From Brantford to Bodhi - Jeff Healey's Tale
Tim Ford recounts a Canadian music icons formative adolescent years in Brantford.
Tim Ford, April 03, 2022 // Brantford, Ontario
Jeff Healey in Roadhouse. JeffHealey.com.
Patrick Swayze, aka Johnny Castle, aka Johnny Dalton. By any name, he is someone who exudes both pure “mandom” and sensitivity all tightly squeezed into a leather jacket. He could bring a barroom to its knees at the twitch of one eye yet could break into the mambo at the twinkle of the other. This man could take out a shirtless Anthony Kiedis on the beach with a single chop yet could perform AND write the cooing ballad and poetry of “She’s Like the Wind”.
Recently, whilst on my bi-monthly pilgrimage through the holy trinity of Swayze movies - Point Break, Dirty Dancing and Roadhouse - it was during the latter, in a pivotal bar scene, that guitarist Jeff Healey was rip-rockin’ the stage on my screen. Through all the throat ripping and roundhouses I could only focus on how incredible Jeff Healey really was. It brought me back to when I was a kid, first seeing him on MuchMusic. It’s true the appeal began with a blind man who played his guitar strange, but the music and fret work he could achieve was just too incredible to focus on anything else. This young man wasn’t just one of the best blind guitar players out there. He was the BEST guitar player out there, period. But why did he play on his lap? Who taught him that odd technique and why? Did he teach himself? How did this baby-faced Canadian kid end up gracing the screen with the Bodhisattva himself? The answers to those questions go back a lot further than I anticipated and hit much closer to home than I could have ever imagined.
A young Jeff Healey. JeffHealey.com.
Born in Toronto, Healey lost his sight at an early age to retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the eyes. To begin his schooling, Healey took the 1-hour journey west, to the pre-Gretz village of Brantford, Ontario. Brantford houses the W. Ross Macdonald School. This campus was, and is, globally known for its work with the visually and hearing impaired, its powerful motto being “The Impossible is Only the Untried”. It was there on the corner of Paris Rd. and St. Paul Ave. that Healey would go to elementary school. Here he did what every kid did. He procrastinated his homework, played his music too loud, and staged friendly pranks on his classmates. John Howe, who worked in physical education with Healey, remembers him fondly, recalling the child’s warmth and politeness, albeit youthful stubbornness. John recalls Healey enjoying being a part of the schools running team. John recalls one instance of a substantial lag during a race around the beautifully kept WRMS grounds, and that Healey’s guide runner once offered up a bout of encouragement belting “let’s boogie” to him. Healey politely turned to him shrugging “no thanks”, continuing his leisurely jog around the park at his own pace. It’s that same stubbornness that oddly gave Jeff Healey a unique advantage when playing guitar. Instead of being shown or pulled in a direction, Healey found his own pace, and his own style of playing.
When looking back on Healey’s natural musical ability with another staff member that worked with Jeff at WRMS, Bill Murphy, he off the bat mentioned Healey’s perfect pitch. From there, it was a quick journey for Jeff to becoming proficient in piano and various horn instruments. The school, however, did not have a guitar program in the early 70’s, so it had to be taken upon the students to pick up the instrument and teach themselves in their leisure time. As with many of his friends, Jeff reached for one as well. Like those brisk Brantford mornings along the WRMS trails, Jeff found his own rhythm and his own way across the finish line. Sure, he was shown the “correct” way of playing, and Murphy even admitted to softly poking at Healey about his odd style, having encouraged him to learn the classic technique. While always supportive of Healey, Murphy now remembers red-faced years later, that he was almost a dampener on Jeff’s unique stage presence and part of what made Healey known throughout the world. It was that young stubbornness that shone through, and on his down time between class Jeff picked and fingered through his own unique take on guitar playing. Sometimes he would take his guitar outside and play under the trees on the grounds. I imagine the most remarkable strums and plucks of melodies wafting down Brant Ave., getting louder and louder the closer you walk to Dufferin Heights.
The legendary Jeff Healey live in concert. JeffHealey.com.
Jeff would spend his formative adolescent years in Brantford teaching himself his favourite blues, reggae and country songs. Every person who heard Jeff’s gift took notice. When Healey moved to Etobicoke for his secondary education, he didn’t waste any time and took the songs he perfected and started his own band, Blue Direction, at just 13 years old. Jeff spent his teenage years playing gigs around southern Ontario but would have to wait until graduation before being given the chance to show the world what he is truly made of. Soon after he finished high school in 1985, he was invited onstage by Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughn in Toronto. That was all he needed. That performance garnered the attention of fellow locals and the greatest band of all time ever, The Band, who brought him and his newly formed Jeff Healey Band on tour with them in 1986. In 1988 he released his debut album “See the Light” which in no time got him a Grammy nod. Not months later he would appear in the third greatest movie of all time ever, Roadhouse. Healey remained a titan in his field for years to come, touring the globe and releasing chart-topping albums. When the world wanted another signature Blues-Rock album, in true Healey fashion he said “no thanks” and instead released a jazz trumpet album with his band The Jazz Wizards, called “Adventures in Jazz Land” in 2004.
Healey would come back and visit his old elementary school at times, playing for the children and staff. He would take a nostalgic walk along those paths that snail through those mystical grounds, like he did as a child so long ago. Jeff Healey didn’t need to come back to Brantford. And if he did, he could have used it as a golden opportunity for an ‘adda-boy’ and a few flashes of the bulb for the front page of the next day’s Expositor, but he didn’t. According to Bill Murphy, he would always be sure to not make anyone else in Brantford aware of his visits back to WRMS. I think that’s the moment that captures why I love Jeff Healey. This man has jammed with the greatest blues players in the world. He has wowed Letterman on the Ed Sullivan stage. He’s even shared the silver screen and has borne witness to Swayze himself. I think Jeff wanted to come back to the place where he first really started falling in love with music. I think he wanted to remember those little moments he took by himself in the corner to learn ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ or stand in the room where he listened to Muddy Waters on the turntable over and over so he could learn the chords. Of course, he wanted to offer inspiration to the kids at WRMS, but for those short moments of returning, he got to remember again what it was like to play music for the primitively pure love of exploration and the excitement of learning an instrument. At the end of his visit, he would get in his car, he would be driven down King George Road and onto the highway, where he would become the Rock Star Jeff Healey once more.
W. Ross Macdonald school in Brantford, Ontario. Staff Photo.
Having the W. Ross Macdonald school in Brantford is a distinction that goes well beyond Jeff Healey. We should all be very proud to have this Institution in our city, since 1872. To even be one small path on the journey for such an inspirational force like Jeff Healey is a humbling and honouring thing for our community.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Ford is freelance hobbyist who lives in his twelfth home in Brantford, Ontario…so…yeah, he knows a thing or two about aluminum siding.