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Influential Guitarist Jeff Healey Dies

NOAH ADAMS, host:

Canadian blues guitarist Jeff Healey died on March 2nd, following a long battle with cancer. To hear Jeff Healey play is to know the blues. To see Jeff Healey play is to be inspired. He had lost his eyesight at the age of 1 to a rare form of cancer. And he played guitar sitting down, the instrument on his lap. He'd strum and pick with his right hand and use his left hand flat to make the chords, like he was playing a piano.

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Jeff Healey became a 1980s blues hero, but he didn't like touring and he opened his own club in Toronto and also worked on radio as jazz DJ. He had a vast collection of records. But the blues kept calling and his last CD is a return to blues and rock. It's called "Mess of Blues."

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The release of Jeff Healey's final CD coincides with his death. In recent years, he developed tumors, complications of the retinoblastoma that had taken his eyesight.

Alec Fraser was Jeff Healey's bass player and he also co-produced the new CD. He's in Toronto.

Welcome, Mr. Fraser.

Mr. ALEC FRASER (Co-produced, "Mess of Blues"): Hi, Noah, and thanks for having me on.

ADAMS: Mr. Fraser, tell us about the timing of this CD. It comes out in March. He dies in March. Did you know that he was in such poor health?

Mr. FRASER: Well, in some way we did. Two years ago, Jeff started having some trouble - because he really never had much trouble with retinoblastoma his entire life, except for when he was 1 year old when he lost his eyes. But he developed something in his leg and in his lungs. And they, you know, they were removing it at the time. So he knew he had to have these operations. So we started going on the road a lot. We'd been on the road so much that we had all sorts of songs that we thought, well, let's just make a real good blues record.

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Mr. JEFF HEALEY (Blues musician): (Singing) Well, whoops, there goes a tear drop rolling down my face. If you (unintelligible) it sure ain't no disgrace. I've got to get myself together.

Mr. FRASER: So that brings us up to like just about a couple of months ago, right down to the point where I mastered the record. You know, I got to talk to him that week and he was lucid. He hadn't been given any morphine yet. And the last thing he said to me, you know, he says, oh I want it to be as good as it can be. You know, it's really important to me. And, you know, we'll talk soon, kind of thing.

And, well, sadly for me, we never got to talk soon because it was just right after that he went into the hospital. And it was only a couple of days after that that he was gone. So…

ADAMS: Do us a favor and tell us what it was like to stand in a club and see Jeff Healey playing. We've seen pictures that have described what it was like with his hands, but what was it like to feel it and to see it and be there?

Mr. FRASER: Well, it was a unique style and I think it also is a big part of his sound, because you, you know, you have the strength of pulling strings towards you rather than pushing them up when you bend them and that kind of thing, so the pure physicalness of his hand being able to do so much more.

He also had the use of his thumb, because he's stretch with his thumb and play licks with his thumb. Well, you don't get to do that when you play regular guitar.

Whenever we'd have someone else come up to jam with the band who was a hot guitar player as well, they would also get into these duel things, you know. And he would always sort of hold back for a while and let the guy - the other guy - really, you know, lay it on him with let me try this. What do you think of this?

And then it would be like, OK, well, I'll show you what I can do. And he would just, all the time, just leave somebody in the dust. So the next person is just like smiling, going, I can't believe what I just heard.

ADAMS: Jeff Healey happy with his album, do you think?

Mr. FRASER: He definitely was happy with his record. And he says that in the liner notes. He says I've very proud of this band. It's a very interesting mix of personalities and musical influences. And he even takes the time, which was very flattering, to talk about everybody in the band individually. I mean, I have my paragraph here.

And I just got this - these liner notes a couple of days ago. And I felt like I was getting a letter from Jeff. It was very, very nice of him to do. And I don't know many big stars that would write most of their liner notes on the band members. You know, so that just says who he was more than anything, actually.

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ADAMS: Alec Fraser is the co-producer of Mess of Blues, the final CD by guitarist Jeff Healey. He died on March 2nd. He was 41 years old.

Alec Fraser, thank you for talking with us from Toronto.

Mr. FRASER: All right. Thanks a lot, Noah.

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ADAMS: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Noah Adams. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.