Friends and family of the late legendary musician Jeff Healey successfully rallied last year to rename his childhood park in the Humber Bay area after him.
Now they're mounting a benefit concert on April 12 featuring other Toronto music legends to raise money to purchase special playground equipment to make Jeff Healey Park in The Queensway and Royal York Road area more accessible for children with disabilities.
Healey died in 2008. He was 41.
The blues guitarist and jazz enthusiast died of osteogenic sarcoma - the same cancer that took the life of Canadian icon Terry Fox.
Retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer, robbed Healey of his sight at seven months old. Self-taught guitar at age three, he laid the electric guitar across his lap, and later became one of the most distinctive guitar players of our time.
Healey sold more than a million copies of his Grammy-nominated 1988 debut album See the Light, which included the famous hit, 'Angel Eyes'.
The concert, Rock for Jeff Healey Park, takes place Thursday, April 12 at The Sound Academy, 11 Polson St. near Cherry Street. Doors open at 8 p.m. Show starts at 9 p.m.
Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door. Visit www.ticketmaster.ca for tickets.
Canadian music legend Randy Bachman headlines the concert. Jack de Keyzer and Danny Marks, fathers of the Toronto style of electric guitar, will also perform, as will Healey's musical mentor Tony 'Wild T' Springer, Lamont James, Pat Rush who played guitar in Healey's band, Dave Murphy, musical director with Healey's blues band, bassist Stan Miczek who plays with Juno Award-winning Canadian rocker Sass Jordan, Ottawa-based Juno-award winning MonkeyJunk, Steve Strongman, Chuck Jackson and Robin Banks.
"It's going to be a great concert. Anyone who hasn't seen Randy Bachman play lately, he's at the top of his game. It's a great variety of lineup of some real living legends," said Rob Quail, a friend of Healey's since high school who helped spearhead the renaming of Woodford Park after Healey, as well as the benefit concert.
Nearly the entirety of the concert's proceeds will go toward the accessible playground equipment, Quail said.
Etobicoke York Community Council approved renaming Woodford Park to Jeff Healey Park last April.
Shortly after, Healey's widow, Cristie, told The Guardian how much it meant to her and her family.
"I think it will be amazing for his children. Family was the most important thing to Jeff and both of his children have enjoyed the park over the years," she said. "I think being able to go there and see his name there and know that people thought enough of him to pay that much respect to him is an amazing thing for his children to grow up and see and be proud of their father."
Accessible playground equipment for Jeff Healey Park will feature elements that are tactile, as well as sound. It will be chosen in consultation with city staff. It could cost $20,000 or more, Quail estimated.
Quail met Healey when he was 17, Healey, 15. The pair formed a band and performed in clubs throughout Etobicoke and Mississauga, including the legendary blues club, The Colonial, torn down in the late 1980s.
A while later, the late guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan noticed Healey, who started playing bigger clubs like Albert's Hall and The Horseshoe.
"Jeff's personality definitely filled a room not by dominating, but through the power of his presence, He had natural charisma that drew people towards him. His willpower was really a force of nature," Quail said.
Healey's musical gifts seemed innate, his friend said.
"I've met a lot of talented people in my life. I've never met anybody with the same kind of natural gift for anything as he had for making music. He was a really, really extraordinary talent," Quail said. "Talk with anyone who worked with him and they'll speak about his ability in superlative. They'll say he was not just great. He was exceptionally great."
Healey had a near-photographic memory for names, dates and sound. He could hear a song once on the radio and reproduce the music by ear, Quail said.
"If you hadn't met Jeff, you would think if you were going to lose one of your senses, the worst would be sight. But it really didn't limit him much. He was very independent. I would think if you lost your hearing it would have a bigger impact on your ability to interact with other people."
Richard Flohil, who handled public relations and publicity for Healey, agreed.
"Jeff firmly believed, '(blindness) is not a handicap. It's not something you have to feel sorry for me about,'" Flohil recalled of his friend. "He'd been blind all his life. It is all he had ever known. You adapt because you have to."
Flohil once watched in amazement as Healey banged out a 600-word CD sleeve note on a computer keyboard: "I proofread it. There was only one error in 600 words."
Healey should be remembered as much for his inspirational life of extraordinary ability in the face of disability as he is for being a legendary musician, Quail said.
"Jeff is more than just a gifted musician. He is the best example anywhere of how physical disability need not limit the quality or breadth or significance of your life," Quail said. "He became, arguably, one of the best perhaps ever at what he did. Being blind really had no impact on that at all."
Naming Woodford Park after Healey and installing accessible playground equipment in it is an effort to spread that message.
"I'm hoping it will stimulate conversation for future generations. 'Well who was this guy Jeff Healey?" In particular, for families with children with disabilities, I think Jeff's life is a real hopeful example of 'my child who maybe has some form of physical impairment need not live a limited life,'" Quail said.
In fact, Healey toured internationally with his band until mere months before his death.
Flohil recalled one phone call in particular from Healey that illustrated the man's sense of humour.
"Jeff called me up and said, 'I'm in Geneva'. It was a Friday night. He said, 'can you give me a call when I get home Sunday night?' I said, 'you're in Europe, man. Hang about for a few days.' He said, 'why? I don't like the food. I can't see the scenery. And I'm homesick.'"
Healey expressed no regrets about his life in a conversation with Quail before his untimely death.
"He said he realized his odds weren't all that great. He realized his family could lose him, his children might well lose their father. He said, 'I've done more living in my 41 years than most people do in 80 years.' That's absolutely bang on. He definitely lived life."
Healey remains arguably Etobicoke's most famous son.
"Jeff always made a point when talking to the international press, he didn't say he was from Toronto. He'd say he was from Etobicoke," Quail recalled. "He really had a psychic connection to the place. People from Etobicoke were proud he came from their community. And he was really proud to be from Etobicoke."
- With files from Cynthia Reason