By Steve Newton
Twenty-five years ago tomorrow–on February 26, 1989–Jeff Healey kicked off a three-night stand at Vancouver’s historic Commodore Ballroom. In advance of the gig I chatted on the phone with the Canadian blues-rocker, who would sadly die of cancer in 2008–though not before proving himself one of the most gifted guitarists of all time.
Here’s the story that ran in that week’s issue of the Georgia Straight newspaper.
Now that a third show has been added to Jeff Healey’s Commodore stint (February 26 to 28), it’s pretty obvious that the Toronto guitar sensation has, as they say, “arrived”. Though not quite as impressive as the five-night stand that fellow blues-rocker Colin James pulled off recently, it’s still a far cry from the days when Healey would play to a small (but devoted) following a few blocks down Granville at the Yale pub.
Thanks to a sensational debut album and heavy airplay, the word is out on the 23-year-old musician. But that doesn’t worry Healey in the least, because he’ll play anywhere.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s in a club or a park or a bathtub,” he says. “It doesn’t matter at all, as long as I can play.”
As young as he is, Healey says he’s been playing guitar now for the past 20 years. He got his first one when he was only three. “I tuned it to a chord and altered the chord with a steel bar,” he says. “Then around the age of seven or eight I learned standard tuning and began working with all five fingers over top of the neck–as I had done with the slide before. I had just become accustomed to holding it that way.”
In concert, Healey sits at center stage with his guitar held flat on his lap, and he uses all five digits of his left hand in a keyboard-like manner to conjure up shreiking licks and shimmering chords. The tools of his trade are the same ones as Jimi Hendrix immortalized–a Strat guitar and Marshall amp–but Healey doesn’t mess around with a bunch of effects. Rather, he uses his thumb a lot to bend strings and hit notes beyond those standard-style guitarists could reach.
The first time you see Healey’s unconventional technique, you’re flabbergasted. Hearing the results is even better.
Although blind since the age of one, Healey claims not to have been encouraged by the successes of other sightless musicians. In fact, he gets a bit riled when asked if he was inspired by the likes of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.
“What for?” he counters. “No more than they would inspire anybody else. I was inspired by good musicians, whether they were blind, or had only one hand, or whatever. I mean [blindness] is not a factor in music in the least. It’s just a fact of life that you kinda have to deal with.”
Healey himself has certainly been an inspiration to the people who’ve seen him play; he’s been raved about by no less an authority than B.B. King, who came across the rising star when the two of them played at Expo 86.
A lot more people will become aware of Healey’s talents when the movie he made with Patrick Swayze, Roadhouse, is released in May. Healey plays a buddy of juke-joint bouncer Swayze, and his group is the house band where Swayze’s character works.
Among the 10 tunes included on Healey’s See the Light LP is a version of ZZ Top’s “Blue Jean Blues”. (It was also planned as part of the Roadhouse soundtrack, but has now been dropped from the film.) Other covers on the album include two tunes by John Hiatt, “Angel Eyes” and the video/single “Confidence Man”.
But Healey says he’s not a particular fan of either ZZ Top or John Hiatt. His favourite music is jazz from the 1920s and ’30s; he’s got a collection of nearly 1,000 78s from the period.
“You could say I’ve got a lot of listening to do,” he says.
The Jeff Healey Band’s basic guitar-bass-drums sound was augmented on four ofSee the Light‘s tunes by the keyboardwork of Benmont Tench, a member of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. Also sitting in on a couple of tunes was Robert Plant’s former guitarist, Robbie Blunt.
“Robbie was working with our producer, Greg Ladanyi, on another project at the same studio, and we just hung out and talked for a while. We threatened to jam together at some point, so that’s what we did.” (The two work out on Freddie King’s “Hideaway”, as well as an instrumental they wrote together, “Nice Problem to Have”.)
When the Georgia Straight called Healey in Toronto last week, he had just been presented with a platinum award for Canadian album sales of over 100,000. Another feather in his cap is a Grammy nomination for “Hideaway” in the Best Rock Instrumental category. (The awards take place just as the Straight goes to press.)
“I’m very honoured by that,” Healey says, “but I don’t think we’re going to get the award. If popularity rules it’ll probably go to Jimmy Page, who put out, you know, a pretty good solo album last year. I mean I’m not gonna give you my opinion on who I think should get it, but looking at things logically, that’s what I would predict.”
Healey’s taking his new-found popularity–and all its pressures–in stride, though. He hasn’t allowed himself to be overcome by all the attention, he says.
“As a matter of fact, I’m just fine. I’m just doing what I like to do, and that’s really as far as it goes. Just playing, and taking care of the business. Making sure that we keep our head above water.”
As for that Grammy nomination, Carlos Santana actually took the Best Rock Instrumental award for “Blues for Salvador”. That was also the year that Jethro Tull beat out the likes of Metallica and AC/DC for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance.