Jeff Healey: Electric guitar virtuoso

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The Independent Online

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.