Tributes pour in for Toronto blues-jazz musician Jeff Healey

Tributes were flowing Monday for Jeff Healey, a Toronto blues-rock and jazz musician who has died at age 41.

Tributes were flowing Monday for Jeff Healey, a Toronto blues-rock and jazz musician who has died at age 41.

Healey, who was known for his unique guitar style, died Sunday of cancer at a Toronto hospital, surrounded by family and friends.

Tributes to Healey were pouring in from blues and jazz musicians across the world including Bryan Adams, who called Healey "one of Canada's greatest talents."

Friend and fellow musician Colin James hailed him as a great talent, saying Healey's musicality came in "an unworldly way."

One of Healey's unique characteristics was his style of playing guitar — with his Fender Stratocaster placed on his lap, not standing up.

"It was amazing for any guitar player to see," James told CBC News. "It was physically shocking to hear him play."

Healey said it was more comfortable to play that way.

"I tried playing guitar the normal way, but I just wasn't very comfortable," Healey said in an interview with the Oregon Statesman-Journal.

A talented musician from an early age, Healey played guitar, trombone, trumpet and keyboard with fluid ease, despite being blind from the age of one.

Beginning as a blues-rock musician, he was catapulted into the spotlight when Stevie Ray Vaughan heard him play in Toronto in 1985 and began inviting him to international gigs.

Healey was known best for the classic tune Angel Eyes with the Jeff Healey Band and his role as Cody in the 1989 film Road House, starring Patrick Swayze.

In the 1990s, his career took a new turn when he opened Jeff Healey's Roadhouse, named after the movie, a popular performing venue, in Toronto.

Early love of jazz

The club played host to hundreds of Canadian and international musicians, and Healey turned to jazz, an early love.

"Every time he sang Stardust, it just sent chills through me," said Christopher Plock, a sax player and singer who counted Healey among his friends.

Plock noted that while people went to see Healey play, he was generous in sharing the spotlight.

"It was about Jeff Healey. People came to see him, but he gave other musicians a chance, even to try something new. He let everyone shine," Plock said.

Healey and his band the Jazz Wizards played regularly at the club and Healey was recording and performing until just four weeks ago, despite battling cancer. 

Gary Scriven, a member of the Jazz Wizards, said Healey had an infectious enthusiasm that motivated both his bandmates and audiences. 

"He drew his strength from somewhere, I don't know where, but it spread among the band and flowed into the audience," Scriven said.

The two played together just four weeks before cancer claimed his life.

Healey's first brush with cancer was as a child of one, when he lost his eyesight to a rare form of retinal cancer known as retinoblastoma.

First band at 17

Born on March 25, 1966, in Toronto and adopted into a middle class Canadian family, Healey spent his childhood in Etobicoke, Ont.

At three, he picked up his first guitar and by the age of 17, he had his first band, Blue Directions, a blues band he and some high school friends put together.

One fateful night in 1985, a friend got 19-year-old Healey to jam with bluesmaster Albert Collins at a club in Toronto.

A few nights later, he was invited back to play with Vaughan and then the invitations for club dates started pouring in.

Healey formed the Jeff Healey Band with drummer Tom Stephen and bassist Joe Rockman.

In the late 1980s, the Jeff Healey Band played 200 to 300 gigs a year in Canada alone. Arista Records produced their first album, See the Light, which included their biggest hit single, Angel Eyes.

Juno win

The band made three more albums together, Hell to Pay, Feel This and Get Me Some. Healey won a Juno and was nominated for a Grammy Award.

In this period, Healey shared a stage with musicians such as B.B. King and George Harrison.

But Healey's true love was jazz, and in the 1990s he began to indulge that love.

"When I was growing up in the '70s as a child I was fortunate to have a lot of radio programming devoted to jazz from the '20s and '30s on a lot of different stations," Healey told the Kitchener-Waterloo Record.

He hosted the CBC Radio program, My Kind of Jazz, where he played selections from his personal collection of more than 30,000 vinyl records.

Healey hated travelling and cut back on touring commitments when he opened up Jeff Healey's Roadhouse.

Independent label

There he jammed twice a week with guest musicians and with the Jazz Wizards.

The club presented hundreds of international and local artists, and continues as one of the best live music venues in the city.

Healey created his own independent record label HealeyOphonic to record with the Jazz Wizards. In 2006, he recorded with British trombonist Chris Barber.

His last blues recording, Mess of Blues, is slated for North American release on April 22.

Healey's last live performance was Feb. 2 in Goderich, Ont., when he performed despite fighting lung cancer. His cancer had returned in 2006, at first attacking his legs.

He is survived by his wife Christie and two children; daughter Rachel, 13, and son Derek, 3.

With files from the Canadian Press