Cristie Healey On Jeff Healey’s Strength and Why His New Album Matters

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Today would have been Jeff Healey’s 50th birthday. To celebrate, Provogue Records will release, Heal My Soul, an album full of lost work by Healey. The music here was “lost” for decades, and has only recently been revived and lovingly restored. This music is more powerful, more intense than anything Healey’s followers have ever heard from him.

American Blues Scene recently spoke with Healey’s widow, Cristie Healey. Ms. Healey was extremely generous with her time and shared with us her excitement and enthusiasm for the new album, Heal My Soul. She also discussed Jeff’s determination to learn to play guitar, how he did not see blindness as something that kept him from accomplishing anything he wanted to, and his love for jazz.

Barry Kerzner for ABS:

There are so many people out there that really had no idea to what extent Jeff really enjoyed his jazz.

Cristie Healey:

No, they really didn’t. For some people, they mistakenly thought that Jeff’s interest in jazz was very late in his life, but it actually was very early. He started collecting records at a very early age, and he received his first one, of all traditional jazz at the age of seven. So, it was a life long love of his.

At one point he ran a radio station, and he had thousands of records by that time.

He hosted his own show on CBC when he was younger, and then within the last five years of his life he hosted the same show, by the same name, called “My Kind of Jazz” with Jazz Fm here in Toronto. It was all from his jazz collection. They’ve actually started replaying those shows, in celebration of what would have been Jeff’s 50th birthday this year. They started mid-January, so they started playing his show on Jazz 91 again.

Jeff actually picked up a guitar when he was three, and he was already blind at that point. From everything I’ve read, being blind from such a young age, it really didn’t slow him down or stop him from making music, or doing anything for that matter. That kind of “Stick to it ’till you do it” stuck with him throughout his entire life, and I was wondering if you might speak to that for a moment.

Well, absolutely. That really goes to show what kind of character Jeff had, and it really was ‘Stick to it ’till you do it’, and he had that determination since he was a kid. Jeff’s dad told me one of the most famous phrases that he would hear from Jeff growing up was ‘Don’t guide me.’ He wanted to accomplish things on his own, and that included having to fall down on the way, and get back up and keep trying. He was extremely, fiercely independent. He did not want to be told that he was not capable of doing something. If he was, then he was out to prove you wrong. If he had a passion for something that he wanted to do, I don’t think that there’s really much that could stop him from doing it.

He was very determined in his mindset. If there was an obstacle that came up, whether it was music, or any other area of his life, he would just sit down and take the information and go ‘OK. We need to fix this and we’re gonna do it today.’ There’s always a way to make something happen. That was his outlook on life and it allowed him to accomplish so much in his almost forty two years.

He really didn’t regard being blind as a hindrance as far as making music went.

Well no. There was part of Jeff that would get frustrated. Sometimes people would tell him what a great musician he was, and he was blind. And, it was that tag that would frustrate him because he didn’t see himself as a blind musician. He saw himself as a musician that just happened to be blind. As far as he was concerned the two weren’t related.

I remember hearing him in an interview once. We were driving to a show, and he did a phone interview in the car. Someone made the comment ‘It’s amazing how well you managed to pick up the guitar, not having your sight.’ Jeff’s immediate response was ‘I lost my sight, not my ears, and not my hands.’ That was the thing for him. He enjoyed music. He knew that he had the capabilities to do it, and his sight as far as he was concerned, was irrelevant. The sight, or lack of.

He wasn’t overly concerned if mistakes showed up in videos or recordings that got put out.

No, he wasn’t because when Jeff played, it was all in the moment. Nothing is ever gonna be the same, and nothing is ever gonna be perfect. It’s perfect in the fact that you’re in that moment and you’re experiencing it. Every performance he did was different.

For us as fans, that was a very humbling experience because, not only is this guy great, and he’s playing his heart out for us, but he has enough faith in us to just play and not be restricted trying to be perfect. That was amazing.

That said, when Jeff was a kid, he would practice for hours, upon hours, upon hours. He was so dedicated to it. But once you learn to that depth, I think striving to be perfect – I mean Jeff was a perfectionist at heart, but I think training enough and knowing how to just let go and let it take its own form when you’re playing, if you have enough skill, you go with it. Sometimes when people focus too much on being perfect and there’s too much of it, you leave the passion at the door.

A lot of people, at least in this country, really didn’t appreciate how important jazz was to him. He played trumpet, guitar, and a lot of folks didn’t know that side of him. They just knew the rock and the blues he played.

Well I think if Jeff was afforded many more years, that would have come to the forefront, and more people would have known about that. That’s where he was headed. He would have gone back and visited his rock roots, which is what we are putting out now [Editor’s Note: Heal My Soul, releasing today]. He was in the midst of working out tours for his jazz band, so that was in the works. Here in Canada, we got to see a lot more of it. I think had he been given more time, that would have been very evident to everybody.

We reviewed his The Best of the Stony Plain Years album, which is a collection of vintage jazz, swing, and blues. The interpretations were simple, but so effective.

That’s the great thing I find when Jeff played jazz; some of the songs that were very simple, were extraordinary. If you do them right, they don’t have to be anything more than simple.

You could tell that Jeff was just having such a great time playing that; it was so evident.

I think that’s what strikes us about what we are releasing now. I think, and I think many people will think that it is unlike anything ever released, rock-wise. It is very different. You can hear the passion in what he is playing, whether it’s a stripped down “Baby Blues,” or “All the Saints,” or a more hardcore song like “Please” or “ Daze of the Night.” I think what was great about listening to that music, you can hear all the passion and intense emotion in everything he was playing, but you can hear the fun in it too, especially when he is slipping into one of those solos.

When we first listened to it, we were pasted to the wall, like the guy in the chair listening to his tunes and being literally blown away in that old Maxell print ad.

I think what’s great about how they went in, and started from the ground up, with all the production and mastering on these, the goal was to make it sound timeless, so we didn’t want anything to sound dated. It was recorded between 19996 and 1998, and they did exactly  that. They made it sound timeless. It doesn’t have a specific era to it, which I think is great.

In our mind, a lot of what comes out now is very compressed. It has that hollow sound to it.

Yeah, and a lot of people put effects on the voice; reverb and – Jeff couldn’t stand that. Especially with the jazz stuff. Jeff’s stuff, the vocal, everything was ‘as is.’ You really didn’t need to touch it, which was amazing.

He came across that way too, like very much a down-to-earth guy, authentic, not trying to be anything that he wasn’t. It just added that much more to everything.

And he was that very relaxed kind of ‘Yep. This is who I am, and I just love playing music.’ He was very laid back that way. He played very organized, very determined, but with all of that, very relaxed and laid back too.

With this new release, is there anything in particular that you want the fans to know about it?

One, this stuff is recorded between 1996 and 1998, and has never seen the light of day, so it is an absolute pleasure to be able to share this with the rest of the world and we wish that Jeff could have share this with them sooner. I think people will be thrilled with the diversity of this album. The passion behind it; it is electrifying on some tracks and can bring you to tears on other ones. I think the fact that there’s that much packed in one album, they’re gonna be extremely happy with everything that’s coming out with it.

It’s pretty powerful. It doesn’t sound like anything that has come before it, not even See The Light, which itself was pretty powerful.

Absolutely. Jeff was in a different stage of his life. The band was nearing an end. There was a lot of stuff going on in his life, which attributed to the writing that he did, which is something he never really liked to do, but I guess it was the proper time for it. It was what he needed, and it comes out in the music. I think people will really appreciate it.

So you were involved in the selection process?

Actually, the selection process For me, as the executor of Jeff’s estate, if I’m happy with how it’s gonna represent Jeff, then I give the OK and I agree with things, or don’t agree with things, and we discuss it, and decide on things together. I co-administer the estate with Roger Costa. Roger is the person who went through the song selections and sat down with me and said, ‘Here’s my ideas. This is what I’ve laid out.’ We hashed through the songs and he discussed the title idea with me. So, as much as I’m a deciding factor with the estate, the driving force behind this project was Roger Costa. Being able to see him bring this to the final end product was fantastic. He did an unbelievable job. You can really see the passion that went into producing this because he cared so much about Jeff.

Anything you want to share with fans?

The album will be released on what would have been Jeff’s 50th birthday, and we are making this a 50th celebration year. So, we are really excited about the album, and there’ more things to come in this year. I can’t really elaborate, but we’re not done. People can keep and ear and an eye out for things to come throughout the year.

Jeff Healey