Jeff Healey

The voice was very polite. She was trying a little too hard to sound business-like.

“Hi, my name is Tracy. I have a friend. He is a very good guitar player and has been writing some songs that I think have great radio potential. But he needs help in arranging and producing them. You were recommended by David Norris-Elye (a local saxophone player). Would you be interested in meeting him?”

“Yes, absolutely. I’m busy for the next few days, but perhaps on the weekend?”

I wrote down the townhouse number.

The address turned out to be in Yorkville, a chi-chi neighbourhood of Toronto. Back in the 60’s, this is where all the really great music happened. Now, it had been completely gentrified into spiffy, exposed brick townhouses with Mercedes and BMW’s parked outside.

The day was cold and rainy when I showed up for the appointment. I had a mental picture of what Tracy might look like and she was pretty much what I had expected. Attractive, expensively dressed with light brown hair. Leading me down a hallway to a side room, she introduced me to Jeff who turned out to be a handsome young man, with long blonde hair and a beautiful smile. He held out his hand in a peculiar, searching manner and in a delayed reaction, I realized that he was blind. Tracy helped him into a chair where he reached for a Stratocaster that was leaning up against the wall. He put it horizontally on his lap and laid his fingers on it as if it were a piano. I was fascinated as he struck a few notes. I had never seen someone play an electric guitar as if it were a lap steel guitar.

We had a bit of small talk, just stuff about the music industry and bands we both knew. He strummed a few chords testing the waters. I asked to him to sing me one of his song ideas.

He said, “Sure man, here goes.”

As he began to sing, the first thing I noticed was the rich, dark tone of his voice. I am a sucker for voices that have a naturally great raspy tone. I let him play the song all the way through without interruption. It was melodically beautiful but meandered a bit. I made a few small suggestions and Jeff seemed quite agreeable. And so, we got right down to work.

We clicked immediately. Jeff was an absolute pleasure to work with – open-minded, possessed with a great sense of humour and a generous spirit. After an hour or so, we took a tea break. I thought things had gone very well. We chatted a bit and then Jeff asked if we could make plans to meet again in a few days. I said I would love to.

On the second visit, I got to know Jeff better and liked him even more. He was a charismatic story-teller and quite unexpectedly, had an incredible knowledge of classic jazz history. The man was a veritable encyclopedia of jazz trivia. He promised to show me his vinyl jazz record collection of which he was very proud but he never got around to it.

By the end of that afternoon, we had finished fully writing and arranging 3 songs. Not bad for 4 hours of work. Just as we were wrapping up, Jeff asked me to hang a bit and if I wanted to jam a little.

“Yeah sure, why not?” Plugging my guitar back into the amp, I began to play a little swing blues. While I played some standard chord changes, Jeff smiled, nodded his head to the rhythm and began to solo.

My jaw just about hit the ground.

The notes sprang out of his guitar in twists and turns as surprising as the unorthodox way he had of playing it. It was a double whammy. You were fascinated by the unfamiliar sight of seeing an electric guitar played like a lap steel and then simultaneously blown away by the superb command and dexterity of his unique technique.

“Jeff, where the hell did you learn to play the blues like that, man?”

Jeff laughed a little, almost apologetically.

“Well. I really love the blues, and old jazz. But everyone says, to have a career in music, it would be better for me to develop my songwriting skills.”

We jammed for an amazing hour or so and then I left, fully expecting to get together with him again for another writing session. But I got a call a few days later from Tracy. Something had happened and it turned out there was going to be no money available to invest in bringing Jeff into the studio. I was really disappointed. I had really liked Jeff, thought that he was tremendously talented and that we had a great chemistry together.

However, as fate would have it our work would not find its way into the studio. Immediately afterwards, I entered into a huge project, producing and arranging an R&B album and I got busy, real fast. The days flew by and turned into weeks, then months.

I lost touch with Jeff.

Months later, I got a call.

“Hi Vezi, it’s Jeff, Jeff Healey. Remember, we worked on some of my songs a while back?”

“Yes. Hi Jeff. Of course, I remember you. What’s up?”

“Well, I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed working with you and I didn’t want to lose contact. If you want to come out, I now have my own band and we’re playing a warm-up set for Tony Springer (a popular, brilliant Toronto blues guitarist) out in the west end tonight. I’d love it if you could come and tell me what you think. I would really appreciate your input.”

So, I convinced Joanne, my lady to accompany me. The address turned out to be some down and out bar in Mississauga and when we got there, the place was almost empty. We ordered a few beers and watched as Tony Springer delivered some wicked blues. Then Tony introduced Jeff.

“Well, everyone, you are in for a real treat. Here is my good buddy Jeff Healey and he is going to tear it up right about now.”

A stage-hand carefully guided Jeff to the center and he sat down with his Stratocaster in his lap. A drummer and bass player came up after him and set up. Jeff counted them in. The first song was a Jimi Hendrix classic, Voodoo Child I think.

Jeff not only played the whole song note for note – He played as if his guitar was on fire, not just doing justice to Hendrix but slaying everyone in the bar in the process.

I was stunned.

Joanne turned to me and said, “I thought you said he was a singer song-writer, that wrote some really good ballads?”

“AAhh…I yelled, “yeah, he is…..(it was hard to speak over the screaming guitar) I mean, I know he plays the blues a bit, like we jammed and man, he really is good but I wasn’t expecting this…..”

Jeff tore through a set of killer classics with mind-numbing ease: Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Albert King and on and on but the reaction from the audience politely dismissive. Good old ‘cool’ Toronto eating up its talented again.

Later, we met backstage. Jeff was drenched in sweat and high on the adrenaline of performing.

“Hey Vezi. Oh man, thanks for coming. What did you think? C’mon man, be honest.”

“Yeah, well, Jeff, what can I say? You were awesome man! I never realized you wanted to get into a style that blues-heavy.”

“Couldn’t fight it, Vezi. It’s in my blood. Just couldn’t keep writing those pop tunes and be happy. Couldn’t fight it.”

“Yeah, but Jeff. You know how many tremendous blues guitar players there are in Toronto (and there really are). You’re going to be in trouble getting heard amidst all that competition. And you need a better band. In the meantime, you should really keep up the writing thing just to cover your rear end. For example, you and I – we had a good thing going – we could have gone into the studio and everything.”

“I know Vezi, I know. But, I’ve got a feeling this is what I am supposed to be doing so I’m going to stick with it for a bit and see where it takes me.”

On the way home driving down the Gardiner Expressway, I turned to Joanne.

“I think he’s making a big mistake…..”

Enough said.

Sidelight 1

Jeff , now an international star, called me up one summer day and came in for a weekend and recorded a few songs at Kensington Sound. It turned into a very long session, steaming hot outside and the air conditioning barely keeping up. I was trying to do a drum microphone check. Tom, the drummer was talking on a cellphone, earpiece in one ear, had one side of the studio headphones in the other ear , sipping a coffee, hitting the drums and arguing with somebody all at the same time.

“Yeah, well, we’re ..wack…..not going to play for that. Jeff deserves way more money than that…wack..wack…wack……”

(Me, on the talkback microphone from the control room) “….aaahh…Tom, I’m done with the snare drum, if you could just give me the tenor tom now please…..thank you…..”

Pounding the snare (he hasn’t heard me), “Listen man, don’t waste my time….wack, wack…..Huh?....I don’t care who you are…wack….wack….” The coffee cup tilts in his hand and spills out on to the carpet.

(Me from the control room again)….’aah…the tenor tom, not the snare please….”

Still pounding the snare drum…..”I don’t give a shit if you are the freaking president of the universe…don’t waste my time…wack….wack…..”

Finally, a scream of exasperation from an apoplectic Jeff Healey at the other end of the studio.

“Put the fu---%&*#---in phone down! Vezi’s trying to talk to you !”

Sidelight 2

For a few years, Murray McLauchlan hosted a very popular CBC radio series called ‘Swinging on a Star’ that featured Canadian singer-songwriters in an intimate setting. I used to drop in from time to time to the CBC Radio One studio on Yonge Street. I was not only good friends with Murray but also Kit Johnson the bass player and Danny Greenspoon, the guitar player.

One evening, I dropped in and discovered that Jeff Healey was the featured guest. I hadn’t seen Jeff in about two years and made sure to say a quick hello. Then I returned to the control room and watched the live taping through the glass. Murray was speaking to Jeff, asking him a few questions as part of an introductory interview segment. They were all sitting on stools in front of a small studio audience and while Danny and Kit quickly scanned their charts for the next song, Murray turned to Jeff.

“So, now that we all know a little bit more about you and your well-deserved success all over the world, what are you going to play for us?”

“Well, I would like to do this song. Haven’t done it in a while. I wrote it, oh man, years ago…..hey….. wait a minute!…how about that?....what a coincidence!…a friend of mine helped me with it - added a bridge and changed the chorus and I just found out he’s here tonight of all things!….. His name is Vezi…Vezi, you out there?….hhmmnn…… I am not quite sure if he is still here in the audience or where he went…..”

Without missing a beat ,with that wicked wit of his, Murray chuckled,

“Oh, Vezi? He’s not here anymore. He’s gone to get a lawyer!”

Sidelight 3

It would be neglectful of me here, not to say out loud that Jeff Healey was one of those rare individuals that was not only a fine human being, a creative inspiration and brilliant musician but fundamentally, an artist that really made a difference. Blessed with ungodly talent, he was humble and supportive of others and never satisfied - always striving to contribute something lasting. Surely, Jeff’s greatest gift to the local Toronto music scene was his almost single-handed resurrection of the old time traditional swing jazz idiom which he enthusiastically promoted by sitting in with existing jazz bands playing his coronet trumpet or on his own radio show on CBC. This show cemented his reputation as an intelligent and thoroughly knowledgeable music historian and jazz aficianado. Eventually, he would lead his own swing jazz band The Jazz Wizards at his club Healey’s every Sunday afternoon.

Sidelight 4

I am so grateful to have shared the stage with Jeff Healey many times. For a few years I was fortunate enough to be the guitar player in the Lincolns. Because the Lincolns happened to be one of Jeff’s favourite bands, he would sit in with us as often as he could and on each and every occasion that he did so, the evening would become musical magic.

My last memory of Jeff was when he invited me up on stage at Healey’s and asked me to do one of my own songs. I chose a song called “Nothing Lasts Forever (Except the Pain).” Considering it was impromptu - I just quickly talked it over with the musicians on stage before we started, everything worked out amazingly well. The band nailed it and Jeff took his usual mind-boggling solo.

We got a ton of applause. As I began to walk off the stage, Jeff made a point of complimenting me by turning to the audience and saying, “Wow, wasn’t that one killer blues tune? Thanks Vezi. See you here again or maybe in the studio soon, I hope.”

I looked back at him to see him waving to the crowd to clap some more and that was the very last time I saw him.

He is sorely missed.

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