Listen to this track by fiery Torontonian guitarist, singer, and all around blues-rock titan Jeff Healey along with his two compatriots Joe Rockman on bass and Tom Stephen on drums; The Jeff Healey Band. It’s “See The Light”, the title cut and closing track on their 1988 debut record See The Light.
The notable point that critics and fans made about Healey on his debut beyond his blindness was his re-definition on how to play guitar. Playing the instrument more like a piano, he held the chords in an inverted manner, playing the instrument in his lap. That he was able to do this and still completely wail while doing so was akin to trying to figure out how bumblebees fly; that he shouldn’t be able to do it the way he did, but he somehow managed it anyway. This caused something of a sensation, and by the next year Healey and his bandmates would appear as a version of themselves in the 1989 movie Roadhouse with Patrick Swayze, in which Healey’s every line seemed to start with the expositionary phrase “well, word on the street is …”. Otherwise, who but Healey could have played a blind white blues guitarist with such credibility?
Healey would of course carry that credibility over into his music career, during a period when the blues in the mainstream was just coming into its own after a period in the wilderness. This was not simply down to gimmickry, but rather down to something more vital; a consuming interest from the artist as to where the music he played originally came from.
Generally speaking, I am not one to give in to flashy guitar playing, with a few exceptions that include Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn, the latter of whom helped to discover and promote Jeff Healey. As to the former, it was famously said by Hendrix that “the blues is easy to play but hard to feel”. There have been countless releases of contemporary blues artists that, for me, exemplify this very thing. As I have said very often to the point of boring everyone about it, the blues is very mysterious and even elusive. I think it’s very hard to get it right without turning performances into copies of copies, and replacing the soul of the music with showboating riffs. There was always something more to Healey’s music that helps it escape that trap. For all of the bar band bluster and wild riffing that we may hear on this song (which ultimately, I love), what might not be so obvious at first is all of the homework Jeff Healey did even before his star began rising, and throughout his career and life.
In addition to being a guitar slinger in a hit-making blues rock outfit like The Jeff Healey Band, Healey himself was a student of the blues all along, collecting thousands upon thousands of records, many of them original 78s. This of course included traditional jazz, which was the first vehicle for the blues in a notated form. His passion for the music spurred something of a second and even third career for Healey. This included a stint as a trumpet player in a jazz ensemble he formed which he played on alternate days of the week during his club days. He’d eventually cut three vintage jazz albums by the early-to-mid two-thousands. In addition to that, he’d have a gig as a broadcaster on jazz radio in Toronto and specifically on the CBC program My Kind Of Jazz, curating the music for the show from his own collection of over thirty-thousand records dating back to the 1920s and 1930s.
This passion for where the music came from was the secret ingredient to his performance. Every musician needs to be fed, and needs to create a strong base for themselves when it comes to enlivening their art. Being a humble acolyte of the blues and of jazz and generally being a rabid music fan was what helped to make Healey a master who’s music stood out, setting him apart as a formidable musician beyond just his unusual playing style or his disability. To truly put the feel of the blues in one’s playing it seems, acknowledging the weight of history behind the music that so many others have made before one was even born is the path to enlightenment, communicating the depths of human feeling and passion through the records and channeling it into one’s own work.
Eight years after his death to lung cancer in 2008, there is a new Jeff Healey album now available; Heal My Soul, representing a “lost” album of previously unreleased material created during a fertile period of his career. Learn more about the new record right here at jeffhealey.com.