april 2008

Jeff Healey’s ‘All-Around Man’ Recalls The Final Sessions

“Alec Fraser has become my all-around man for the last decade. He’s been my engineer for all of my jazz albums, he’s been the bassist and engineer for the “Healey’s house band” since we began, and he shares my interest and enthusiasm in being an eclectic listener to all kinds of music.”

So wrote Jeff Healey in the liner notes for his final album, Mess of Blues. In an exclusive interview with TheBluegrassSpecial.com, Alec Fraser discusses the album sessions and plans for the future.

Why did you do a mix of live and studio cuts on this album?

Alec Fraser: Well, in all honesty that’s mostly what Jeff wanted. He really loved playing with the band live, so I think that’s the main reason he wanted to get some of that on there. We cut some stuff in the studio but we were actually playing live off the floor in the studio as well. So the whole thing is actually live, except for a couple of minor little overdubs, like me playing acoustic guitar. But yeah, the live part of it was important to him. That’s the main reason.

That’s interesting about you playing live in the studio. Those four cuts from the clubs, the sound of those and the sound of what you got live in the studios is so seamless. Apart from the audience reaction it’s hard to tell one from the other; the sonics are really full and robust.

AF: I appreciate you saying that. It is always a bit of a problem when you try to mix live tracks with studio tracks, but it’s definitely because they were cut live in a studio and live in a club that connects them together. Plus I mixed it that way to try and make it that way as well. I can’t really take credit for everything. It always comes from the players. I really believe that and I just try to keep some honesty in it and don’t go overboard with the production. You don’t really hear a lot of reverb and that kind of thing. It’s pretty natural sounding.


Alec Fraser (left) and Jeff Healey. Photo by John Turner.

Did Jeff sense that his health was failing at the time you did these sessions?

AF: Yes, it was. He did speak with me about six months ago, when I was trying to get him interested in alternative treatments, trying to bring up anything I could because he was having such a hard time. He says to me, “Look, Alec, everybody’s gotta get on board with this. There’s no cure for what I have. It’s a matter of time. Obviously I’m gonna hang around for as long as I can for the sake of everyone”—he was thinking of his family. But he pretty much put me in my place that he wasn’t expecting to live a long time. Which was hard to hear. He did try. He tried everything he could to keep himself around. But he did know. And at one point, when we were recording in the studio, he said to me, “Well, if I’m not around when this record comes out, you guys can still tour and support the record.” I looked at him and said, “Now how the hell are we going to do that?” And he said, “You can do it. A gig’s a gig.” I thought about it and I thought, No, his shoes are just too big to fill.
But as it turns out we’re having to do this anyway. We’re having a tribute night for him on May 3 at the Sound Academy here in Toronto, quite a big tribute going on with other guests and with the Healey Blues Band. We’re going to do our best to honor Jeff. So we are having to do that a little bit here and there. We have a couple of gigs in the summertime. It seems that Jeff went ahead and continued to book up the summer with all these festival dates, and didn’t tell us. So we’re being approached to do maybe the same kind of thing, a tribute to him, and we’re making sure we bring in some pretty hot guitar players who get the idea that this is a night of honoring him, not replacing him.

Let me ask you about his approach to the studio work. There is a real ferocity to his performances. This is not the work of someone who was fading out. There’s abundant energy in these tracks.

AF: You’re absolutely right, y’know. He was very ill at times, especially the last session we did, when he had had chemotherapy and radiation. He was wiped out. And we even did a couple of shows. The one at the club where we recorded “How Blue Can You Get” and “Like a Hurricane,” he was very ill then, barely looked like he had the energy to do it and get on stage. But once he got on the stage, it was like all of that was forgotten. All his energy just rose to the occasion.

His vocal on “How Blue Can You Get” is just stunning.

AF: It’s amazing.

The sensitivity in that singing. He’s known for his guitar playing, but one of the things that stands out for me on the record is how strong, in every respect, his singing is, whether it’s the sensitive mode on the slower things or the energy he brings to the uptempo numbers.

AF: Yeah, it’s uncanny. Even in the last couple of years we toured a lot. He had some of the cancer in his leg and was having trouble walking. I saw him go through quite a lot of problems. But he was always the same, always put on an incredible show; it was really important to him. It’s almost like he forgot about his pain, or it certainly seemed that way. He’d always be pretty wiped out afterwards, though, after the show. He saved all his energy for the moment.

What was his reaction to the finished Mess of Blues?

AF: He really liked it, and it was a good representation of the band. In his liner notes-and I didn’t know he had done those—in he talks about the band individually and how much fun it was for him to be playing and touring, that kind of thing. It’s very touching to read that actually.

It’s obvious how much affection he has for the band and the work you guys did together.

AF: Yeah. He says here, “I’m very proud of this band. It’s an interesting mix of personalities and musical influences. This is the band I take on the road for any of my blues-rock shows and the response we get has been heartwarming.”
The thing was, I talked to him about three days before he passed. I was actually in mastering the record, and I had to call him. He was at home at the time. I had to ask him about the spelling of something, so I got to talk with him. And at that point he was lucid, because he hadn’t been given any morphine yet, and he said to me, “I’ll talk to you soon, Alec.” And I never got to speak with him after that. He was under the influence of the drug and I wanted to stay away from the hospital because of the family and all, and I didn’t want there to be too many people there. But I never got to talk to him after that and I felt really bad about that, but when I got these liner notes sent to me, and I was reading it, and the things he said about me and the band, it was like, yeah, he did talk to me. It just knocked me over. I thought, He didn’t have to do all of this. He could have talked about plenty of other things. But he was that kind of guy, a real team player. And his band was important to him.
This is one of those kinds of bands that knew so many songs. We changed it up every night, and that was the part that was fun for Jeff. He finally had a band where he could go on and pull anything out of the hat, from any genre at all. We played country to AC/DC to all over the map. He looked like he was finally having some fun, breaking away from having to do a set show of hits and what the audience thought they wanted. When it came down to doing the record, he basically picked all the songs. He told me what song he wanted me to sing, and I said, “I’ll do whatever you want.” He directed all of that. But there were a lot of other songs, and I recorded quite a lot of it. I’ve got quite a bit of Jeff in the can.

I was wondering what he had left behind. Other albums, or a box set down the road?

AF: There could be. He told me what he thought was good, and he told me to save some stuff. I do have recordings of just him and I together. We liked all different kinds of music, especially old country music. So he came in one day and we cut about three tracks of just him and I playing all these old country songs. I still have that, and no one’s ever actually heard it. I’m gonna run one off for his dad; his dad was actually the influence in a lot of ways of the music Jeff was into—jazz and country. There’s also a jazz album in the can, one I did in my house. But that won’t be out for quite a while. The concentration is on “Mess of Blues,” which is his final rock record and the first one he’s done in eight years.

It’s a great one to go out on. And it’s not just him; the band sounds great behind him. There’s great synergy between you guys.

AF: It was a band that had a lot of fun. We joked around a lot. We amassed quite a lot of tomfoolery on the road. The funny thing, too, is when it came to picture taking, Jeff would always be the first one in the picture. We used to play this game called “Every Dressing Room Has a Picture.” Even if it was the dullest looking dressing room, my challenge was always to try and find something to do, some sort of optical illusion or some sort of thing in the dressing room. Whenever I’d come up with something Jeff would be right there, right away. For a man that couldn’t see, he was so infatuated with getting into pictures and joining in on the fun. Great, great guy.

Jeff Healey
Ruf Records

Is the band going to continue holding forth at the club?

AF: Yeah, the club is still going quite strong. They book other acts, too. They’re bringing in larger name acts all the time. It remains to be seen how things are gonna go, but as it stands, Thursday nights are still nights to honor Jeff. Throughout the summer there are some tribute shows planned with Jeff Healey’s Blues Band, as it’s being billed.

I understand Jeff’s three-year-old son Derek has inherited some musical talent.

AF: Definitely. He’s a budding drummer. The Jazz Band and the Blues Band got together the other day on Derrick’s birthday, and we all chipped in and bought him a little drum kit. We videotaped him turning into Buddy Rich within minutes.

Buddy Rich in style or in attitude, or both?

AF: Only in style, not in attitude. He hasn’t got a bus yet; he can’t throw anybody off a bus.

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