Music : Bluesman Gordon Healy lives on the bright side
Photo by Tim Johnson
Most people have careers in their lives. Gordon Healy's career is life.
The 20-year Island resident has built a musical following through live apprentices with most of the Island's musical names and with his own band, The Gordon Healy Band, which appears semi-regularly at local venues, including The Ritz Cafe in Oak Bluffs.
He's also built a personal fan base through a myriad of other work, most recently as a barista at Mocha Mott's coffee shop in Oak Bluffs, and as a volunteer/paid employee at the Animal Shelter of Martha's Vineyard in Edgartown.
The 47-year old graduate of Curry College in Milton is a bit of an enigma, blues-wise. If true artists are supposed to suffer, then blues musicians are the A-list, reeking of personal angst occasioned by those miles of bad road in their rear view mirrors.
Mr. Healy said there's some credence in the old saw that holds, "You have to suffer if you want to sing the blues," but suffering is optional to a degree.
"Anyone can sing the blues, but there has got to be a thread of truth, of believability, in order for the audience to pick up on it," he said.
Mr. Healy is the second of four boys born to sturdy public servants in pastoral Millis. He does not project a tortured past but his resume reflects a lifetime of searching for the sweet spot of happiness mixed with a dollop of pragmatism.
"I have that Yankee swapper thing. I traded computer skills for tuition at Curry College, working in their computer center. Basically, I was an employee who took classes," he said of his college days that began in his mid-20s after six or seven years spent in computer peripheral design and engineering for a Marlboro company. "I knew I didn't want to spend my life in small, dark rooms with machines," he said.
He majored in English literature at Curry and explored performing arts he had discovered in high school comedy and talent shows, singing in garage bands and creating a radio show on Curry's radio station. Along the way, Mr. Healy has been a bartender, a carpenter (briefly), a fundraiser, and a booker of bands for clubs.
Mr. Healy also took a shot at standup comedy, which he believes shares a kinship with the blues. "I think people in comedy have a lot of darkness in their lives that they clean out with comedy. Comedy is hard. If you're doing it well, there is no better feeling but when it's not going well, there's no lonelier place in the world. Voltaire said, 'Living is easy. Comedy is hard,'" he said with a grin.
"Being a musician is more comforting. I enjoy getting together with musicians who are friends. When I was younger, I did it as a business. Now what I enjoy most is the experience of getting together with friends," he said.
Mr. Healy worked the Boston blues circuit, breaking in on the legendary Sunday Boston blues jam. "It was an old boys network but a friend from Millis was involved in it so he brought me in." As Mr. Healy explained it, his life choices are informed by relationships and choices.
"It's hard work to be a happy person but you have to choose to be positive. To try to put yourself in situations with positive, talented people who appreciate the beauty of life. I always felt on the outside looking in, and I came inside for a few days. You know, that could be the default place for me unless I choose not to be happy."
Showing up on the Island was his happiness deal-maker. "A friend asked me to help him out on his house for a few days. As soon as I got here, I knew this was the place," he said.
Musical and life skills have come hand in hand. "People told me if I was interested in the blues, I had to meet Maynard Silva. I found him playing in the basement at Andrea's [now Atria] restaurant in Edgartown. Then Johnny and Barbara Hoy and other people came by and sat in. I thought, 'My god, everyone on this Island is a great musician!'"
Mr. Healy has jammed with a U.S. president and sung the blues in cities from Paris to New Orleans, but the late Island blues man was a beacon for him. "I learned so much about how to be a man and how to be a blues man from Maynard. I miss him so much," he said, tears welling up. Mr. Silva died on July 16, 2008, after battling cancer good-naturedly for years.
Today, Mr. Healy finds happiness in simple things: playing music with friends, being a summer "manny" for Signe Benjamin and George Hearn's two sons, Hoffman and Harper ("I do the fun uncle things with them"), brewing up coffee and conversation at Mott's, and tending to the residents at the animal shelter.
He particularly enjoys the feedback he gets at the shelter. "When the tails start wagging, you know you're doing a good job," he said. Mr. Healy and the band did a benefit concert for the shelter this year and plans to do another next year.
Mr. Healy has chosen an uncomplicated life steeped in the richness and complexity of music. "I listen to a lot of classical. I like the complexity of it. And blues, rock, and early '50s reggae which has a lot in common with blues rhythm," he said. "Depends on my mood. I can be scatterbrained," he confides.
He lives his own music, experiencing the moment. "I still remember the first gig I had on-Island, 21 years ago at The Ritz. I'll never forget it, even the floorboards were bouncing," he said. Mr. Healy has never made a CD or even recorded his music. "I think a lot of it needs to be heard live. There's a song or two on YouTube and Facebook that other people have put up," he said.
"If I ever made a CD, I'd want to put 'Simple Love,' a song Mike Benjamin wrote for his wife, on it. One of my other favorites is 'Float.' Buck Shank wrote it for Nicole, his wife."
For a guy who idolized BB King, "I learned in seventh grade that we had the same birthday [June 16]," Mr. Healy says 'Ave Maria' is his favorite song to sing.
The Gordon Healy Band will probably next appear in December at The Ritz. "I've got some tintinnation [ringing in the ear] right now so I'm going for quality gigs rather than quantity," he said.
Meanwhile, he's working on his next bucket list. "I finished the first one, which had seeing BB King live right up there on it. A few years ago Susan Tedeschi was opening for his 75th birthday tribute in New York and just called me one day and asked me to come. She remembered we had the same birthday," he said.
Atop his next bucket list? "I really want to work at Erica McCarron's cupcake store — when she gets one."