There were times during the process, admits Jeff Healey’s wife Cristie, when it felt like he was back. It could be an intimate vocal coming through the cans. Maybe an isolated harmony played back in the control room. Or an idiosyncratic swoop of guitar wizardry.
“For a period, at the beginning of this project,” she tells The Blues Magazine, “I actually couldn’t listen to some of this material, because it was too emotional. Some songs, it was like Jeff was sitting right there next to me. I couldn’t make it halfway through without bawling my eyes out…”
It’s a curious thing, but Jeff Healey has arguably never sounded more alive than on Heal My Soul. Released on March 25, 2016, through Provogue, this ‘lost’ album gathers 12 unreleased tracks, recorded by the guitarist as his world-conquering original band crumbled in the late 90s. On paper, it might smack of another odds-and-sods posthumous trolley dash through the vaults. On record, though, the music is so vital, so visceral, so of-the-moment, that you find yourself thinking: we’ve got to get this guy in for an interview.
Then reality bites. Because, of course, the cold, hard, ugly truth is that Jeff Healey died at the age of 41 on March 2, 2008, following a three-year fight with sarcoma cancer. It was the day that nobody quite believed would come, recalls Roger Costa, the late guitarist’s closest friend, co-administrator of his estate and executive producer of Heal My Soul. “He was a fighter. And with every single step of his illness, he was resilient to the extreme.”
He never traded on the sympathy vote, but Jeff Healey had been dealt the toughest of hands. Born in Toronto on March 25, 1966, he lost his sight at the age of one to the rare ocular cancer retinoblastoma, and spent his entire life with glass eyes. Undaunted, he patented a blazing guitar style perhaps best described as the bastard child of lap-steel, and from the late 80s, led his eponymous trio to Grammy nominations, millions of worldwide sales and collaborations with BB King, Eric Clapton, the Stones and all the rest.
“I first met Jeff in January of ’87, when they had just put out their first independent release,” remembers Costa. “A friend of mine dragged me out. Y’know, hyping him: ‘You’ve gotta see this guitar player.’ I remember being absolutely stunned. I was born in ’67, so I missed the Hendrixes and Creams. I’d never seen anything like it. The power and the passion, the material and theatrics. He was just smashing the crap out of his guitar. Y’know, stomping on it, playing it with his teeth, behind his head. Making a show of it.”
“It was fucking scary, man,” adds Walter Trout, who befriended Healey during his 80s Bluesbreakers tenure. “The way he played, laying the guitar on his lap and attacking the neck – nobody played like that. He had finesse, soul, energy. He was one of the all-time greats. He was in a class of his own.”
Throughout his early career, Healey treated his health setbacks as niggles to be swatted away. “He made a conscious [decision] that it wouldn’t slow him down,” explains Costa. “Y’know, he hadn’t resigned himself to anything. It was always, ‘Okay, how do we beat this? What do we do next?’”
By the mid-noughties, however, the diagnosis suddenly looked far bleaker. “He had fought so hard and done so well,” remembers his wife, Cristie. “As much as sarcoma cancer has really shown no official cure – and we knew it was a very bad diagnosis – we still had hope that he would get through it. So I think losing him just came to everyone as a shock.”
“I remember, the last operation he had was to remove cancerous tissue in his lungs,” picks up Costa. “And I was astounded that within days of this operation, he was up and about and doing things, like nothing had happened. It was insane. I used to tell him, ‘What are you doing? Sit down, stop that!’ He was still performing. When Jeff passed, there was a resounding echo among everyone who knew him. They just couldn’t contemplate the fact that he was gone. Because it was always just the next step, the next fight, the next thing to overcome. It was shocking to everyone that he had finally succumbed.
In the months following Jeff’s death, Cristie admits the music was not foremost on her mind. There were legal tangles to unpick, not to mention the challenge of privately mourning a husband who was public property. “When Jeff passed away,” she remembers, “I shut myself off from the press, from everything. Because I’d forgotten how public a figure he was.
“It was difficult,” she continues. “I couldn’t turn on the television or radio, because I didn’t want to hear the news stories. I didn’t want to discuss his career. To me, it wasn’t the musician who had passed away: it was my husband, the father of my child. In some ways, in the beginning, I resented it. It wasn’t because of anything that anyone had done. It was my issue, and it took me some time to be willing to share him with the world again.
“But,” she counters, “I knew he wasn’t done. We all knew that he wasn’t done. I just didn’t know exactly what we had. Y’know, I trusted Roger with his vision for [Heal My Soul]. He’s really the driving force behind this. And once he started to show me what he had in mind, I could see it.”
Nobody knew the late guitarist’s catalogue better than Costa: “I had always kind of unofficially filled the role of archivist. When Jeff passed – and I think it was in part a coping mechanism – I started seeking out things that I didn’t have in my own personal archive. Things to fill the gaps.
“As the weeks and months wore on, it was always something in our minds,” he continues. “We started gathering up whatever recordings we could find, making sure everything was together. And that’s when I found that Jeff had rough mixes of most of the songs on Heal My Soul still with him. Honestly, it was a surprise to me. I thought he would have divested himself of them through his multiple moves over the years. But they had been transferred from DAT to CD-ROM. And the fact that he held on to these things, to me, showed that they still had meaning for him.”
The Heal My Soul material comes from a delicate juncture in Jeff’s career, which both Costa and Cristie seem wary of discussing in too much detail. These 12 songs were all recorded between 1996 and 1998, as the bond between the bandleader, bassist Joe Rockman and drummer Tom Stephen began to unravel. “The band was breaking apart,” remembers Costa.
“Jeff had all kinds of personal things he was dealing with. During that period, he was getting tired of the spotlight. He was burnt out from being on the road for a decade. The band was at a crossroads where there was a lot of old resentments and mismanagement. Just a lot of animosity within the confines of the company. The business side of Jeff’s music was no longer appealing to him. It was making him bitter at that point.”
“Relations strained during the time of these recordings,” writes Rockman in the Heal My Soul sleevenotes, “making things challenging beyond the norm to write, record and perform together. Our self-managed partnership which served well in early years to achieve record deals and touring the world, started breaking down. The camaraderie and unified vision was inexorably splintering. Over time, Jeff felt he was serving our management company instead of vice versa. It’s an old story.”
“It was horrible,” says Trout. “He would not mention their names and he would not discuss them to the end of his life. He’d say, ‘Do me a favour, don’t bring up my old band, I don’t want to talk about them.’” [Costa refutes this, noting that Jeff “always maintained a good relationship with Joe Rockman”. – Ed]
“Jeff was not happy with where his life was,” says Cristie. “There was so much bottled up, and I think writing was the only way he could get it out.”
Even as his band approached meltdown, Jeff had never been more prolific in his work. “It’s funny,” says Costa, “because that particular period in Jeff’s career was the single most fertile period as far as writing went. He was not fond of the writing process. Playing – it was like air to him. Jeff could play anywhere, anytime, to anyone, at the drop of a hat. He would be touring, then he’d wrap up his gig, then he’d be on the prowl, looking for a jam to sit in with.
“Writing – he considered it more work. But during this period, songs were just flowing out of him. I think it’s also in part because of the turmoil that he was going through, and all of the stress. There’s countless tales of artists finding that real beauty comes out of adversity.”
On cuts like the ferocious opener Daze Of The Night and the wistful country-tinged closer It’s The Last Time, you can guess at the context. “You can hear the frustration,” nods Costa, “and just the emotion of what was happening in his life at the time. There’s his playing, which is insane. You hear the snarl and the growl on every note. If you hear a track like Temptation, and that first bit when the wall of guitars kicks in, we refer to that as the ‘face-melter’. But you could also hear it in his vocals.”
“I can only guess, but All The Saints and Moodswing, they’re to do with personal turmoil,” says Cristie of the lyric sheet. “Put The Shoe On The Other Foot: I think that’s pretty self evident. Y’know, put the shoe on the other foot and you’ll see how it feels. So there’s frustration, and y’know, the band was frustrated with each other at that point.”
By rights, the songs should have been highlights of the band’s forthcoming swansong, Get Me Some. “I remember very vividly, Jeff playing me Daze Of The Night and Baby Blue,” says Costa. “They had just been recorded. They were very rough mixes: I don’t even remember if the vocal tracks were finished. And I was absolutely floored. I couldn’t believe how good the tracks were. When it came to his own stuff, Jeff could sometimes be a little reserved. And he was over the moon. I’d already decided, at that point, this was stuff that needed to be heard. It was some of my favourite stuff that Jeff had ever recorded on the rock side. But those tracks, as you know, never got released.”
When Get Me Some materialised in 2000, none of the songs featured on the tracklisting. “The fact that Baby Blue never made it to the record,” says Cristie, “it boggles my mind. But when you’re dealing with a band of three people, who are making the decisions on what is going to be released, there’s a lot of conflict sometimes. I think if Jeff was left to his own devices to make that decision, there would have been different choices.”
Costa: “A lot of the choices that were made within the band’s company – I don’t think they were clear. Jeff absolutely hated the album title Get Me Some: he thought it was very juvenile, given the material within. But these were the sort of decisions that he wasn’t as invested in any more. He was just so downtrodden and put out by the business. It was not a healthy time for anyone. There’s still ongoing things, to this day.”
When Jeff struck up a solo career with 2002’s trad-jazz-flavoured Among Friends, the moment seemed to have passed, and the material was parked. “Had the band continued beyond that point, I’m quite certain that Jeff would have revisited some of these tracks,” says Costa. “but I think he spent some time consciously distancing himself from what had gone on before.”
Trout: “He’d had enough of the blues-rock world. He’d had a bad experience in the music business, and he had become discouraged, and he had quit playing the guitar and he was playing the trumpet in a Dixieland band at his club. It’s there on YouTube – look it up.”
Cristie: “He wanted out. And he wanted to focus on something new, something different. And his ‘new’ was old: it was traditional jazz. I think when the band finally split up, there was tension, but part of him was relieved. There was a part of Jeff, I think, that wanted to shove all that stuff aside – including the music that he had recorded. He wanted a fresh start.
“But he didn’t completely want to toss it aside,” she counters, “in that he kept everything that he had recorded. He kept copies of it. He was very proud of it. And it was incredible, this stuff that I was hearing, that I’d never heard before. To know that it had been sitting there all of those years… we absolutely had to make sure that we got this out there.”
Costa remembers that there were “a lot of legal issues, some decks that needed to be cleared” before Heal My Soul could begin in earnest. Once the project got the green light in early 2015, it was given an early vote of confidence. “I had copies of the reference recordings on my iPod. This is before we started any of the actual work with the masters. I was visiting friends in Ireland last January  and we saw lots of fans of Jeff’s music. We sat down one night and had a bit of a session. I played them a bunch of these things. This was before they were mixed and fixed. They were just rough reference things. But one of the things that kept popping up was how present Jeff seemed to be. How his vocals had a very immediate quality. Like he was there. He was very much alive in these recordings. It wasn’t something that was pulled out of a can in the bottom of a closet.”
Costa has described Heal My Soul as a “labour of love”. He nods: “It was a process that took about a year. A lot of research. Then determining which songs we were looking for, and which takes. And then, finally getting access to the vault where everything was stored, diving through and finding the right two-inch masters. Getting them baked and transferred to digital. Then not finding the right take and going back to the vault.
“Then it was reviewing everything,” he continues, “and determining what needed to be fixed, because the recordings were 20 years old, so there were things that had degraded. Some of it was unfinished. I mean, Jeff’s parts were all intact: everything he did was there on tape. But for instance, mostly with the drums, a lot of the takes weren’t finished. So there were sort of placeholder drums, or electronic drums, and that had to be taken care of.
“When we played All The Saints for the first time,” he adds, “we were floored. It was just two vocal tracks and two guitar tracks, and it was gorgeous. So we went through the whole [dilemma]: do we ‘finish’ the track? Ultimately, we just decided to back off from it. Just a little electric piano in the background, to bolster some of Jeff’s guitar parts.”
The remastering process was a tightrope, explains Costa, between maintaining the spirit of Jeff’s original recordings and making them resonate in modern times. “A lot of what ended up on [his previous studio records] came off as understated, I think, and too controlled and thought out – for me, anyways. A lot of that had to do with the production of the time. These records weren’t made to be heard 20 years later, they were made to be successful at the time. Which is perfectly fine and understandable. But in some cases, it’s left them with a bit of a veneer of the time they were recorded. A notable exception, to my mind, is the Hell To Pay album.
“So one of the things we did was deliberately set out to make these recordings sound timeless. We had to make sure there was no veneer of dated effects, that anything that had been imposed at the time was stripped away. To be fair, there wasn’t a lot to begin with. Everything was very immediate. I’ve said this to other people, and they’re very big words, but I stand by them 100 per cent – this is the single best Jeff Healey rock recording, ever. Full stop.”
Big words, indeed, but Heal My Soul bears them out. Fiery and heartfelt, this exhumed set is a no-brainer for Jeff’s existing fans, but also an entry point for newcomers who have heard the name but not the music.
“I think it’s gonna inspire people,” says Sonny Landreth, who met Jeff in the late 80s. “It’s a cycle. Young people get exposed to his music, who he was, how he played. We don’t want to forget the great ones, just cos they’re not with us any more. And he’s one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever known.”
“I’m just so happy that we’re finally here,” reflects Cristie. “We’ve been wanting to do this project since 2009. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s so worth it. I absolutely love to see how loved Jeff is. I love to know it. I love to hear it.”
“I’ve been involved for years in getting this thing done,” concludes Costa, “and I still get goosebumps when I listen to it. The music on Heal My Soul, I think it needs to be heard. The people who know will already know, and they will be overjoyed. And I think the people that don’t know, are gonna hear these things and be floored. They’re gonna hear Jeff in a way that they’ve never heard him before…”
Heal My Soul is released on March 25 via Provogue
“His sense of humour was mind-boggling!”
Walter Trout on his long friendship with Jeff Healey.
“We did a tour of Canada with John Mayall – I couldn’t tell you the year – and the opening act was Jeff Healey. At that point, he was still a teenager and a local Toronto act. I didn’t hear him the first couple of nights. But on about the fourth show, I stood in the wings with Coco Montoya, and we were floored. Like, ‘What the fuck are we seeing here? Do we have to go on after this kid?’
“We spent the tour together, became really good friends, and I would go see him whenever he was in town. I remember watching him when he had the trio, and he would get up and start walking around the stage. The bass player would kinda follow him around, and if Jeff was getting near the edge, he would bump him a little bit, to tell him to stop, and kinda direct him around the stage. It was incredible to watch.
“Jeff was a great fella and his sense of humour was mind-boggling. One time, I was in Heathrow, and I was on the moving sidewalk, and going the other way, I look over and here comes Jeff and his band. They’re going by me, on this conveyor belt thing, and I yelled out, ‘Hey Jeff, it’s Walter Trout!’ And he yelled back: ‘Hey Walter – looking good!’
“He had a club in Toronto, and the big picture inside the entrance door was of Jeff out on the street, sitting on a little bench with an acoustic guitar and a little home-made sign that said, ‘Blind Musician: Please Help’. And a little cup for money, like he was busking.
“He played on Full Circle. The verses that he was gonna sing, he couldn’t read them, so I’d tell him the words. So it’d be time for him to sing and he’d get halfway through the verse, then he’d forget and start making up words. It’d be these really nasty sexual innuendos – these really blue lyrics – and they would rhyme, and it would be incredibly funny and we’d all die laughing. And I’d say, ‘God, I wish I could leave that on the record, man…’
“I miss his friendship. It hit me hard when he passed. He was still so young. It would have been very interesting to see what he would be doing now, how he would be playing. He was a true one of a kind, man.”