The day that Jeff Healey passed away, in that sad 2nd March 2008, it was the day when the world of music lost one of its most extraordinary and versatile artists that the music business has ever had in the last half a century. The Toronto-born guitarist's life was bookended by serious health issues, starting at the tender age of one, when he lost his sight due to a rare ocular cancer retinoblastoma going then to the last three years to his life, when he lost a even more tragic battle for life against sarcoma cancer.
Undaunted by blindness, Healey found a huge love and understanding for music and for the guitar in particular, something that allowed him to express his enormous talent. His thunderous and blazing signature guitar style made the tour of the world, giving to Healey the opportunity to sign a record deal with a major, to build his own band and lead it to global fame from the late 80's onward, with millions of records sold worldwide.
Healey would have been 50 years old last year and, rather timely, 2016 saw the release of Healey's posthumous album Heal My Soul, a collection of twelve unreleased songs of such incredible quality and power that showed an artist at the very peak of his creativity and inspiration. The material was brought to the light of the day thanks to the determination and tenacity of Cristie Healey, Jeff's wife and Roger Costa, co-administrator of Jeff Healey's estate and executive producer of Heal My Soul and the companion record to Heal My Soul called Holding On, which contains 5 outtakes from Heal My Soul plus an entire live concert that the Canadian artist performed in Oslo, Norway, in 1999.
Bluebird Reviews had the unique opportunity to talk to Costa, (not just the record's producer but also one of Healey's closest friends) about his friendship with this incredible artist, the making of Heal My Soul and the long road that he and Healey's wife had to travel before being able to access the vaults containing Healey's material.
BBR - Roger, thank you so much for talking to us at Bluebird Reviews. Almost a year has gone by, since the release of that masterpiece that is Heal My Soul. Looking back at all the time you invested between legal battles, going back and fore to his archive to assemble the right material and then gathering it all together, how proud do you feel about being able to unleash to the world some of the finest songs Healey has ever released in his career?
RC - I am tremendously proud. This is something that we wanted to do for a very long time. Jeff played me rough mixes of Baby Blue and Daze Of The Night back when they were first recorded and I was absolutely floored. I always felt that it was a shame that these were never released to the public, they were just so good.
BBR - Let's talk a little about Heal My Soul. You often mentioned to the press that Healey was never too fond of the writing process but, strangely enough, Heal My Soul shows the polar opposite. Given the period in which those songs were written, do you think that the recurring feeling of frustration emerging from some of the lyrics on that album was not just the result of internal turmoil within the band, at the time, but also Healey's way to express the will of a change of musical direction in his career?
RC - I am not sure. I don't think that Jeff actually was consciously aware of a shift. I think it was really (and that comes out in the power of these performances) something that was coming straight from his core. It was just a kind of pure, raw emotion he was expressing through his playing and writing and I think that's all he was channeling. I don't think he was consciously shifting the direction of his performance, because live, he was ferocious! A lot of times, in the studio, that instinctive approach that Jeff had, it was trumped by record company interests. There were also other influential factors, such as in most of the Jeff Healey Band records, where individual band members had their own agendas and points of view that they wanted to get across as well so, quite often, Jeff would defer to other people. As a consequence, the original strength or purity or rawness of whatever he was doing at that time, it was sometimes forced into a little box and it wouldn't be the same as it started off. It would be more controlled, which, frankly, in some ways, worked for them, certainly on their first album. I'm not saying that those were necessarily wrong decisions but certainly were different decisions than I think were needed, especially as his career progressed.
BBR - The album title of Heal My Soul comes, I believe, from a line in the Moodswing song. Speaking of songs, how easy was it for you to choose the songs that ended up on that album?
RC - I knew pretty much exactly from Day One what was going on the album. There are twelve songs on the record and I believe I had, even before we went into the vaults, nine or ten of them already in the order that I wanted them on the album. We had rough mixes on DATs, so I had a pretty good idea of the material that was going to end up on Heal My Soul. As we went along, there were different things that we discovered that we didn't have any mixes of, some incredibly brilliant surprises. One such was All The Saints. All we had was a title for that song but until we actually went into the vaults, we had no idea what it would sound like. Love Takes Time was originally slated for Heal My Soul but as we worked through the mixes, we felt that Under A Stone was a stronger song, so we added it to the record instead. Love Takes Time was subsequently released on the Holding On album. The addition of Under A Stone was one of the very few line-up changes that happened on the album's playlist while the process was still ongoing. Jeff was a friend, but I am also a fan of his music. I was pretty much ready for this record from the moment we got the green light for this project.
(Healey with B.B. King, courtesy of Healey's Official Website)
BBR - The audio team Echosound Studiolab that worked on the restoration of Healey's material did an amazing job. How tricky was it to re-dress his songs with a more contemporary and timeless sound and keeping intact, at the same time, that rawness and immediacy that was at the core of Healey's music?
RC - It was a fine line to walk but my guys were great. Paul Kehayas and Neil McDonald, they did all the audio restoration and they were both fantastic. Basically, when we went in, the idea was to keep the whole as natural as possible. There were times when we would finish mixing for the day and then I'd come back the next morning having listened to the roughs and I'd asked Neil to dial down some reverb he'd snuck in on Jeff's voice in part of the chorus. (laughing) I wanted the final product to be as pure as possible, stripping back any dated sounding effects we could. The mantra in the studio was not to make the record sound contemporary, but to make it sound timeless. What we wanted was the purity of the Jeff's performances to shine and I think we achieved that.
BBR - Temptation is, for me, the tune that describes more accurately than others Jeff Healey's eclectic personality and his many moods. Was the structure of the song originally conceived in that way?
RC - Temptation is one of the two songs that I didn't have previous recordings of, so we didn't hear it until after we started putting the project together. For me, one of the things that stood out on that song was just the rawness of his guitar. I mean, it starts off very quietly with that acoustic and then we had, all of a sudden, what we called "The face melter" the minute that first chord of distorted guitar kicks in (chuckles). Right away, we all had goose pumps and we said "God, this song must be part of the album". Honestly, that first chord he played must have come straight from his soul. It was so angry and visceral and emotional and the whole thing was all wrapped up in that one guitar sound. That really took us all by surprise, it was a truly great moment.
BBR - When we all thought that Heal My Soul was going to be the Canadian Guitar Maestro's last bow on record, then came, few months later and out of the blue, Holding On, as a companion of the Heal My Soul album. Was this unexpected and most welcomed release something that you and Cristie Healey had already pre-planned long time ago, at the time Heal My Soul came out?
RC - Well, initially with our partners at Convexe Entertainment, the label that released the album (and then licensed to Mascot/Provogue for the rest of the world), we had the idea of releasing Heal My Soul as a single album and also a Special Limited Edition Box-Set. Due to some unfortunate issues on the manufacturing side, we decided to pull the plug on the box-set, choosing instead to release some of the elements separately. Five bonus tracks were released on a 10" vinyl EP for Record Store Day, shortly after Heal My Soul came out. Then there was the live show recorded in Norway, that was initially supposed to be part of the set too and we really wanted that performance to be heard and appreciated by everyone. In the end, we decided to release Holding On, combining the two and making absolutely clear that this album was a companion record, a sort of bonus disc to Heal My Soul and not a project unrelated to it. It was deeply tied to Heal My Soul, and a great way to close off a year that would have seen Jeff celebrating his 50th birthday.
BBR - One of the greatest features about the Holding On record is the live performance recorded in Norway that you just mentioned. Healey sounded totally at ease with himself and his music and his interaction with the crowd was incredible. Are you able to reveal when, in future, we may have the privilege to hear more live performances and unreleased material from Healey's archive?
RC - There will be surely other releases in the future. We already have a list of projects we'd like to do, but there always has to be a reason. We are not looking to flood the market with random Jeff Healey live albums.
(Healey with Eric Clapton, courtesy of Healey's Official Website)
BBR - Roger, you and Jeff Healey were very close friends for more than two decades. Out of Healey's whole discography, would you say that Heal My Soul frames Healey musically and personally more than any of his previous albums and, if so, why?
RC - Everyone will always have their own personal favourites, touchstones, Angel Eyes, See The Light, etc... That aside, in my opinion, Heal My Soul is the strongest rock release of Jeff's career ever. Bar none. That's a big statement I know, but I stand by it one hundred per cent. I've said it before, but these are some of the most powerful and passionate performances Jeff ever recorded.
Jeff was much more than just a rock musician however, he also had an amazing jazz career. He played jazz guitar and trumpet as well. On the Jazz side I would strongly recommend 'Last Call'. It was released in 2010 and it was the final Jazz project Jeff worked on before his passing. It is a wonderful record.
BBR - When Healey went solo, I believe around 2002, he detached himself almost completely from blues and rock. He seemed to focus his energy and attention on genres like jazz , even throwing himself, occasionally, in improvised performances in his club on stage with Dixieland bands. Did you, by any chance, perceive a happier man and musician, in those aforementioned days, somebody with a new found enthusiasm and attitude towards music?
RC - Jeff truly loved jazz and started collecting records from a very young age. By the time of his death he had amassed close to thirty thousand 78s, all Traditional Jazz from the 20's and 30's. It was a passion. Even at the height of his rock career he would cite Louis Armstrong as his strongest musical influence. Certainly, his jazz career was a totally different experience for him. When he did his jazz records or when he played with jazz bands, he was totally in control. He could do whatever he wanted; he didn't have to worry about a record company's involvement or dealing with songs coming from outside writers. He was the one that was choosing the right material for him and playing what he wanted, when he wanted. He hand-picked his band (the Jazz Wizards) without compromise. Since Jeff's passing, they still get together once a year or so to celebrate Jeff's music and artistry. They did a wonderful performance on JazzFM here in Toronto on the actual date of Jeff's 50th birthday last year. He really never stopped playing rock and blues though, even in those days. He had the band at his club (The Healey's House Band aka. The Jeff Healey Blues Band) that also doubled as his touring band whenever he'd do Rock and Blues gigs. Jeff loved to play. It didn't matter what genre. Playing with great musicians was where his soul lived. I still remember how excited he was when he received a call from Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) about recording with him. Jeff was over the moon. The song that Jeff did with Gillan has got one of the most powerful guitar solos I have ever heard Jeff play, it was terrific. There are countless stories from around the world, where Jeff would be either performing in a giant arena or a smaller club... Ninety-nine per cent of the time, when the show was done, he would get up, grab whoever was around and head over to the nearest place with live music so he could sit in and jam with the local players. That was Jeff being Jeff. He just loved to play, no matter what and who with. That was when he was at his happiest for sure. In the last years of his life he had a night club (Healey's) and when he was in town, he would be there every week, on stage jamming with different musicians and playing all kind of stuff, just having a ball.
BBR - We all knew and admired the immense artistry and talent of Jeff Healey through the years but nobody better than yourself and Cristie Healey were able to live and capture the real essence coming from his rich personality. Should you use three words to define who really was Healey in everyday's life, from a close friend perspective, which one would you choose?
RC - That's a very good question but also a very difficult one. The first word I would choose is Genius. He was very definitely, in the most literal sense of the word, a musical genius. He had an outstanding ear for music and he could hear things and figure out how to play them very, very easily. The second word I would choose is Friend. He was an incredibly loyal person and he spent great part of his life looking after his friends and family. As odd as it may sound and this comes from a very personal place, the third word I would choose is Goofy, in the most positive sense of the word. That's perhaps the main reason why he and I remained friends for so many years, Whenever we were together, we were complete idiots. (laughs) We acted like twelve-year-olds... I think I'm being generous... more like ten-year-olds (chuckles)! He had an incredible sense of humour, he was a very funny guy and I guess we just loved to laugh.