MUSIC

Blues brothers

Two Canadians are on the brink of stardom

NICHOLAS JENNINGS November 14 1988
MUSIC

Blues brothers

Two Canadians are on the brink of stardom

NICHOLAS JENNINGS November 14 1988

The crossroads, according to an enduring blues legend, is where aspiring musicians go to make their deal with the devil. In blues lore, a young guitarist in the 1930s named Robert Johnson went down to a place in the Mississippi delta where two roads met and signed a satanic pact in exchange for stardom. A version of that legend is now being replayed by two young Canadian musicians, Vancouver’s Colin James and Toronto’s Jeff Healey. Although neither James nor Healey has made any devilish deals, each is a talented guitarist playing in a blues tradition—and both are clearly standing at the crossroads of fame and fortune.

James, 24, and Healey, 22, have been signed to international record contracts and each is now enjoying a top-selling debut album. Colin James (Virgin/A&M), which was released in August and spawned the hit single Voodoo Thing, has reached platinum status with Canadian sales of 100,000 copies. And Healey—who is blind— released See the Light (Arista/BMG) in mid-September, and the album has sold almost 50,000 copies.

Already veteran performers on Canada’s barroom circuit, both artists are currently dazzling capacity crowds in even larger forums. The freewheeling James, who opened stadium-size concerts across North America this summer for British pop star Steve Winwood, is completing a cross-Canada tour that winds up this week with a triumphant homecoming—five sold-out nights at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom. Meanwhile, Healey—who recently finished the sound track for the upcoming movie Road House, in which he has a small role—is now moving across Canada from west to east with a tour that culminates in Montreal on Nov. 25. And everywhere, James and Healey are winning acclaim from rock fans and blues specialists alike. Said celebrated American guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan: “Jeff is one of the greatest guitar players around. And Colin has got what it takes to go anywhere he wants with his mixture of pop and blues.” In fact, James began serving an apprenticeship with Vaughan after opening shows for him in 1984 in Saskatoon and Regina, James’s home town. The Texas-based, Grammy-winning Vaughan then took James with him on a tour of Canada—and brought him onstage each night for a concert-closing session of duelling guitars. Later, at his own expense, Vaughan had James accompany him in performances through the United States. “I’m grateful for the luck I’ve had,” said James last month. “It’s given me a great foundation.”

Indeed, luck once literally landed James on the table of some record-company executives. In the middle of one of his full-blown rhythm-and-blues numbers last year at Vancouver’s Town Pump, James leapt off the stage and onto a table where representatives of the British-based label Virgin Records were seated—spilling all their drinks in the process. But without missing a note, he unleashed a sizzling guitar solo that led to a standing ovation and to his current multirecord deal with Virgin. It was the kind of go-for-broke performance that was captured on his recording debut, a brash mix of pop melodies and bluesy riffs, and that James offered in Toronto last month during a frenzied 90-minute show.

For all his powerhouse performance style, James grew up on much gentler sounds. One of four children of William and Joyce Munn, both Quakers and Regina social workers, James says that he remembers hearing music in his family’s house from an early age—“mostly The Weavers and stuff like that.” When his parents began taking him to folk festivals, James encountered blues through such veteran artists as guitarist Johnny Shines. Said James: “Then I discovered this wild world of 1950s blues—people like Roy Brown and Johnny Ace—and the whole idea of the flashy suits and Jackie Wilson doing backflips sent me reeling. I still find it terribly romantic.”

Like James, Jeff Healey is now winning accolades from established blues artists, people who are his own heroes. Along with Vaughan and respected blues musician Albert Collins, blues giant B. B. King has sung his praises. King first met Healey backstage after a Vancouver concert that the blues legend gave in 1986. King agreed to listen to the teenager’s guitar-playing for five minutes and wound up staying for an hour and a half. And Healey has continued to mesmerize his listeners with his music, which is steeped in the 1960s blues and rock traditions of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Sitting with his electric guitar across his lap, Healey has the unorthodox habit of keeping all his left-hand fingers, including his thumb, on the fret board. In fact, his thumb also performs fluid slides and anguished note-bending—normally requiring a guitarist’s most dexterous fingerwork. “Whatever way is comfortable is all right,” Healey said in an interview, “as long as what comes out is coherent.”

On his surprisingly confident debut album, Healey is more than coherent in the blues language—he is fluent. Bom with eye cancer, Healey, who lost his sight by the age of 1, demonstrated a facility with music as a threeyear-old, when his fireman father and his housewife mother bought him his first guitar. An interest in the jazz of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke encouraged him to join the high-school band, and in 1983 and 1984, Healey was chosen an all-star at the Canadian Stage Band Festival. Then, he said, peer pressure led him away from jazz. He added: “After a certain point, that sort of thing wasn’t hip, so I started listening to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Then I realized that something must have come before that and so I discovered people like B. B. King, Elmore James and Buddy Guy.” His music encompasses all of those styles. In fact, Healey owns a collection of more than 10,000 vintage jazz and blues 78s. But now, in concert, Healey has begun imitating Hendrix and playing the guitar while holding it behind his head—and even plucking out notes with his teeth.

Such musical skills and showmanship led New York City-based Arista Records to sign Healey and his band—drummer Tom Stephen and bassist Joe Rockman—in 1987. Label president Clive Davis, the industry veteran behind such stars as Dionne Warwick and Whitney Houston, has taken a strong personal interest in the Toronto guitarist. And after recording his debut album, Healey experienced the kind of good fortune that has come James’s way. A copy of a Healey video wound up in Hollywood and led to both a sound-track album and an acting part in Road House, a movie starring Patrick Swayze tentatively scheduled for release next February. Healey’s character is a musician friend to Swayze, who plays the bouncer in a nightclub. Despite the acting break, Healey insists that his future lies in music.

The future for both Healey and James seems assured. Their albums, with major-label backing, are primed for worldwide release. And while Healey is about to embark on a European tour with his band, James is considering one. Neither guitarist, despite his devotion to the blues, is content to perform for a strictly blues-loving audience. Said James, who dedicated his album to musical pioneers including Robert Johnson: “I want to take all those influences and become an international success. I want to keep my options open.” Unlike Johnson—and his fabled, unholy pact—James and Healey are blues guitarists who are determined to succeed on their own terms.