Norman Jeffrey Healey, guitarist, singer, songwriter, trumpeter, trombonist, clarinetist (born 25 March 1966 in Toronto, ON; died 2 March 2008 in Toronto). Jeff Healey’s phenomenal technique and soulful voice made him one the world’s premier blues-rock musicians. Perhaps best known for the hit single “Angel Eyes,” and for his unconventional style of playing the guitar flat on his lap, he was blind by the age of one and began playing guitar at age three. He rose to international fame in his early twenties, selling over four million albums worldwide in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Also a highly regarded jazz aficionado and trumpet player, he hosted the CBC Radio program My Kinda Jazz and released three albums of traditional American jazz tunes before dying from cancer at age 41. Nominated for 11 Juno Awards and two Grammys, he received the 1990 Juno for Entertainer of the Year, as well as an Honorary Licentiate from the Royal Conservatory of Music and a Maple Blues Award for Lifetime Achievement. He was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame on 18 October 2014.
Adopted when he was four months old, Healey grew up in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke and was blind by the age of one due to retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer; his eyes were removed and replaced with ocular prostheses when he was eight months old. He began playing guitar at age three and was initially self-taught. He quickly developed an unusual playing style, similar to that employed by Fred McKenna, placing the instrument flat across his lap and fretting the strings overhand, like a lap steel guitar.
He attended a boarding school for the blind from grades one to seven and in his youth played country music, jazz, rock and reggae. He began performing in rock bands when he was 13, playing in such short-lived Toronto groups as Blue Direction. In 1983 and 1984, while attending Etobicoke Collegiate and playing in the Senior Stage Band, he was named to the Canadian Stage Band All Stars.
By the time he was 19, Healey had developed a reputation in Toronto as a blues-rock prodigy. In July 1985, he was invited to join legendary American bluesmen Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughn (who became a close friend) onstage at the Toronto blues venue Albert’s Hall. Concentrating on 1960s-style blues-rock in the vein of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, he formed The Jeff Healey Band late in 1985 with bassist Joe Rockman and drummer Tom Stephen, and the trio made several club tours across Canada. They opened for The Band in 1986 and began attracting industry attention the following year with their independently released single “See the Light.”
The Jeff Healey Band
The Jeff Healey Band signed with Arista records in 1988 and made a dramatic international breakthrough with the debut album See the Light (1988), which was launched by a sold-out show at the Marquee Club in London, England, and appearances on such American TV programs as Late Night with David Letterman and The Tonight Show. The song “Angel Eyes,” written by roots rocker John Hiatt, became a major hit, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and No. 16 on the Canadian singles chart. “Confidence Man” was also popular, hitting No. 11 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. Healey's extraordinary virtuosity was perhaps best exemplified by “Hideaway,” which was nominated for a 1989 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. The band’s rapidly rising profile resulted in an appearance as the house band in the Patrick Swayze movie Road House (1989). They also contributed four songs to the movie’s soundtrack.
The trio continued to tour internationally, adding Japan and Australia to its itinerary in 1989. Also that year, See the Light received the Netherland’s Edison Award for best foreign rock recording and Healey was nominated for a Juno Award as Most Promising Male Vocalist. See the Light was certified triple platinum in Canada for sales over 100,000 copies and in the US for sales over one million copies. In 1990, it received a Juno nomination for Album of the Year, while the band won a Juno for Canadian Entertainer of the Year and a World Music Award for Best-Selling Canadian Artist. See the Light has since sold more than two million copies worldwide.
The band’s follow-up album, Hell to Pay (1990), was equally successful, selling more than 200,000 copies in Canada and over two million internationally. Featuring George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Mark Knopfler, Paul Shaffer and Bobby Whitlock, the album included the Top 10 Canadian singles “I Think I Love You Too Much” and “How Long Can a Man Be Strong,” as well as a cover of Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that hit the Top 40 in Canada and charted in the UK.
Around this time Healey also founded his own recording company and studio, Forte Records and Productions; one of the first artists he signed was Amanda Marshall, who came to be managed by Tom Stephen.
In 1992, the band released Feel This, which featured Molly Johnson and Paul Shaffer. The singles “Cruel Little Number” and “Lost in Your Eyes,” a cover of an early Tom Petty song, cracked the Top 20 in Canada and drove domestic sales over the platinum mark. In 1995, the band released Cover to Cover, which returned to their roots with a focus on favourite blues and rock standards. The band left Arista later that year and received a Grammy nomination in 1996 for Best Instrumental Rock Performance for the Yardbirds cover, “Shapes of Things.”
The trio’s final album, Get Me Some (2000), was followed in 2002 by the live album Live at Montreux 1999; the DVD of the concert was certified gold in Canada. Two box sets came later: Full Circle: The Live Anthology (2011), a three-CD set consisting of performances at the 1989 Montreal Jazz Festival, the 1991 St. Gallen Open Air Festival and a 1995 show at Toronto’s Hard Rock Café; and As The Years Go Passing By: Live in Germany 1989–1995–2000 (2013), comprising previously unreleased recordings. House on Fire, a collection of studio rarities and demos recorded during the sessions for Feel This and Cover to Cover, was released in 2013, followed by Live at the Horseshoe Tavern 1993 in 2014.
In 2001, Healey opened a nightclub in Toronto called Healey’s, which later moved to a larger location in the downtown entertainment district and was renamed Jeff Healey’s Roadhouse; he performed regularly at both venues. With the exception of a performance with Sass Jordan at the Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto “SARStock” benefit concert in July 2003, he moved in the early 2000s away from blues-rock and towards jazz. He established Jeff Healey & The Jazz Wizards, and released three albums of traditional jazz tunes: Among Friends (2002), Adventures in Jazzland (2006) and It's Tight Like That (2006), all of which featured Healey on trumpet, trombone and guitar.
Death and Posthumous Albums
Healey was planning a European tour with The Jazz Wizards in April 2008. However, he had been battling cancer for three years and succumbed to the disease on 2 March after it spread from his legs to his lungs. His legacy was celebrated at two charity tribute concerts in Toronto featuring artists he had played with and influenced, including Randy Bachman, David Wilcox, Alannah Myles, Cream’s Jack Bruce and Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan.
Healey’s first blues-rock album in eight years, Mess of Blues (2008), was released shortly after his death and received a Juno nomination for Blues Album of the Year. A companion record titled Songs From the Road — comprised of live recordings from Norway, England and Toronto — was issued in the summer of 2009.
Healey's final jazz album, Last Call, was recorded mostly on his own in the months before his death and released in April 2010. It received a 2011 Juno nomination for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year. A DVD titled Beautiful Noise, featuring a full concert performance by Healey and The Jazz Wizards, came out at the same time.
Speaking of Healey’s tremendous range and versatility, Guitar Player magazine said in 2007 that “Jeff Healey may be the only cat around who can play the prewar jazz of Louis Armstrong on the trumpet, and the heavy electric blues-rock of ZZ Top on the guitar.” The magazine also praised his “astoundingly fluid bends and vibrato.”
His greatest mainstream success was with relatively conventional pop ballads (“Angel Eyes,” “How Long Can a Man Be Strong,” and “Lost in Your Eyes”) and straight-ahead rockers (“I Think I Love You Too Much,” “Cruel Little Number” and “I Got a Line on You”). According to AllMusic critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “his material leaned toward standard AOR blues-rock, which rarely let him cut loose, but when he did, his instrumental prowess could be shocking.”
Record Collector and Radio Host
Healey was an avid record collector and jazz aficionado, and had amassed a collection of over 30,000 78 rpm records by the time he died. He once referred to himself as “a musicologist who happens to have a talent for playing music” (Guitar Player, 2007). He began sharing his collection and knowledge of early jazz recordings in 1988 when he hosted his first radio program on the University of Toronto’s campus station, CIUT. In 1991, he began hosting a national program on CBC Radio called My Kinda Jazz. It later moved to Toronto’s JAZZ.FM91, which continued to broadcast episodes of the show after Healey’s death.
Honours and Significance
Recognized as one the world’s premier blues-rock guitarists, Healey toured and played with such artists as Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton, ZZ Top, Bonnie Raitt, The Rolling Stones and The Allman Brothers Band. In 1990, he was voted Best New Guitarist and Best New Talent in a reader’s poll conducted by Guitar Player magazine.
Healey won numerous awards including an Honorary Licentiate from the Royal Conservatory of Music in recognition of his extensive knowledge of classic jazz music and an honorary Doctorate of Letters degree from McMaster University. In 2009, he was inducted into the Terry Fox Hall of Fame by the Canadian Foundation for Physically Disabled Persons, in recognition of his “contributions to enriching the quality of life for people with disabilities.” In 2011, Woodford Park in Etobicoke, where Healey played as a child and with his own two children, was renamed Jeff Healey Park.
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.
Toronto Music Awards
- Best New Band (The Jeff Healey Band) (1987)
- Best New Guitarist (1987)
- Mayor’s Award (The Jeff Healey Band) (1989)
- Best Toronto Guitarist (1989)
- Best Toronto Group with International Acclaim (The Jeff Healey Band) (1989)
- Best Guitarist (1990)
- Best Male Vocalist (1989)
- Album of the Year (See the Light) (1989)
- Single of the Year (“Angel Eyes”) (1989)
- Billboard International Achievement Award (The Jeff Healey Band), Billboard Magazine (1989)
- Best Foreign Rock Group (The Jeff Healey Band), Edison Awards, Holland (1989)
- Entertainer of the Year (The Jeff Healey Band), COCA (Canadian Organization of Campus Activities) Awards (1989)
- Male Vocalist of the Year, Music Express Awards (1989)
- Best Live Act of the Year (The Jeff Healey Band), Music Express Awards (1989)
- Best Selling Canadian Artist (The Jeff Healey Band), World Music Awards (1990)
- Canadian Entertainer of the Year (The Jeff Healey Band), Juno Awards (1990)
- Best Group Video of the Year (The Jeff Healey Band), MuchMusic Canadian Music Video Awards (1990)
- Best Blues Guitarist, Guitar Player Magazine Reader's Poll (1990)
- Best New Talent, Guitar Player Magazine Reader's Poll (1990)
- Blues Group of the Year (The Jeff Healey Band), Jazz Report Awards (1993)
- Blues with a Feeling Award for Lifetime Achievement, Maple Blues Awards (2001)
- Honorary Degree, D Litt, McMaster University (2004)
- Honorary Licentiate, Royal Conservatory of Music (2007)
- Inductee, Terry Fox Hall of Fame (2009)
- Inductee, Canada’s Walk of Fame (2014)
See the Light (1988). Arista AL-8553.
Hell to Pay (1990). Arista ARCD-8632.
Feel This (1992). Arista B000002VML.
Cover to Cover (1995). Arista B00008G71N.
Get Me Some (2000). Eagle B00004T98N.
Among Friends (2002). Stony Plain B000I2KPO6.
Adventures in Jazzland (2004). Stony Plain B000I2KPOG.
It's Tight Like That (2006). Stony Plain B000ETRIZ2.
Mess of Blues (2008). Stony Plain B0016MX3F0.
Songs From The Road (2009). Stony Plain B002F040F4.
Last Call (2010). Stony Plain B0036WL32S.