For 15 years, Tom Stephen had the unique distinction of being both drummer and manager of the Jeff Healey Band. The dual role was fraught with conflicts of interest. One minute, he was leading the debauched life of a rock musician; the next, he was disciplining the band for the havoc they caused.
But few knew or understood Jeff Healey — a national icon and one of the world’s best blues guitarists — better. Funny and loyal, with a luminous mind and staggering talent, Healey was also provincial, stubborn, obnoxious, and antagonistic. This book explores both sides with honesty, clarity, and humor and reveals what life for the band was really like: Jeff challenging ZZ Top to a bowling competition — and winning; Bill Clinton inviting the band to the White House, and enjoying a special audience with Queen Elizabeth II. To say nothing of the legendary guitarist’s interactions with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Keith Richards, and more…
Tom Stephen was there for it all. He believes that young fans deserve to experience Healey’s brilliance — to understand the complicated man behind those timeless sounds. Best Seat in the House offers an authentic perspective that fans won’t find elsewhere.
About the authors
Tom Stephen continues to work in artist management, dividing his time between Toronto, Los Angeles, and Jamaica. Keith Elliot Greenberg is a New York Times bestselling author and television producer who’s written for Maxim, Playboy, the New York Observer, Village Voice, and USA Today, among others. His credits include the autobiographies of pro wrestling icons Ric Flair and Superstar Billy Graham, as well as December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died. He is a lifetime New Yorker.
Excerpt: Best Seat in the House: My Life in the Jeff Healey Band (by (author) Tom Stephen; with Keith Elliot Greenberg)
Somewhere between Foxboro and Boston, the bus began to rock from side to side.
I was an hour or so into a rum-induced sleep, head aching as the glare from the overhead lights pushed against my eyelids. For the Jeff Healey Band, it was just another night, rolling down the highway. But something about the feel of the tour bus, shaking and shifting lanes on that icy patch of I-95, told me that, even in the twisted world of rock ’n’ roll, this wasn’t normal.
Falling out of my bunk, I looked down toward the front of the vehicle. We’d had problems with our drivers before. Once, in the middle of a blizzard, I caught one guy doing lines of coke on the steering wheel. I understood his thought process; after hanging out with rock stars, he believed that he could get just as screwed up, even if it meant killing the whole band — and himself. Now I saw his replacement sitting over on the wrong side of the bus.
“What the hell is he doing there?” I wondered, still partially asleep. “Are we still in England?”
Through the fog, I heard the driver’s voice speaking in a soothing Texas drawl: “That’s good. Just hold her steady. You’re doing great. Really good, Jeff.”
Jeff Healey was the centerpiece of our band, the best blues guitarist in the world, a man who could match — and sometimes outclass — Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton by sitting down, opening the case of his Jackson doubleneck on his lap, and stretching his big fingers over the strings.
He also happened to be blind.
Strangely, at that moment, I wasn’t too worried about Jeff’s disability — my bigger concern was whether he’d been drinking or not. Either way, it was my job to put out the fire. Not only was I the Jeff Healey Band’s drummer. I was the comanager. When shit happened — and a blind guy driving a 20-ton bus would definitely qualify as shit happening — the grown-ups expected me to fix the problem.
Even if, in some instances, Tom Stephen was the reason for the problem in the first place.
In this case, I quickly concluded, there was nothing I could do; I was along for the ride. When Jeff was at the wheel, both literally and figuratively, he yielded it to no one. From the moment he’d lost his vision — and his eyes — to retinoblastoma, a rare cancer that starts in the light-detecting cells of the retina, he feared nothing. Every discouraging diagnosis was taken as a challenge. At one point, I knew someone must have told him that he couldn’t drive the tour bus.
It was the wrong thing to say.
Because of my unique position in the band, Jeff was in the habit of defying me like a rebellious teenager. Whatever went wrong — with the record company, the tour schedule, even the airlines — always seemed to be my fault. But we looked at our band as a family and, when others came after us, no one was more loyal than Jeff.
Before we cracked the United States, we toured our native Canada from sea to sea, waking up to snowdrifts that came in through the windows and walls. But with each frigid stop, our reputation grew. During a long stretch in Vancouver, we settled in at a hotel attached to a nightclub complex that featured strippers during the day and rock ’n’ roll after dark. The manager was a lovely, petite Chinese woman who treated both the talent and the customers with grace and courtesy.
We all felt protective of her, particularly Jeff.
One night, we were jamming onstage, eying a group of soldiers boozing it up pretty good. They were getting loud and becoming a nuisance. But we’d had plenty of nights like that ourselves, and weren’t in a position to judge. Then one of the assholes crossed the line, grabbing the manager and tearing off the arm of her coat.
That was enough for me. I jumped over the bass drum and flew into the crowd. These guys must have seen me coming, because they grabbed me, pushed me up against a beer keg and started putting a pretty good whomping on me.
Suddenly, I heard Jeff’s voice, a few feet away. “Tom?” he yelled. “Tom, where are you?”
One of the soldiers had his hands around my neck. “I’m here,” I wheezed. “Right here.”
Jeff took a moment to gauge where all the players were standing. Then he lifted his cane and whacked my attacker.
Boom. Boom. Out go the lights. The soldier’s bros looked at him, then looked at Jeff twitching slightly, still waving his cane. The crowd went silent — pregnant pause — then broke into laughter and applause.
“Holy fuck,” somebody said.
The army had been taken out by a blind guy.
Jeff was able to get away with this because he honestly didn’t think of himself as handicapped. And sometimes the fans weren’t sure, either. He was big and handsome and jumped around all over the stage like a maniac. He wore a pair of artificial eyes and was very particular about the color. At one gig, a girl told him that he had beautiful eyes. After that, he had friends bring him to the guy who hand-painted his eyes in Toronto to ensure the shade remained consistent. The strategy worked. The girls all thought he was cute. And our music hit hard, so the rocker guys dug him, too.
Steve Lukather, a session musician who’s performed on more than fifteen hundred albums, was hanging out with the band after a show when Jeff decided to play a practical joke on him.
“Luke, come here,” Jeff began, calling Steve by his nickname. “I think I have something in my eye.”
When Steve bent down to check, Jeff began scratching his glass eye with his fingernail. “It traumatized me,” says Lukather, who’s best known for his work with the band Toto. “I tripped out. He was something else — as a man and a musician.
“I was touring with Edgar Winter — who had his sight issues himself — and I’d try to get to Jeff by banging on his hotel room door and running away. One time, he came out in his underwear and yelled, ‘Fuck you, Lukather. I can smell you.’”
We’d be jamming with the biggest names in the world, and Jeff always managed to grab the spotlight. And I mean the biggest names in the world. I remember drumming behind Jeff, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Ron Wood. It was a kickass jam with exchanges of blistering solos. Jeff was in his zone, blowing everybody’s mind. The other musicians gathered around Jeff’s chair, watching him blast away. And as they came closer, I began counting because I knew what was coming.
Three, two, one . . .
Kaboom! Jeff exploded out of his chair, practically knocking the other guitarists over. It was if he’d gone bowling for rock stars and hit a perfect strike.
“His technique was original to him,” remembers Slash of Guns N’ Roses, “especially at that time. Playing the guitar flat on your lap with two hands on the fretboard was something no one had seen at that time. He was a true phenomenon.”
The first time we landed in L.A., the most beautiful women we’d ever seen were throwing themselves at Jeff. One was brilliant and came from a storied family in the music business. The bass player, Joe Rockman, and I were completely jealous. We shouldn’t have been. Jeff wanted nothing to do with her.
Since Jeff was so tactile, he liked a certain type of woman — one who, to put it delicately, he could reach around and feel. The wider the better. If you were some bony model or actress, you were out. If you were nice and round, you stood a pretty good chance.
To be fair, Jeff also demanded that his women be intelligent. A pretty face meant nothing to him; he needed that extra source of stimulation. And he looked at the world through music. So he expected them to share his love of jazz and blues and rock ’n’ roll.
Then again, he was as superficial as any other guy. Being voluptuous was crucial.
Shortly before a planned tour of Jamaica, I cautioned Jeff, “You know, this is going to be a little tough for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you know what Jamaican men like? For the first time in your life, you’re going to have to fight for these girls.”
He never went.
You have to keep in mind that all three of us grew up never imagining that girls would be that interested in us. Then — almost overnight, it seemed — our live shows transformed us into lady killers. No transition. It just suddenly happened. The trick was to make sure that we didn’t pursue the same girls — though many of these girls had no issue with pursuing all three of us.
To this day, I still have a hard time wrapping my head around that notion. I understand Jeff Healey. But what would some girl get out of bragging that she’d been with both Tom Stephen and Joe Rockman?
We weren’t prepared for any of this. In fact, at one point, I actually had to sit Jeff down and have a serious talk with him. “Jeff,” I emphasized, “you gotta wrap the rascal.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, Jeff, you should be using protection. Are you?”
“Tom, that’s none of your business. Let me look after me.”
“Hey, Jeff, I’m just saying. You don’t want to go home with something you didn’t go on the road with.”
He twisted his hair and bit his lip, like he usually did when he wasn’t happy with me. That was the end of the conversation.
But a few weeks later, while we were on tour in Australia, there was a heavy pounding on my door at about 3 a.m. I opened up to see all six feet and two inches of Jeff Healey done up in Aboriginal war paint, with a girl on each side of him. It seemed like a game of Aussie trick or treat. Which it actually was.
“Simple question, Jeff,” I began. “What the fuck do you want?”
Jeff was giggling like buffoon. “Tom,” he announced, “I’ve come to wrap the monster. Do you have what I want?”
That was part of the fun of rock ’n’ roll, all those unexpected moments. I also admit I enjoyed running into celebrities and having them treat me as a peer. Jeff, on the other hand, thought celebrity was bullshit. If you wanted to impress Jeff, you’d have to be a cool jazz cat. Or, at the very least, have a good story about playing music alongside a cool jazz cat. Then you were in. Jeff loved all the old-time blues players, like B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Albert Collins. He loved them and they loved him.
One night in Chicago, Jeff wanted to go to this famous blues bar on the Southside, where all the greats stopped when they were in town. But when we got in the cab, the driver warned us that we were heading to a pretty rough neighborhood.
“Do you boys really know where you’re going?” he asked. And then, just in case we didn’t understand subtlety, he added, “I don’t know if you noticed, but you boys are white.”
“I don’t know too much about that,” Jeff answered. “I’m blind. But I can tell you this. I like what I smell right now.”
We happened to be at a light, just beside a chili dog restaurant. Jeff ordered the driver to pull over to the curb.
“Are you guys crazy?”
Jeff and food could never be parted. In we went. The customers seemed genuinely concerned for us. A few asked if we were lost.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I’m following him.”
They looked at Jeff, they looked at the cane, and they started to laugh.
No matter where you’re traveling in the world, humor’s a wonderful thing.
We paid for our chili dogs, returned to the cab and found our way to the club. Like the cab driver, the doorman seemed to question our logic.
“This is Jeff Healey,” I pointed out, “world-famous guitarist.” The doorman looked over at Jeff holding on to his cane and chomping on his hot dog.
“You boys know who we are?”
“That’s why we’re here.”
“Well, it’s up to you guys.”
We were hanging out, grooving to the band. Jeff couldn’t have been happier. He once told me that African-Americans were the “angels of the planet,” explaining, “The old jazz cats, the old blues cats, they created the foundation of everything we love and care about.”
Suddenly, Albert Collins himself walked in. He’d jammed with Jeff in the past, had witnessed his 15-minute version of “All Along the Watchtower,” and was intrigued to see us hanging out in the hood. Of course, once the crowd noticed the type of company we kept, the mood completely changed. Jeff was lost in the music. When he liked what he heard, he had a tendency to shake his hands and direct the band. The more he drank, the more he directed, and the more fun the night became.
By this point, Joe had also caught a cab to the bar and been introduced to Albert Collins — or, as we called him, “Mr. Collins.” We were all enjoying each other’s companionship when Collins blurted out, “Jeff, you do realize that you’re a Black man. And both of your boys with you, I think they’re Black men. At least, they have some big-ass Afros.”
That’s the benefit, I guess, of having a Jewish bass player and a Lebanese guy behind the drums.
When Collins stepped up to the front to perform, we were invited to join him. To sit in on a session featuring Jeff Healey and Albert Collins was truly a privilege. As I was playing, the regular drummer was giving me tips. “You’re not bad,” he said. “But one thing you’ve got to figure out is the rearview mirror.”
I looked at him, confused.
“You know, man. You gotta look in the rearview mirror. When you look in the rearview mirror, what you see behind you? That there’s the beat.”
As funny as it sounded, none of us ever forgot it. If we’d been having a bad night onstage, Jeff would shout, “Rearview mirror!” That got the point across — pull it back, man. Pull it back.
Jeff didn’t mind putting up a battle. He fought with me enough. The fights could be good-natured or vicious. He could slice you to pieces with a phrase. I’d be scrambling for a comeback and he’d hit me with something else. Once I stooped low enough to tell him to leave the music business and sell pencils on the street corner.
He burst into laughter. He knew he was a genius and was never insecure about that stuff. Nor was he awed by the giants of our industry. And that could drive me out of my mind. When we had the chance to open for the Rolling Stones, he acted completely indifferent, mumbling something about having to do his laundry the day of the proposed gig. He didn’t think they were that good — the same way he believed Hendrix was just “okay” without his stage show. I managed to convince him otherwise, and years later, he even admitted to me that the Stones were a crucial part of rock history. But before that he flat-out insulted Keith Richards’s guitar playing and got us booted off a potential Rolling Stones tour.
You’ll hear more about that later.
George Harrison and Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits both contributed songs to our second album. And although there was certainly a respect for all they’d accomplished, Jeff bruised some pretty big egos with his self-veneration. The same was true with Clive Davis and Ahmet Ertegun. That’s Clive, the founder of Arista Records, and Ahmet, the founder of Atlantic and chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Both guys couldn’t wait to sign Jeff Healey. And he eventually walked away from both labels. Why? Artistically, Jeff was always convinced that he was right.
Maybe he was. But, Jesus — Clive Davis and Ahmet Ertegun!
At the same time, Jeff was the greatest guy in the world, and the funniest. Late at night on the tour bus, he’d challenge everyone to that electronic game that involved shooting ducks off the screen. And he wanted to bet on it. Giving in to greed, we all took the dare. Who couldn’t beat a blind man at a video game? But Jeff always won, sometimes clipping us for hundreds of dollars.
“I know you’re a fuckin’ hustler,” I told him, “I’m just trying to figure out your system.”
“It’s the quacks,” he admitted. “I count the quacks. It’s a rotation. Every time, they quack, I know where the ducks are and knock them off.”
I still remember Jeff’s face grinning with satisfaction. I knew he couldn’t see me, but I felt that he was looking right into my eyes. When I think about moments like that, I can’t believe that a man with so much life — more life than the rest of us — could leave us so quickly.
I miss him, and thank him for giving me his musical mentorship, friendship — and all the stories you’re about to read here. Admittedly, some of the details may be shrouded by the haze of drugs and booze, the delirium of touring, the passage of time and the general bullshit of the music business. As best as I can tell, my recollections are true, although when I look at them objectively, they do seem pretty out there. But hey, welcome to rock ’n’ roll.
Let the jam begin.
“Even if you are not too familiar with the Jeff Healey Band, this book is one that music lovers would still enjoy; filled with humorous road stories, management problems, and the admittance of mistakes and problems that ended the band’s run and friendship, all told in grateful, and honest recollection.” — Lance Writes blog
“On the surface, it’s a story of rock ‘n’ roll debauchery, but at its heart, Best Seat in the House is fueled by aspects of artistic passion, tension, and a relentless sense of hustle which makes for a truly compelling read.” — Spill Magazine