One of the Greatest Guitarists You May Have Forgotten About
In the car the other day, I was tired of the CD I had playing. It was a mix of Fireball Ministry, Iron Maiden, Life of Agony (and, of course, Sound of War and Toy Called God - kind of a contractual obligation), but I had heard the mix CD so many times that I knew what song was coming on next. Even the guitar Gods on a CD need a rest once in a while. After I, of course, came to a safe stop on the side of the road to look through the console for a new CD... ahem... I found a CD that I hadn't listened to in a long time. So long, in fact, that I don't even remember putting it in the console in the first place.
The CD is Cover to Cover by The Jeff Healey Band. It's an album made entirely of cover songs by the Jeff Healey Band. A lot of great, classic blues songs, a Beatles song (dare I say that it's an improved Beatles song?), and some other really good stuff. But one track on Jeff Healey's Cover to Cover is, perhaps, the greatest version of a blues song I have ever heard.
The song is "As the Years go Passing By." It's a heart-wrenching song about lost love (so, yeah, a great blues song), but it's Jeff Healey's guitar work that makes it so incredibly emotional. To put this into context, I've seen BB King about a dozen times; I've seen Buddy Guy almost as much; I've seen Koko Taylor, Al Green, as well as countless other blues artists who are unknown and truthfully living the life of the blues, paying their dues at small clubs in nowhere towns. Out of all these artists, I have never heard anything like the guitar work by Jeff Healey in "As the Years Go Passing By."
The guitar work and fills throughout the song are all great, heartfelt and damn-near perfect, but it's the solo in the song that may - literally - bring you to tears.
I recommend you listen to the entire song for proper context and to really get into the emotion of the song before you get into the solo, but if you want to go straight to the solo, you can skip ahead to 2:25 in the song. The solo lasts until 4:51 in the song, and it's worth every nanosecond, every note, every pick, every strum, and all the bending notes that will make you well up with tears.
I saw The Jeff Healey Band in the summer of 1990 at The Warfield in San Francisco on the Hell to Pay tour. I stood about 10 feet from the stage, marveling at his playing - not just the way he played in his lap (which was no gimmick, let me tell you), but the emotion that came through in his solos. And watching in person what I have called his "unfair advantage" in being able to bend his notes further than anyone else was nothing less than awesome - literally filling bystanders with awe as he bent notes with soul and passion far beyond any other guitarist's ability.
The whole reason Jeff Healey played with that "unfair advantage" was because he was dealt the disadvantage at the age of 1 of going blind due to a rare form of eye cancer called retinoblastoma. He started playing guitar at the age of three and set it in his lap because, at that age, his arms were simply too short to play a guitar the conventional way. For the next 38 years, he played guitar for his fans - fans like myself - until he passed away from lung cancer on March 2, 2008.
Now that Jeff Healey is gone, maybe that's the reason I get a little more emotional when listening to his best work, knowing that nothing new will ever surface from him again. From the first time I was blown away when I heard the song "See the Light", to when I saw him live in concert not more than 10 feet in front of me, to when I saw him in Roadhouse. After all his years finally, prematurely, passed him by, I have always thought of Jeff Healey as one of the greatest guitarists almost no one ever knew.