When superb musicians pass on, they leave a hole in peoples’ lives. When they die at 41, with so much music unplayed, it seems doubly tragic.
That said, Jeff Healey — in his personal life — was a gentle, funny family man, musically enthusiastic about everything from psychedelic rock to arcane and long-forgotten dance music of the ’20s and early ’30s. He knew as much about Henry “Red” Allen and Clarence Williams as he did about Stevie Ray Vaughan or B.B. King. He adored old-fashioned country music, and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of what was on the grooves of his 27,000 78-rpm records as well as what Deep Purple or Cream played on record. He’d played with just about everyone you can name — from Bonnie Raitt to George Harrison and from Stevie Ray to Albert Collins and B.B. King and Albert Collins and Jimmy Rogers. He’d met the Queen and President Clinton, he’d travelled around the world, and he loved to stay home. He was a unique musician with an astonishing musical vocabulary.
And then, on March 2, he died.
After 38 years of a busy, productive, musically joyful life, he took the successive wave of cancers, radiation, chemotherapy and all the rest of it with grace, an amiable grumpiness, and some nervousness. But everything changed when he had a guitar in his lap — then, the fun, the hilarious laughter, and the sheer joyfulness of making music took over again.
Within a week after Jeff died, a group of his family members, close friends and colleagues from this two bands — Jeff Healey’s Jazz Wizards and the Jeff Healey Blues Band — organized two tributes to celebrate his life and his music. The first, at Toronto’s Sound Academy, saw more than 2500 people crammed into the room to hear Jack Bruce of Cream, Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, Randy Bachman, Colin James, David Wilcox, Goddo, the frontmen from Downchild, and dozens more — most of them supported by Jeff’s Blues Band (Dave Murphy on keys, Al Webster on drums, Dan Noordermeer on guitar and Alec Fraser on bass). Everyone of them adored Healey, were mentored or influenced by him, or saw themselves and colleagues and friends. Jack Bruce, who has had his own battle with cancer, told reporters: “Jeff put his arm around me when I was at my lowest.” And Steve Lukather (Toto, and the guitarist on Thriller) sent his own message: “When Jeff died, every other guitarist in the world moved up a notch.”
The following day, half a dozen Toronto-based traditional jazz bands packed the Roadhouse named after Jeff, along with some American guests who had played on Healey’s classic jazz records. The Mayor of Toronto showed up with his kids, Jack Layton cheered, Shakura S’Aida got off a plane from Amsterdam and went straight to the club to bring down the house with two songs, accompanied by a band she’d never even herd before, and the Jazz Wizards ended the six hour show, with an empty chair in front of the band.
Every musician played for nothing, dozens of organizations and individuals put in both time and money, with box office receipts going to the Daisy’s Children’s Eye Cancer Fund and The Healey Family Trust
Jeff Healey was a one-off. We’ve never had a musician like this before; and — alas — we never will again.