The J. Geils Band really needs no introduction. Since their formation in the hazy, crazy time of 1967, they’ve sold more than 10 million records, racked up five gold records, a double-platinum record, a Grammy nomination and toured with the Stones and the Allman Brothers.
Although they’re regarded as a Boston band, that’s only part of the story. It all began in New York City, where Jay Geils was born before moving to New Jersey and then studying engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. That’s where the great guitarist met the funky bass-man Danny Klein and the bearded blues harp master known to us today only as Magic Dick. Then the young men moved to Beantown and joined forces later with Peter Wolf on vocals, Stephen Jo Bladd on drums and Seth Justman on keyboards.
For their first gigs around New England they were called the J. Geils Blues Band and that’s who they were when I saw them play a mind-blowing outdoor summer concert in Portland, Maine. Soon they dropped the “Blues” from their name but not their repertoire as their wonderful first album, self-titled, came out in 1970 on Atlantic Records thanks to the perspicacious music-business acumen of Jerry Wexler.
Their premiere release included lots of great covers like John Lee Hooker’s “Serves You Right to Suffer;” blues great Albert Collins’ “Sno-Cone,” and Otis Rush and the Contours’ “Homework,” with its great refrain: “I can’t do my homework anymore!”—the song that always opened my college FM radio show. But my favorite was their version of Smokey Robinson’s “First I Look at the Purse,” which is one of the songs that Nick Hornby features in his literary tribute to pop music called 31 Songs.
Before becoming the front man of the band known for his Cab Calloway-like vocalizing, Wolf was the fast-talking disc jockey (as well as the program and music director) on Boston’s best rock radio station, WBCN, where his moniker was the “Wolfa Goofa Mama Toofa.” Years later, Wolf was the voice for the audio version of the memoir of the great Fillmore East & West promoter Bill Graham, which was recorded after he’d died in a helicopter crash. Also worth noting, Wolfe was once married to the actress Faye Dunaway of Bonnie and Clyde fame and was a roommate of future Hollywood filmmaker David Lynch.
It’s ironic that Seth Justman and Peter Wolf could combine their writing talents when the band was in the 1970s and getting hot but couldn’t keep it together in the 1980s when their tastes went off in different directions, ultimately tearing the band apart. At first the band fittingly toured extensively with blues legends like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells and James Cotton. But then they got a little slicker, adopting a more new-wavey sound in the 1980s.
The band’s romantic numbers range from “Looking for a Love,” which is a super fast paean to frustration, to “Love Stinks,” the ultimate downside of disappointment. Their tune “Centerfold,” about the shock an old boyfriend experiences when he finds out that his former girlfriend has been letting it all hang out, got so much air play (if not foreplay) in 1981 it went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts and remained there for about six weeks. It’s a quirky song, not typical of their musical prowess or their R&B roots, but it struck a chord in pop culture and had enough charm to avoid the wrath of the growing religious right wing, which had begun to hound rock radio in the reactionary age of Ronald Reagan.
The band’s last studio album was You’re Getting’ Even While I’m Getting’ Odd, which came out in 1984 after Wolf had left. All told, the band did nine albums for Atlantic Records and five albums for EMI America. There’s been great live albums and two “best of” compilations, one in 1979, the second in 2006.
Wolf went solo in 1983 but he’s rejoined the band every so often since the late ’90s. He’s got a new solo album coming out next summer, reportedly. His 2010 Midnight Souvenirs effort featured Merle Haggard, Shelby Lynne and Neko Case; his 2002 album Sleepless borrowed the talents of Steve Earle and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Wolf will be doing an acoustic show with his Midnight Travelers later this winter at the Winery in Manhattan.
But first up in our area is the J. Geils Band blowing the lid off the NYCB Theatre in Westbury on Tuesday, Dec. 16, then shuffling off to Buffalo for a night before coming back to Madison Square Garden as the opening act for Bob Seger, who’s been a long-time friend of theirs. If you want to see them in their full glory—just them and there’s nobody like them—then the Westbury venue is the place to go to hear them perform their classics like “House Party” or “Give It to Me” or “Freeze Frame.” You know when they whip out their “whammer jammer” you’re in for a freakin’ good time.
Watch J. Geils Band’s immortal “Love Stinks” video below!