Jack Spearman and Jessey Bird
Canwest News Service
Monday, March 03, 2008
CREDIT: Peter Redman for National Post
Musician and broadcaster Jeff Healey talking about his life with retinoblastoma at his Toronto home December 20 2005. The cancer caused his blindness from infancy.
Guitar wizard Norman Jeff Healey of Toronto died Sunday of cancer. He was 41.
Healey was considered a prodigy and earned numerous Juno and Grammy nominations in the course of his career.
He lost both his eyes to retinoblastoma before he was eight-months-old, but never let that slow him down.
"What we've lost is a virtuoso musician," said Richard Flohil, Healey's publicist. "He followed his own passion, which oddly enough was not playing blues rock music, but playing classic rock jazz.
"He just cancelled a concert a few days ago in Nepean (Ont.) and we made this very kind of bland, not-to-worry statement," said Flohil. "At that point, we didn't want to say that Jeff was basically dying, although we all knew he was."
The Canadian blues and jazz great died in a Toronto hospital Sunday evening after a lifelong battle with cancer.
Flohil, who had been friends with Healey for about 20 years, said the news of his death will be very hard on his family, friends and fans. "He was lovely," said Flohil. "He was very generous, very warm-hearted, with a great sense of humour."
"He was just an awesome guitar player," said Danny Sivyer, owner of Ottawa blues bar The Rainbow Bistro. Sivyer said he brought Healey to The Rainbow Bistro for his first Ottawa gig when he was just 19-years-old. "He blew us away the first time we heard him." said Sivyer. "We were setting up, it was a busy night, and we looked over and there was this three-piece band with a blind 19-year-old musician."
"Then we sat down and listened and the whole room was stunned," said Sivyer. "Everybody loved him right away."
Healey was only three when he started to play guitar.
By the time he was a teenager, Healey had formed a four-piece band called the Blue Direction and was playing in clubs throughout the Toronto area. His best known work came when he formed the Jeff Healey Band several years later with bassist Joe Rockman and drummer Tom Stephen. His career took off when he appeared in the movie Road House, which starred Patrick Swayze.
In 1988, his Grammy-nominated album See the Light included the major hit single, Angel Eyes. In 1990, he earned the Juno for entertainer of the year.
Healey became an internationally-known star who played with musical greats that included B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
The Jeff Healey Band was a sellout act across Canada and sold over a million albums in the U.S. market.
But Healey's passion was not always in rock music and later in his career branched into jazz, especially from the golden years of the genre in the 1920s and '30s. He released several jazz CDs and had a collection of some 25,000 78 rpm jazz records.
Until recently, he had a show on a Toronto jazz station CJRT-FM.
Early last year, Healey underwent surgery to remove cancerous tissue from his legs, and later from both lungs; aggressive radiation treatments and chemotherapy failed to halt the spread of the disease.
Healey - who was adopted as an infant and didn't have any information about his birth parents - said in an interview with the Citizen in July 2005 that he didn't know if he inherited the illness or developed it due to external factors.
"I do not regret the situation I am in at all," he said.
While his daughter, Rachel, didn't inherit the form of retinoblastoma Healey had, his son wasn't so lucky. Amniotic fluid showed that the now three-year-old Derek carried the mutation.
It also wasn't until 2005 that Healey learned that he and his son were at risk for secondary cancers.
"I used to believe that once they had removed my eyes, that was the end of the story," Healey said. "I understand now that having this (mutation) in my blood, this won't be my last encounter with cancer."
In 2005, Healey told the Citizen that while he loved to play regular gigs, he hated spending time in airports.
"A tour is a nasty four-letter word in my vocabulary," he said. "It's something that I did for many, many years and I hate travelling. I love to play and I love to entertain, so to sort of balance things, get the best of both worlds, I'll travel away for two or three days or something like that."
Mess of Blues, Healey's first rock/blues album in eight years, is being released in Europe on March 20, and in Canada and the U.S. on April 22.
Healey is survived by his children, Rachel and Derek, as well as his wife, Cristie, father and stepmother, Bud and Rose Healey, and sisters Laura and Linda. Funeral arrangements are still being made.
His website said Sunday that he died with his wife, Cristie, at his bedside in Toronto's St. Joseph's Hospital.
With files from Kirstin Endemann and Lynn Saxberg.
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