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Virtuoso Canadian Guitarist Jeff Healey Excelled Despite Uniquely Thorny Path

By March 3, 2008

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The death of blues-jazz guitarist Jeff Healey on March 2, less than a month before his 42nd birthday, came as quite a shock to me. Somehow, even though I witnessed with ample interest the fretman's emergence into the mainstream in 1988, I had failed to absorb the knowledge that his nearly lifelong blindness was caused by a rare form of cancer, which turned out to be the same disease that cut his life short. Certainly no one failed to know Healey was blind; at one time or another it was practically impossible to avoid describing him as "that blind dude" even if the rest of your sentence stated that he plays a scorching electric guitar in an unorthodox lap style and sings with a genre-bursting, passionate howl. Obviously, the disability he so innovatively overcame would always be tied inextricably to Healey the musician and human being, but he never seemed to belabor the issue.

Among Healey's most notable accomplishments during the late-'80s blues mini-revival he engineered were most certainly the release of a fine debut record in 1988's See the Light and bringing another deserved hit to ace singer-songwriter John Hiatt (always a good thing) with "Angel Eyes." But beyond that Healey performed another impressive feat when he delivered perhaps the most professional, naturalistic performance of all opposite a cast of well-known cinema veterans in the ham-fisted yet always utterly absorbing 1989 bad-movie classic Road House. Just as his band played behind a cage and managed by the smallest of margins to avoid getting involved in the film's numerous brawls, Healey seemed unfazed and at ease despite the voracious scenery-chewing going on around him. Hey, what can you say? The guy was gifted in many unique ways, not the least of which was that rare ability among entertainers to neutralize the stink of involvement in a questionable project. Gone too soon Healey certainly is, but I have no doubt Dalton will be happy to bust out a few extra knees with a pool cue in his honor the next time he gets a chance.

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