The late Jeff Healey, a blind blues guitarist and jazz musician from Toronto, was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame on Oct 18, at the 2014 unveiling ceremony held at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts.
Healey experienced a dramatic rise in popularity by selling more than four million albums worldwide in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with his unique style of playing the guitar flat on his lap and his soulful voice. The Jeff Healey Band signed a deal with Arista Records in 1988 and released the album “See the Light”. The album 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.
See the Light went triple platinum in Canada for sales with more than 100,000 copies and in the US for sales of more than one million copies. It received a Juno nomination for Album of the Year in 1990, 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 rapidly rising profile resulted in an appearance as the house band in the Patrick Swayze movie Road House (1989). Recognized as one the world’s best 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.
The band’s follow-up album, Hell to Pay (1990), was equally successful, selling more than 200,000 copies in Canada and more than two million internationally.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.
Healey gained worldwide fame as a blues guitarist, but his passion was music from the classic jazz era, such as Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. He established Jeff Healey & The Jazz Wizards, and released three albums: Among Friends (2002), Adventures in Jazzland (2006) and It’s Tight Like That (2006). All these albums featured Healey on trumpet, trombone and guitar.
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 March 2, after it spread from his legs to his lungs. 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.
Born in Toronto, Healy was adopted at four months old and grew up in Etobicoke. When he was eight months old, he lost his sight to retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the eyes. His eyes had to be surgically removed, and he was given ocular prostheses. He began playing guitar at age three and was initially self-taught. He quickly developed an unusual playing style, placing the instrument flat across his lap and fretting the strings overhand, like a lap steel guitar.
Healey 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. By the time Healey was 19, he developed a reputation in Toronto as a blues-rock prodigy. He formed The Jeff Healey Band late in 1985 with bassist Joe Rockman and drummer Tom Stephen.
A childhood cancer survivor, Healey took every opportunity to help support Sick Kids Hospital, focusing on Daisy’s Eye Cancer Fund, which is a Childhood Retinoblastoma Research foundation. The fund has made great strides and even helped the amazing progress of his own son’s Retinoblastoma treatment.
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. He was inducted into the Terry Fox Hall of Fame by the Canadian Foundation for Physically Disabled Persons in 2009, in recognition of his “contributions to enriching the quality of life for people with disabilities.