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“Don’t want to be the lone one getting caught up in the storm
So be a good friend and point me to the right way home” – Jeff Orson, Right Way Home
“Every day is a new day and not to be wasted. I try to wring every last moment out of it. People think that the party will go on forever, but I know differently now. You don’t know when that call will come.”
For Jeff Orson, the popular duty free veteran and a senior figure at Peter Mielzynski Agencies in Canada, the ‘call’ came two years ago with a diagnosis for colon cancer.
But remarkably, that was only the beginning – this story would become one of recovery and redemption. Jeff used his darkest moments to reflect on life and reignite his passion for music. Today he has blossomed into a wonderful lyricist, superb live performer and has his sights on a possible record deal that would cement this incredible tale.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. This is a story that Jeff himself should tell.
“It was around the time of Orlando 2014 and I had got myself fit, lost weight and I was in good shape,” he says. “I stayed on after the show on a holiday but I was sleeping very badly. I saw a doctor who wasn’t sure what the problem was, suggesting it could be depression, but I actually felt fine physically.
“When I came home I underwent a full medical that showed I was anaemic with low blood readings so they suggested I go on a course of iron. But that didn’t answer what the root cause might be. I still could not sleep properly and knew something deeper was happening.
“So I went to a specialist who did a colonoscopy and he recognised it straight away: I had colon cancer.
“It felt like my world was falling apart. I didn’t know what my fate would be. I got hold of my lawyer and insurance people to check out my policies. But mostly I just worried. Not just for me: my father, in his 90s, relied on me. What would he do if I was gone?”
With sleep slow to come, and solace hard to find, Jeff turned back to one of his previous passions: music.
“I had always played in bands when I was younger and I could play guitar. I loved the music of Gordon Lightfoot, a great Canadian artist, and I have always been a big fan of Bob Dylan and Neil Young. I’m inspired by them but by younger artists too.
“So in the middle of those long, long nights I returned to music. I didn’t know whether I was going to live or die, and I started writing music to try to make some sense of it.”
In June his surgery followed. “I was blessed,” he says. “It went well, I had no infection and in fact saw many people around me who were far worse off. I played and wrote while in hospital, which I guess helped me too.
“One night a woman who was a custodian there came over and said she really liked my music, that I could really play. Later, so did other members of staff. That gave me great encouragement.
“So I determined that if I survived I would do things differently, that I would take this opportunity and see where it took me.”
And that is exactly what Jeff Orson has done. “I started going to little clubs that would have me and ended up performing regularly. Now I’m playing wherever I travel. I’d love to play in new places, in Europe too if possible.”
The live gigs are only part of the story though. “Soon after I started playing clubs I met some people who helped me make a record, and it has evolved from there. I got some management advice and I have been helped by an organisation that supports Canadian recording artists. I was originally encouraged to send in my music, not expecting to hear back, as it’s very tough to make a breakthrough. But they contacted me and helped fund my demos. Now I’m at the stage where I have to provide my two best songs and they’ll decide whether to fund an album. If you get that far, you’ve got a career. I’m doing that recording now, so we’ll see where it goes.”
Naturally this is something he would love to happen – but speaking to Jeff you get the sense that he knows he has already won a bigger victory.
“I’m two and a half years on since the operation and I just had my latest six monthly check, which was positive. If the recording works out, great. If not, I’ll go where the wind blows. People are too quick to make hard and fast plans. If it’s not to be, I won’t be too disappointed. And I’ll continue to play.”
He’ll continue to work too. Jeff has worked with Peter Mielzynski and team for close to 22 years, representing companies such as William Grant & Sons and their brands. He hails the agency’s support for him through this fight. As he notes too, the salesman’s urge won’t ever leave him.
“I was sitting in hospital in my room and I felt OK a day after surgery, better than I thought I would. So I checked emails first and then I sold 25 cases of Glenfiddich to a customer. Steve Corrigan [ex-Pernod and William Grant & Sons, and another great music man] called me up and I told him I’d just made a sale. He thought I was crazy. Other people called too, the word spread and the reaction at the time from people was beautiful.”
Delegates at last week’s Frontier Duty Free Association show in Toronto had the chance to see Jeff perform live and up close, at the famed Horseshoe Tavern. I was honoured to join them as I made a return to FDFA after some years away. (In fact the Canadian show was among the very first trade shows I attended in this industry, in the late 1990s. Then as now, Jeff and his many colleagues in Canadian duty free offered me the warmest and most authentic of welcomes to their homeland and event.)
Jeff says: “For me to play the Horseshoe Tavern was a Cinderella story. Many great names have performed on that stage over the years: The Rolling Stones, The Police, The Ramones. And to see the turnout from my friends and colleagues was really something.”
As he looks forward, Jeff now has a new take on life.
“The cancer was a horrible experience but in some ways it brought me good things. My attitude to life is different. I grew up in a humble farming community in Oakville, Ontario, close to Niagara Falls. I thought that getting out of poverty represented achievement.
“I thought that somehow those people who did not achieve or who were less successful were somehow guilty of not working hard. But not everyone has the means or opportunity to achieve in their career or in their lives.
“I know that you have to live and have a roof over your head. But the purpose of life is not those things. It is to be happy and productive in whatever you do, your life, your career. Life is too short to be miserable so find the things that make you happy.
“Look what happened to me: The worst moment has blossomed into a beautiful flower.”