A FEW MINUTES WITH… Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band
Story and interview by Don Wilcock
The front man in a rock band always gets the attention, but in the case of the Rolling Stones, the Everly Brothers, Aerosmith and the J. Geils Band, it’s the collaboration of two songwriting band members that makes it jell. Maintaining such collaborations over several decades has been problematic for each. That the J. Geils Band is playing together at all in 2014 is a miracle. That they haven’t produced a new song together in more than 30 years is not surprising. And that the namesake founding member Jay Geils isn’t even in the band that opens for Bob Seger on Tuesday night (December 2) at the Times Union Center just adds to the confusion.
Peter Wolf, however, takes it all in stride. “The Dave Clark Five or Paul Revere & the Raiders, I don’t know. There are so many bands that have that. The Allman Brothers were named after two brothers, Duane and Gregg. Then there was only one Allman. There weren’t two. But they didn’t change their name. They just kept going.”
It has caused Wolf some problems over the years, however. “I think the name J. Geils is very confusing to people,” he told me in 2011, “ because still today I walk down the street, and people come up to me, ‘J., how ya doin,’ man?’ And so that causes great confusion. When Bill Graham first saw the band, he came running into the dressing room, put his arms around me and said, ‘J., you were great,’ after we had played the Fillmore. And I said, ‘I’m not J.’ ‘Well, who the hell are ya?’ I said, ‘I’m Peter Wolf.’ He said, ‘Well, why is it called the J. Geils Band?’ And that’s a story in itself we need not go into now.”
Formed in 1967 by vocalist Peter Wolf, who had fronted a soul band called the Hallucinations made up of Boston Museum of Fine Arts students, and J. Geils, a guitarist who had fronted the J. Geils Blues Band, the newly formed unit defied the popular underground rock convention of the day. They created a greasy R&B bar band that covered obscure songs by electric bluesmen like Albert Collins (“Sno-Cone”), Otis Rush (“Homework”) and John Lee Hooker (“Serves You Right to Suffer”), as well as previously hidden nuggets by rhythm and blues artists of the day including Holland, Dozier & Holland (“Where Did Our Love Go”), Don Covay (“The Usual Place”) and Curtis Mayfield (“Believe in Me”).
But it was the collaborations by Wolf and keyboardist Seth Justman on songs like “Southside Shuffle,” “Detroit Breakdown” and “Musta Got Lost” that put a spin on their sound, an edge to their delivery and a showcase for Wolf that caught the ear of a young audience ready for the Beantown equivalent to the southern rock of the Allman Brothers and Texas bur of ZZ Top. Wolf was the focal point for a band that many mistakenly assumed was on speed. “I just went into this kind of trance feeling,” he told me in 2011, “a very sexual kind of thing where you’re kind of just going, and there’s this orgasmic moment, shall we say, and you never know when that’s coming.”
He still feels that energy today and is excited about revisiting the early material. “It gives me an opportunity to revisit material and a music that I helped create, and it was
a part of my life for many years.”
Guitarist J. Geils was the only axe man – white or black – that ever bested a John Lee Hooker song. Although he would tell me in 2000 that he hated playing the song, Geils’ shimmering introduction to “Serves You Right to Suffer” is one of the stand-out moments in rock and roll that belongs next to Jimmy Page’s “Stairway to Heaven” riff or Keith Richard’s run on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” all moments in live concert that send fans into a frenzy. Unfortunately, Wolf says they won’t be playing that number on this tour.
Magic Dick’s harp playing was straight out of Junior Wells on the South Side at four in the morning, and Seth Justman’s production created an Alka-Seltzer fizz to the arrangements, a perfect backdrop to Wolf’s tour de force stage routine, obviously indebted to the James Brown/Jackie Wilson school of dance.
Wilson was the only artist I ever saw out do James Brown on stage. He was a former boxer, and he moved with a combination of grace and confidence that was switchblade fast and overpowering to his audience. In a 1994 interview, Wolf described to me how he portrayed Jackie Wilson when he inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“He came out on stage, and the women just went nuts. All the women next to me started going into this pandemonium frenzy, and it was just this religious ecstasy and fainting and being this young kid from the Bronx sitting amongst all this stuff, I found myself being just like the women, screaming and going nuts and nearly fainting myself. He was so powerful.”
The J. Geils Band was “discovered” in 1967 by an Atlantic Records promotions guy they called Big M, Mario Medious. “Mario was this real funky guy who came from the South Side of Chicago,” explained Wolf. “We were playing the Boston Tea Party, and we were opening up for, I think it was, Fleetwood Mac, or it might have been Led Zeppelin. And so Mario was in the back dressing room, and he heard this Chicago blues band. He came back out and came up to me and said, ‘Hey, man. Where are those brothers who were playing?’
“I said, ‘Wha’dya mean?’
“‘Where’s that Chicago blues band? Where are those guys?’
“I said, ‘Oh, that was us.’
“He said. ‘You cats sounded great.’
“I said, ‘Thanks.’
‘What label you on?’
“And I said, ‘We’re not on a label.’
“He said, ‘Are you kidding me?’
“I said, ‘No!’
“He went right back in the office and called up (label executive) Jerry Wexler. ‘Man, I just saw this band. These cats, I heard ’em. It sounds like what Paul Butterfield is doing. These cats are great!’”
Atlantic Records at the time was evolving from an R&B label that had scored its first success with R&B singer Ruth Brown in the early 1950s. By 1967 they were the crossover kings with both Led Zeppelin on the heavy rock side, Dr. John in the middle, and Don Covay, King Curtis, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin on the soul side. The J. Geils Band bridged all three of those categories. Bill Szymzyk, who produced most of J. Geils’ Atlantic albums, also produced Bob Seger’s classic 1980 album, Against the Wind.
The J. Geils Band would go on to have huge success with songs like “Freeze Frame” and “Centerfold,” early ’80s hits that had little to do with their roots. It was friction between Justman and Wolf over the direction of the band that caused Wolf to go solo in 1983.
Wolf has always been careful in characterizing the break-up. In 1996 he said, “When a
‘marriage’ has difficulties or creative differences, shall we say… They thought it would be best if I went my way. Seth had a bunch of songs, and I had things, and he just felt they weren’t…”
He catches himself. “His quote was that it wasn’t in the vision of where he felt the band should be going, and so they decided to do their thing, and I was left to be a soloist. Not by choice.”
Today, Wolf is just as careful. “Never say never,” he says about future creative collaborations with Seth, pointing to his solo efforts as being at the center of his current creative efforts.
By 2010, Wolf had become more sanguine about the break-up, having produced seven solo albums including a then-new (and still most recent) release, Midnight Souvenirs that included eight songs he co-wrote with Will Jennings. “I like working with collaborators, but collaborators are like any kind of relationship – some of ’em are good and some of ’em are better. And Will’s the best.”
“Well, he’s – well – I mean, the body of work we produced speaks for itself.”
As we shall see on Tuesday night. Wolf takes the long view of his career, both as a solo artist and as the centerpiece of the J. Geils Band. “There was a an album I made called Long Lines, and what Long Lines said was that Son House came out and he taught Muddy Waters, and Muddy influenced the Stones, and the Stones influenced so many bands in America, and it just goes on and on like that.”