Since his breakthrough debut in 1988 with the release of his platinum-selling See The Light, Jeff Healey has garnered acclaim as one of Canada’s most renowned six-string exports.
Known for his firey blues/rock style, unique technique, and blazing showmanship, the Grammy-nominated virtuoso is a musician’s musician whose style crosses all boundaries. He’s adept at a multitude of instruments, is a musicologist of considerable prowess, and has a collection of over 25,000 vintage recordings.
Illness rendered Healey blind at the age of one. At three, he started playing the guitar, and by his teens he had established a reputation in Toronto’s music scene. His guitar “apprenticeship” included gigs with Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Diligent touring and recording through the ’90s culminated with the 2000 release of Get Me Some, a collage of styles including rock, pop, and blues. Last year, he realized a life-long dream when he opened Jeff Healey’s Club, a live-music night spot in the heart of downtown Toronto.
Vintage Guitar: The nightclub is something you’ve wanted to do for some time…
Jeff Healey: It’s meant to be a very special place of good music. I don’t care what type of music or how you want to classify it, the club is there for musicians who show integrity and people who want to come out to see such musicians.
It offers everything from traditional country and bluegrass to traditional jazz, blues, R&B, soul, funk, and rock. And it’s very special to me. I get to share the stage with local musicians whom I respect, people I grew up with. And I think, “I’ve got all these people onstage and a bar full of people lovin’ it!”
When I get off the stage, I can keep listening to good music while I stand at the bar with my drink. And it’s all happening at a club with my name on it. And why are they here? I booked them! That’s probably the most gratifying feeling I’ve had in years.
Is it a full-time job for you?
Yes it is, in terms of keeping it organized – who’s playing and when.
A few months ago you put together the Jazz Wizards, a traditional jazz ensemble. What was the impetus behind that?
It’s a hobby that just sort of exploded. There’s a ton of interest that I did not anticipate. I’m not thwarting it – it’s very nice that people are interested in what I’m up to – but it’s not meant to be a “serious career change.” I’m still a musician, which is what I came into this being – a musician, musicologist, and music lover. It’s a lot of fun, but my main focus is the club.
Does the band have a regular lineup?
No. There’s a large pool of very talented musicians around town, and most of them have all sorts of things up their sleeves, as well. My main rhythm section people all have day jobs, so if we play mid-week festival or something, I have to look for other musicians. So it’s not really looked at as a formed band – it’s myself and whoever I can get for a date.
How many pieces are in the band, typically?
Usually six or seven including me and a lead vocalist. I do a few lead vocals, but I wanted to have someone else do most of the singing, for several reasons including variety, and so I’m not calling all the tunes. I kind of got tired of leading a band, and that was one of many reasons.
I have a female vocalist named Nicole Stoffman, who’s very good onstage. And she’s got quite a repertoire, so I let her pick the tunes, as well.
What sort of tunes are you doing?
Your classic American popular songs from the late 1920s through the early ’40s.
Who are your primary jazz influences?
Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, and Coleman Hawkins would be the top three. But I just love to hear music, and there are many players – legends and otherwise – among my favorites. There’s very little that I don’t care for.
So, do you think fans of your blues and rock music will see this as a curveball?
Basically, what I’ve been doing is fooling all of the people most of the time (laughs)! I started off as a musicologist, unknowingly as a child, growing up with a lot of musical styles on record around the house. I was attracted particularly to music with an improvisational base, as well as the popular tunes of the time.
As a player, I took that improvisational mentality and put a lot of volume behind it, which is what most of the pioneering rock and roll players were doing anyway. So it’s the same sort of mentality.
And now you’re playing trumpet, trombone… and some guitar. How much guitar?
It can vary. If you break it down, probably 30 or 40 percent of a gig. I have a full-time guitar player names Jesse Barksdale, who, in my opinion, is the finest jazz guitar player, all-around, in this country. And he just turned 24.
Where did you find him?
I’ve known Jess for five years or so. As a kid, he started coming to the more traditional jazz functions. There are a few younger players in town who are fans of the more traditional type of jazz and who haven’t been tainted by the sterile approach a lot of jazz schools teach today.
Do you have any particular contemporary favorite players?
No. Frankly, I tend to lose interest in jazz and where it went just into the bebop era. And that’s just me – there’s nothing wrong with the music, it’s just a matter of personal taste.
Do you have a primary guitar for playing jazz?
A Gibson L-12 from the late ’40s, which I’ve had for about 10 years. I added a pickup to it. It still has a nice acoustic sound, I just wanted certain “electrified” sounds, if you will. I don’t remember exactly which pickup we put on it – it’s an old, large-looking thing.
And what do you run it through?
A little Fender Pro Junior – it has your two basic controls – volume and tone. In my club, I use the Fender Hot Rod Deville because it has enough power and kick. It serves me well.
Another project you’ve got going is a custom-built guitar…
I’ve designed it over the last few years. It has three double-coil pickups, all of which can be split into single-coils. You can get a combination of any one, two, or all three. You can combine all sorts of Strat configurations – front and middle, back and middle…
I’ve talked to a lot of the major companies [about marketing it], but no one seems interested in picking up the idea. They felt that in order to do it, they’d have to put too much money into designing it that way, or that nobody would be too interested.
One of these days, someone will license the idea or work with me on it. But life is too short to go beating my head against a wall.
When and why did you put together the Jeff Healey Band?
1985, and it was just a natural evolution through the Toronto music scene. At the time, I was just a circulating musician, as was (drummer) Joe Rockman, to a degree. Tom Stephen (bassist) played a lot at jam sessions. He’s educated in business and urban planning, but had a passion to play music.
We were part of a batch of people who would get a gig one week, then go out and put together a four or five-piece band.
Tom was part of the batch, and he and I enjoyed working together. He’d met Joe by subbing in a band Joe was in when the drummer couldn’t make it, and the leader knew Tom. Tom suggested the three of us at least get together at a jam. We were thinking of having another guitar and a harp player, but they didn’t show up.
So it was just the three of us, and it worked well. I had two months worth of gigs booked under my name, so I said, “I got these gigs, guys. Why don’t you do them with me?”
So I figured, “Why bother changing the name of the band?” I was doing most of the singing and lead guitar, and there was no point in hiring someone else, because we weren’t getting paid that much.
Was there a particular reason for the five-year gap between the Cover to Cover and Get Me Some albums?
We were all involved in our own individual things, and we were still doing a lot of touring. I’ve been involved in so many different things, working with a lot of artists.
We would record when we could, and it finally just came to a point where we said, “Look, we have two or three dozen pieces of music here. Maybe we should do something with this” (laughing). So we assembled it and, with a little input from Universal, put it out.
The album got some of the best acclaim from critics and the media that we’ve had in some time, but for some reason it didn’t quite click with the public.
It really showcases your craft as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter. What was your artistic goal in writing and recording the album?
It was recorded over a long period of time with a series of collaborators, and you’re looking at a good chunk of our lives there. It was a case of chasing the dog a little long, so we said, “Why don’t we see what’s the best of what we’ve got?”
Usually, you have a whole lot more songs than you’re going to use, but this was a couple songs here, a couple songs there. You get an idea for another tune, then go back and re-do it, that kind of thing.
“Macon Georgia Blue” is filled with lushly orchestrated acoustic with classical and blues stylings. What guitars did you use, and can you detail your technique on the song?
That was recorded almost five years ago. I think it was a Martin D-18 or a D-28. When I heard the demo, it was just a guy at his piano, and he had this sound… So I played the piano and guitar, and then it all started to come together. When we went to L.A. to mix a few tunes, we brought Benmont Tench in on keyboards. He had this old string synthesizer that if you hit the keys, it’s actually playing a string sound. I didn’t even have to write it for him. It took him like three passes, and we just put it together and bang! It’s a very special moment. No question about it. And I believe, in my heart, that if it was put on adult radio…
…or pop radio, it’s beautiful…
Nobody denies the performance, but people won’t relate to it. Like, “What is ‘Macon Georgia Blue'” and “How many people have actually traveled through Macon, Georgia, to know how blue it is there”?
How long did it take to record and mix?
The earliest track was recorded in October of ’96, and the last track was done in November or December of ’98.
What were your primary guitars, equipment, and gear on the album?
I’m not a gear man – never have been. Give me something with six strings, keep it in tune, and make sure it’s working!
You began playing the guitar at three years old. What was your first?
A cheap little department store model… and that’s how it came about, because it was cheap (laughing).
What made you choose to play the guitar?
I was always interested in music through listening to records. And if ever there was a stringed instrument in someone’s house – or a piano, or harmonica, or a little thing with bells on it – I found some way to get something out of it.
My dad wanted me to be a piano player. But we couldn’t afford a piano, so it wound up being this cheap little guitar.
At 14, you worked at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Yes, I did work every couple of weeks for the CBC, bringing in a track or two.
You have a library of over 25,000 jazz and swing recordings from the early 1900s through ’42. How did this passion begin and evolve, and how has that influenced and informed you as a musician?
I grew up with lots of old records, and was fascinated by them. Just as I was with the whole artform of radio. I’ve been a broadcaster, on and off, all my life. I’m sure it has influenced me. I look at music at so many different levels, and with a record I’m interested in the music, but I’m also interested in how it’s cut, the catalog numbers, the personnel, what theories were used.
Explain how you developed your style and technique; you use all five fingers for fretting, hammering, and bending strings, and use your thumb to strike certain notes.
I started with a slide because it was the only way my dad knew to show me how to play. And I made a hell of a lot of horrible noises on it for two or three years (laughs)!
Somewhere between the age of six and eight, it hit me that if I could put a slide over the top of the neck of the guitar, I could put my fingers over the top of the neck. I remember later seeing a fellow who tuned his guitar to a chord, as I did, but he didn’t use a slide. He used a finger all the way up, and held it flat. I said, “Well, if you can do that, why can’t you tune it to standard tuning, use all your fingers, and get all the chordal possibilities?”
But I don’t think like a guitar player. Nor do I think that way when I’m playing the trumpet as a trumpet player or the piano as a piano player.
I believe it’s important – and it’s sad the degree to which the importance has been diminished – in the performance of the musicians. It’s important to know music theory, or theoretical makeup. Why is it when you hear an alternative band, or almost anything where you hear a dissonant chord; most of the time I wonder, “Did they know what they really did there?”
It’s like the Alanis Morissette tune, “Head Over Feet” which has, in its chorus, around bar eight, a chord that nobody in their right mind would ever have orchestrated, and yet if it wasn’t there, you’d notice. It’s just a weird A chord with a B flat bass with a couple of strings that are just way out there. It’s so wild to analyze it – and I’m not saying I’m the only one who can hear it. But people who have taken some amount of music theory can say, “That’s why that works, because of that note.”
I’m always thinking very musically, so when I approach the guitar, again, it’s not as a guitar player. I’m playing the music and conveying emotion.
When did you begin playing professionally?
I suppose the day I quit college was the day I decided I’d better consider myself a professional musician (laughs).
What was your first band?
That would go even further back, and I don’t even remember exactly. I’d been in and out of so many things as a teenager, and even back when I was 10 or 11. I got a name around, even as a kid. If you wanted a kid who held the guitar weird, could play solos off a record, and sang a pretty good high harmony with a prepubescent voice…
You’re equally talented as a composer, singer, and songwriter.
I see myself as a musician, but songwriting for me is very far down the line. I just don’t enjoy songwriting.
What about your experiences with Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughan? How did you hook up with them?
Oh, just about everybody comes to Toronto, and I was fortunate to live here. I grew up here and will probably spend all of my days in the general vicinity.
When did you meet Stevie and Albert?
I was 19, so it was 1985.
How did performing with such artists influence you?
They were very important. But again, I grew up in a city with a tremendous amount of talented musicians. And it meant so much to my development, coming downtown when I was 14 or 15 to watch players, and jam with them. And it’s been an ongoing cycle. When I got onstage with the local guys, it was like, “Wow!” Then I’d meet someone more provincially known, and so on. It was great.
Who are some other of your non-jazz influences?
That goes back with all that I listen to – very much a jazz mentality. But I also love singing traditional country songs – Hank Williams, Jim Reeves, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash.
You’re known for your tendency to showboat a bit – play the guitar with your teeth, over your head, and bending the whammy bar with your foot. How are you able to incorporate the theatrics while maintaining any control over your playing?
I don’t (laughs)! That’s what’s so stupid; if you listen to a tape of it, it sounds awful. To be honest, I’ve avoided listening to tapes of my live performances for a long time. But I can remember when I did something that I liked, I’d add it to the “repertoire,” if you will. But it’s just showbiz. My dad, when he first saw me jumping around, just about cried. He said, “Why, when you’re such a good player, do you do that?” And I said, “Did you see the reaction from the audience? That’s why!”
Not that I think it adds anything to my creative heart or output, nor is it an angst-ridden statement to bare my soul. It’s just show business (laughs)…
Healey applies his unique style to a black Fender Strat. Photo: Ken Settle.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.