In REMEMBRANCE of an icon, Jeff Healey.
Legendary Toronto blues guitarist and jazz enthusiast Jeff Healey died Sunday March 2nd, 2008 in St. Joseph’s Health Centre after a three-year battle with osteogenic sarcoma — the same cancer that took the life of Canadian icon Terry Fox. Jeff was only 41 and was Etobicoke’s most famous son.
Healey sold more than a million copies of his Grammy-nominated 1988 debut album, See the Light, which included the famous hit Angel Eyes. The album followed a cameo appearance by Healey in the movie Roadhouse starring Patrick Swayze.
Retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer robbed Healey of his sight at seven months old. Self-taught at age three, he laid the electric guitar across his lap, and later became one of the most distinctive guitar players of all time.
“He still had us laughing even the night he died. Right until the end, he’d make you laugh,” said sister.
Healey, who still lived in Etobicoke, was an internationally renowned star who shared the stage with music legends Ronnie Hawkins, B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and recorded with George Harrison, Mark Knopfler and blues legend Jimmy Rogers.
Despite rock success — The Jeff Healey Band won a Juno Award for Canadian Entertainer of the Year in 1990 — Healey’s true passion was vintage jazz.
He hosted a long-running CBC Radio series, My Kinda Jazz, before moving the program to Toronto’s Jazz-FM station. Broadcast highlights were his use of rare — and rarely heard — music from his 30,000-plus collection of 78-rpm records.
When his rock career waned, he recorded three albums of early jazz, including his most recent, It’s Tight Like That.
“But Healey’s musical mastery extended beyond his electric guitar to the trumpet, both a function of his ear for music“, said his high school music teacher.
“It’s a tragic loss,” Etobicoke Collegiate Institute’s Robert Judge said yesterday. “Jeff was an absolute genius. He could play so fast, his fingers dancing on the guitar board. He was a real master of that, and had a great musical sense.”
Healey revived 25-year-old ECI stage band pieces when he played at the school’s 75th anniversary in 2003.
In fact, one of ECI’s most famous musicians often returned to his alma mater to talk with students or to jam with the stage band. “He was a great guy, so very humble,” Judge said.
Tributes to Healey poured from famous fans like rock star Bryan Adams, and guitarist Randy Bachman.
“Jeff was one of Canada’s greatest talents. It’s a huge regret to have to say goodbye,” Adams said in a statement. “Wherever you are Jeff, we remember rocking with you.”
Bachman said he felt appreciative to have performed with and have befriended the guitar great.
“He was a wonderful spirit, a stunning guitar player, a soulful singer and a real Canadian treasure,” Bachman said in a statement. “I’m so grateful that we recorded together and will treasure those moments forever. I feel a great sense of loss.”
The man behind the music was “a good guy,” independent, who eschewed a seeing-eye dog, and who possessed an encylopedic memory, especially for numbers, his sister said: “My dad always said he should have been a lawyer.”
Healey’s staggering memory extended to street directions, despite the fact he was blind, Kuypers continued.
“I asked him once how to get back on the Don Valley from his apartment. ‘Oh, you just go down Yonge Street to this road to this road,’ he said. And you’re going, ‘Wait a second. You’ve never driven before.’”
Healey and his sisters, Linda and Laura, were raised in Etobicoke. He attended W. Ross School for the Blind in Brantford, before he transferred to public school in Grade 8 at Park Lawn Junior Middle School.
“We’d tease him, and he’d always get us back with the cane across the shin,” Kuypers said, with a laugh. “At the cottage, we’d have him walking in between us, and we’d walk him right into a tree. Smack. But, he’d always get us back.”
Despite sibling pranks, their dad, Bud, tried to make his son’s life as normal as possible, and often adapted sports games.
“Instead of a hockey puck, we’d play with a tobacco can my dad squished so Jeff could hear it rumbling down the road,” Kuypers said. He did the same for baseball. “Dad would drill a hole in a plastic ball, fill it with rocks, so when you threw the ball, we’d say ‘Swing,’ and Jeff could hear the ball.”
Cancer-free for decades, the disease struck Healey again three years before he passed away and Doctors removed tumours in his legs, but they returned. Late 1 year before his death an MRI confirmed the spread of the disease. Doctors removed tumours from his lungs. Despite chemotherapy, the tumours remained.
Yet Healey continued to perform across Canada with both his blues band and jazz ensemble.
Throughout, Healey remained positive. He had just recently returned from Nevada, where he was undergoing holistic treatment.
“He was really hopeful,” Kuypers said of her brother’s attitude in recent months. “He thought he could overcome it. He’s so strong. He’d overcome so much in his life.”
At the time of his death, Healey was set to release Mess of Blues, his first rock/blues album in eight years. The album was released in Europe, Canada and the U.S.
Healey’s House Band played backup on the album and played with him regularly at the popular Entertainment District club that bore his name, Jeff Healey’s Roadhouse.
“So many people value and appreciate what he’s done,” Kuypers said. “His music has done something for them. He was an amazing person. A lot of people will miss him.”
Healey left his wife, Cristie, daughter Rachel, and son Derek, as well as his father and stepmother, Bud and Rose Healey, and sisters Laura and Linda.
Another year slides past and it still feels surreal. 14 years ago March 2nd, Jeff Healey passed away after a three year battle with sarcoma cancer.
While we are reminded on this day, of such a tragic loss, we choose to celebrate who Jeff was. His life was always full of adventure and laughter. As someone who has inspired people all over the world, Jeff always tried to embrace life and never let a challenge stop him from accomplishing his goals. In fact, he thrived on challenge.
Today, we remember a person who filled the world with his passion for music, his lust for life and his incredible character, which always seemed to leave a lasting impression on so many people with his bountiful sense of humour.
Today, we remember…… Jeff.
We still miss you everyday…xoxo