 41, died of cancer March 2, 2008, in Toronto. He left behind a wife, Cristie, and children Rachel, 13, and Derek, 3.
Healey had a special quality about him that enthralled audiences worldwide, and his love of music brought joy to countless people.
Buzz Thompson, a longtime Hawkins guitarist, recalled Healey as one of The Hawks’ all-time favorite stage partners.
“One of the funniest Jeff Healey stories I remember is when we (The Hawks) were playing a benefit in Hamilton to raise money for the firemen and cops in New York after 9/11. Jeff was sitting in with us, and when he did a guitar solo, everyone cheered (naturally), and Ronnie said, ‘Don’t brag on him too much. He’ll want a raise.’ Just after that Jeff walked up to the mic and said, ‘Oh, come on, Ronnie. You know I never get paid when I work with you.’ Jeff used to sit in with my band (Mr. Soul) when we worked at Grossman’s Tavern. It seems like decades ago now. Sometimes, he would sit in for a set or two.”
Christine Louie, whose family has owned Grossman’s in Toronto for three decades, recalled how Healey got his start there, and how the establishment hosted a huge party for Healey after he was signed to Arista records in 1988.
Healey played the famed Massey Hall several times, including at Hawkins’ Oct. 2, 2002 tribute concert, where he was part of an all-star lineup that included guitarist Domenic Troiano, singer Kris Kristofferson and blues harp player Jerome Godboo. His final Massey Hall performance came in April 2007, alongside guitarists Randy Bachman and Duke Robillard, to promote Bachman’s Jazz Thing ll.
The evening before, Bachman showed up at Healey’s Roadhouse to sit in on guitar with Jeff — a show that blew the minds of those in attendance. It was part of the Healey’s Roadhouse weekly Thursday Night Special Guest show tradition that began when the establishment opened in 2002. Healey played there every Thursday night with Healey’s House Band, which also was his touring band. Besides Bachman, special guests had included Downchild guitarist Donnie Walsh and vocalist/harp player Chuck Jackson, New Orleans sax great Johnny Pennino, teenage guitar prodigy Jimmy Bowskill, blues guitarist Jack de Keyzer, Burton Cummings and Jose Feliciano.