Jeff Healey was a rarity who was too often seen as a novelty. Struck with a rare ocular cancer as a baby, he lost his eyes when he was only one -- the disease, retinoblastoma, claimed his life this March 2 when he was at the age of 41 -- but his lack of sight hardly made him unusual among musicians. What was unique about Healey was his style of guitar playing: he laid a regular six-string across his lap, which gave him a unique instrumental attack -- he could access more frets than most players, using his thumb as another fretting finger, giving him original phrasings -- and also a distinctive visual style.
That visual aspect was exploited, in the best way, in the 1989 cult classic Road House, where he played a sidekick to Patrick Swayze's leading character Dalton and plays in the house band at the titular road house. Such exposure helped boost Healey's career, which already had started to take off by '89, as his 1988 debut See the Light started to climb the Billboard charts. Undoubtedly, Healey benefited from the album-rock breakthrough of Stevie Ray Vaughan -- quite directly so, as he appeared in the video for SRV's "Look at Little Sister" a couple years before releasing his debut -- and he made inroads on rock radio just before his version of John Hiatt's "Angel Eyes" (one of two Hiatt tunes on See the Light) crossed over into the pop charts, making it all the way to number five in 1989. "Angel Eyes" was big enough of a hit to give Healey a major-label contract for several years, but by the mid-'90s the market for major-label blues-rock started to wane, and so did Jeff's placement on the Billboard 200, although he did manage to have his 1995 album Cover to Cover top the blues charts.
By that point, Healey himself was less interested in performing mainstream blues-rock and started a slow transition over to the traditional blues and jazz that he loved and collected. Over the next decade, he redefined himself as a musician that kept tradition alive. His 2000 record Get Me Some was the last time he cut an all-out mainstream-oriented blues-rock album -- he does have a completed blues album called Mess of Blues scheduled for release this spring -- but this decade he spent more time touring with the Jazz Wizards, who played jazz dating prior to World War II, and he hosted a regular jazz radio show on Toronto's Jazz-FM, playing selected sides from his vast collection of rare 78s. That love of jazz was also heard on record, on the 2002's Among Friends, '04's Adventures in Jazzland, and the live '05 album It's Tight Like That which featured Chris Barber. On these albums, Jeff Healey finally had the opportunity to show his true range as a musician and his deep, infectious love for jazz and blues, standing as perhaps the best testament to his uniqueness as a musician.