Blindness need not be a hindrance for a musician to succeed. Two of the best examples are Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, both primarily known as singers, but equally capable on their instruments of choice – the piano and harmonica, respectively. In 1988, a young man from Toronto, Canada named Jeff Healey rose to stardom with his eponymous blues-rock band. And it wasn’t his blindness that struck observers as odd – after all, Messrs. Charles and Wonder had proven time and again that there is a place for the blind man in popular music. Rather, it was Healey’s unconventional way of playing the guitar – on his lap.
Norman Jeffrey Healey was born on March 25, 1966 in Toronto and adopted as a baby. He was blind from the age of one as a result of retinoblastoma, or cancer of the retina. While attending a school for the blind, Jeff was taught the standard way of handling and playing a guitar, but eventually switched to playing it on his lap. It was more comfortable that way, and as evidenced by his later work, it doesn’t matter how you play the guitar, as long as you play it well.
Healey’s first musical heroes were country musicians like Chet Atkins, but he would soon discover rock and blues icons such as Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King. Their work informed his early career as a vocalist and guitarist, starting at age 17 with Blue Direction. After a short stint as a jazz and blues DJ, he formed the Jeff Healey Band with Joe Rockman (bass) and Tom Stephen (drums). Their reputation grew quickly, and by 1988, with their leader only 22 years old, the Jeff Healey Band was signed by Arista Records. The aptly-titled debut album See the Light was released in September 1988, and its first single, “Angel Eyes” peaked at # 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in early 1989. During the recording of See the Light, the Jeff Healey Band starred and performed in Patrick Swayze’s cult classic Road House. Things were looking good for Healey as the ‘80s were ending and the ‘90s about to begin.
The Jeff Healey Band’s next albums didn’t fare as well as See the Light, though they still enjoyed popularity in Canada. Despite changing musical trends, Healey continued playing his favored blues-rock sound till the dawn of the 21st century, when he started a solo career and focusing on jazz music. Still, Healey never lost his passion for the blues. As the owner of a club in Toronto bearing his name, Healey continued performing with two separate backing bands – a blues band and a jazz band – and made several appearances as a guest musician on other performers’ albums. He remained a respected guitarist and singer among peers and younger musicians alike.
Sadly, the end was drawing near for the plucky infant who grew up to become a rock icon. The cancer that had cost him his vision was spreading, and Healey had cancerous tissue removed from his legs and lungs in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Still, he continued making appearances at public events and contributing to charitable projects. Jeff Healey passed away on March 2, 2008 at Toronto’s St. Joseph’s Health Centre at the age of 41. He was just three weeks shy of his 42nd birthday. A new solo album, Mess of Blues, was released posthumously, just a few weeks after his death.