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Blind Guitar Virtuoso Jeff Healey Sees The Light Again

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the Bradenton Herald, March 30, 2001. Photos: Jeff Healy website

To the public, Jeff Healey is best known as a blind virtuoso who plays the guitar on his lap.

It's irritating to Healey, who would rather be known as a good musician, period.

"There are people who say that," said Healey, when asked if his unique sound is in part due to his unorthodox playing style, "but I think the possibilities are whatever's in one's mind. It's the mind-hand coordination that makes a player. It doesn't matter how one's holding an instrument or if one has sort of unconventional ways of playing drums, or plays the horn out of the side of their mouth, or whatever the case."

The fact that people are hearing anything at all from the 35-year-old Healey is news. His new album, "Get Me Some," is his first since 1995's "Cover to Cover," and the first collection of original material since 1992's "Feel This." Healey released it last year on his own Canadian label, Forte Records, but has yet to receive a distribution deal in the U.S., forcing American fans to order it off the Web. (Healey parted ways with his old label, Arista Records, in the late '90s.)

So where has he been? Well, actually, he's been pretty busy running Forte, managing other artists, doing charity work (he's run the Canadian National Institute For the Blind's annual golf tournament since 1993), and spinning His collection of vintage 78-rpm records on his own radio jazz show. In between these duties, he entered the recording studio, but at his own pace.

"This album came about from a lot of recording over a two-year period," Healey said, "just recording on and off whenever there were completed ideas that seemed at least worthy of attempting. And then coming to a point where we had at least two dozen or more of these in the can and saying, "Maybe we should try and assemble some sort of package out of this."

The result is an very eclectic CD. "Get Me Some" kicks off with the screaming guitar blues of "Which One," cartwheels into the radio-friendly "Love is the Answer," sidesteps to the all-acoustic "Macon Georgia Blue" and closes with a heartfelt lullaby to Healey's daughter, "Rachel's Song."

It's as if the extra time allowed the Toronto native to expand on the experimentation that he's dabbled in since the beginning. Blind since age 1 due to retinoblastoma, Healey began playing guitar when he was 3 by emulating country licks on a lap-steel. When he switched to a normal six-string, he decided to stick with the same technique, minus the slide and with standard tuning. By using all five fingers for effects and bending strings with his thumb, he developed a sound that was unlike anyone else.

In 1985, a friend convinced the legendary bluesman Albert Collins to let the 19-year-old Healey sit in with him during a Toronto club gig. Collins was so impressed with the young prodigy that he invited Healey to play with him and Stevie Ray Vaughan a few nights later. Almost overnight, Healey was a hot commodity, and he quickly recruited local musicians Tom Stephen and Joe Rockman to back him in his own band.

The Jeff Healey Band's big break came in 1988 while they were in the midst of recording their debut album, "See the Light." As legend has it, the scriptwriter for a new Patrick Swayze film, "Road House," saw them play at a Toronto club and was inspired to create a character for the film who was blind and played blues guitar on his lap. A copy of the script made its way to Jimmy Iovine, who was putting together the soundtrack. By coincidence, Iovine was also producing "See the Light," and the band was soon cast in the movie to play the parts they had inspired.

What's not as well-known is that they went into it kicking and screaming.

"It was a load of (excrement)," Healey said. "Not that any of us know anything about scriptwriting, but we know what we like in movies. So we said, "Thanks, but no thanks, we're working on our album, go away" -thinking that Arista would slap us on the back and go, "Way to go, no diversions for you guys."

"Well, they flipped out. They said, "You can't buy promotion like this. You've got to get down there, and no matter how many coital favors you have to do, you get in that film." So we went down, and I read for the part, and there we were, in the movie."

"Road House" proved Healey right by being a box-office flop, but the band's appearance did its job for record sales. "See the Light" rose to No. 22 on the album charts and sold platinum, even yielding a No. 5 single with the country-tinged "Angel Eyes."

Jeff Healey was a household name. Somewhat to his chagrin, however, that Name was followed by "blues player."

"I haven't really concentrated on the blues," he said. "We sort of got that hung on us with doing a couple of blues songs on the album, and with people saying, "Well, how do you classify these people? They do a blues, and they've got a quote from B.B. King praising them, so they must be a blues band." But a lot of the material this band has done really has nothing to do with the blues."

Granted, playing events like the Tampa Bay Blues Festival doesn't do much to widen that pigeonhole. And Healey's musical style, no matter what genre he taps into, always has a hint of Delta mud in it.

To Healey, however, it's just music. And the other stuff, like his absence Of sight, his playing style or even the tag of being a blues artist, doesn't matter.

"I believe at the end of the day that the public isn't stupid," he said. "There have been people who have come and gone rather quickly with little perceived gimmicks and things like that, and they were a novelty. But when you broke it down and just listened to them without having to see or know anything about them, there wasn't much to offer. So I would hope that regardless of how I held an instrument or whatever the other aspects of my life are, you either like what it is that I do, or you don't."

It's the beginning of a new era for Jeff Healey. He's searching for another label in the U.S., he's trying to recapture the fan base that's dwindled during his absence, and he's playing with a new drummer for the first time since he formed the group _ Stephen was forced to take some time off due to health problems, and has been replaced with a young newcomer, Cassius Pereira.

Whether or not he'll achieve the success of "See the Light" doesn't really concern Healey, though. He just wants to play.

He just wants to be a musician.

"We've never really looked back and said, "Look how far we've come," he said. "We've always been looking at, "What's the next thing we can do?'"