Jeff Healey: Electric guitar virtuoso

Nobody played guitar like Jeff Healey. A big man with cascading blond hair who was as laid-back and funny off-stage as he was demonic on it, he'd sit at the front of the stage with a Fender Stratocaster perched on his lap and unleash the blisteringly intense blues rock that made him a major international star in the late 1980s. Adored by fans for the uncompromising emotional power of his band, his distinctive playing and bruising voice, he was also revered by his peers, who acknowledged him as a highly individual electric guitar virtuoso.

Yet Healey was also a man of unusual integrity, with little patience for the trappings of fame or the politics of the mainstream music industry. He hated the iconic status bestowed on him and turned his back on rock to instead indulge a dedicated passion for vintage jazz. He assembled one of the world's most extensive and valuable record collections, with more than 30,000 vinyl 78s of pre-1940s jazz as well as 5,000 CDs of reissued material which – according to the removal company that moved him and his long-term partner, the singer Cristie Hall, to a new house – weighed more than five tons.

The adopted son of a Toronto firefighter, Jeff Healey was less than a year old when retinoblastoma – a rare cancer of the retina – left him blind. Encouraged by his father, he first picked up a guitar at the age of three and, not knowing any differently, began to develop the unique laptop technique that became such a distinguishing feature of his style.

"I didn't know anything about standard tuning then," he said:

I mastered the slide technique to alter the pitch of a chord and I just bashed around to see what worked. When I was seven or eight I learned standard tuning and I figured that if I held the guitar and put the slide over the top then I could also put the whole hand over it. Innocence and naivety are special things and children often have a better idea of the way to do things than adults.

Some people – including one of his great heroes, the jazz pianist Oscar Peterson – criticised him, saying the unorthodox technique limited him, but Healey didn't agree, arguing that it effectively gave him an extra finger to work with, enabling him to play with more freedom and dexterity. The complexities of his picking and the extraordinary power he effortlessly seemed to conjure supported this theory.

The soundtrack to his childhood encompassed a broad range of music, from vintage blues to classic country artists like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, and the young guitar prodigy listened intently to everything. "I was a sponge – I absorbed it all," he said.

By 14 he was playing in Toronto night clubs and a year later was leading his first band, Blues Direction. His fast-growing reputation was enhanced when he was invited to play with the Texas bluesman Albert Collins, and it was further cemented by enthusiastic public plaudits from leading figures in the guitar world including B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. In 1985 he formed the Jeff Healey Trio with two musicians who were to remain with him for most of his career, Joe Rockman (bass) and Tom Stephen (drums), and they were signed by Arista Records.

Their first album, See The Light (1989), sold more than two million copies, was Grammy-nominated and produced two American hit singles, "Angel Eyes" and "Confidence Man". The same year he also had a role in the Patrick Swayze movie Road House as the leader of a band called Double Deuce. The combination of album, film and world tour won him international acclaim. This success was replicated by his next album, Hell To Pay (1990), with a string of star guests that included Mark Knopfler, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison. Healey's version of Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" became a tour de force on the album and was a showstopper during the endless touring that followed.

Healey, however, soon tired of the heavy rock emphasis of Hell To Pay and its successor, Feel This (1992), and resented the onslaught of promotion, touring and hard-drinking lifestyle that invariably resulted. He later said he was unhappy with four-fifths of his recorded work during these rock years and was even less enamoured with what it was doing to him personally. "I never understood the music industry and the bits I did understand I didn't like. It's harder to be a superstar than to be a great musician and to sustain it takes insanity. I never wanted to be a superstar."

So he got off the treadmill and by the end of the 1990s was dedicating himself to traditional jazz, teaching himself trumpet and clarinet, playing both blues and jazz in Toronto clubs, one of which was re-named Healey's in his honour. Proudly refusing to play anything written after 1940, his band, the Jazz Wizards, became a big local attraction and in 2006 recorded It's Tight Like That, a live album of New Orleans jazz standards on the Stony Plain label with the veteran English trombonist Chris Barber.

Healey also established a side career as a cult radio DJ playing obscure jazz from his huge collection for the Canadian Broadcasting Company and a local Toronto station. He was, however, planning a rock comeback and had finished recording a new album, Mess of Blues, and was planning a major European tour when he was struck again by the cancer that had haunted him almost from birth.

Mess of Blues, which includes covers of classics like "Jambalaya", "The Weight" and "Shake, Rattle and Roll", will be released by Stony Plain next month.

Colin Irwin

Norman Jeffrey Healey, singer, guitarist, radio presenter and record collector: born Toronto, Ontario 25 March 1966; married 2003 Cristie Hall (one son, one daughter); died Toronto 2 March 2008.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin