Peter Wolf's Late-Night Soul Sessions

On his first LP since 2002, the former J. Geils Band frontman sings with Haggard, channels R&B greats

Peter Wolf is photographed at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston, Mass. on Monday, March 22nd, 2010. Credit: Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe/Getty

Greeting you inside the front door of Peter Wolf's apartment near Boston's Copley Square is what he proudly calls his Wall of Fame. An autographed picture of his hero, R&B pioneer Don Covay, hangs alongside 40 or so other photos of music leg­ends like Roy Orbison, Solo­mon Burke, Hank Williams and Ray Charles. "Muddy Waters was so drunk it took him 10 minutes to sign that," Wolf says, pointing to the blues mas­ter. Down the hall, in the living room, the walls are lined with thousands of vinyl albums. Guitars vie for floor space with a mint Seeburg jukebox and teetering piles of books (Kafka, Chandler, Hammett), each stack devoted to a sin­gle author. "I've never owned a house," says Wolf, who has been in this area for more than two decades. "This is my hotel away from hotels."

On a subfreezing March night, Wolf, 64, holds a glass of Black Maple Hill bourbon in his left hand and an invisible micro­phone in his right, singing along to a 1965 live version of Gene Chandler's "Rainbow." "Please, please, stop this rainbow in my heart," Wolf pleads. He jabs his finger in the air, pounds his thighs when the drums swell and falls to his knees when the band brings it down. "That was the real deal!" Wolf declares. He paces to the "H" section to retrieve Merle Haggard's Ramblin' Fever. Cuing up "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again," Wolf solemnly says, "Merle is a mountain."

The fact that Haggard ap­pears on Wolf's new LP, Mid­night Souvenirs, is a dream come true for Wolf. They har­monize on the somber album closer, "It's Too Late for Me," which they cut quickly while Haggard was in Boston on tour. "His eyes were closed, and I was transfixed," says Wolf. "Watching him sing was trans­formative. He brought the song alive in a way that I imagine Brando brought Stanley Kowalski alive in Streetcar." The LP also features Shelby Lynne and Neko Case, who delivers a gorgeous vocal on a ballad, "The Green Fields of Summer." "All these people have gifts," says Wolf. "I see myself as a fan. That's what I'm drawn to, spending time with people I admire."

Wolf rose to arena-rock fame in the early 1980s, as the motormouthed spark-plug sing­er of the J. Geils Band, famous for hits like "Centerfold," "Love Stinks" and "Freeze Frame." The Geils crew's breakup in 1983 was devastating for Wolf: "The band that had been a part of my life for 17 years crumbled in front of me." Wolf was adrift, and he had doubts about mak­ing it as a solo artist. "Am I worthy, can I still do it?" he asked himself. Since then, Wolf has released six solo al­bums, with help from collabo­rators including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Wolf's last release, 2002's Sleepless, re­ceived critical praise, but it didn't exactly fly off the shelves. "That was disturbing," Wolf says. "I put so much into it." For a few years, he spent more time checking out bands in the Bos­ton clubs than writing or per­forming himself.

In 2008, Kid Rock invit­ed Wolf to guest-star on his Rock and Roll Revival Tour. "It was such an unusual call, but being a nocturnal beast, open to adventure, I went for it," says Wolf, who met Rock through a mutual friend, Ahmet Erte­gun, the late Atlantic Records founder. "And we really riled 'em up." Wolf's high-energy cameos on "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and the old Geils raver "Musta Got Lost" were high­lights of the shows — and for the first time since his "Center­fold" days, Wolf was connecting with massive crowds. The af­ter-show parties stretched into the wee hours. "His late-night soul lessons taught me tons about early American music," says Rock. "And how can you not admire someone who has worn the same black leather pants since the day you met him over 10 years ago?"

Wolf brought that momen­tum into the studio. "I scraped myself up and got back into the fight," he says. Thirty years ago, Wolf famously sang the lyric "love stinks," but on Souvenirs he addresses romance from a more nuanced perspective. "I find myself, at this point in my life, out of love," says Wolf, who was married once, to Faye Dunaway in the 1970s. "The songs are about the search for ro­mance, falling in love, trying to hold on to love, and those feel­ings you get at six in the morn­ing: 'Is it too late for me?' "

With another squirt of bour­bon in his glass, Wolf spins more LPs. "I want to share these with you," he says, play­ing Sinatra's "Ol' Man River," Willy DeVille's "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl"and Jackie Wil­son's "Danny Boy." Wolf vividly remembers being a student at a high school for the arts in Harlem and seeing the legendary Star Time revues — with Wil­son, James Brown and Rufus Thomas — every Wednesday. "Everything I do, I learned at the Apollo," he says. "James Brown was like pageantry. It was something so astonish­ingly high, that moved me so emotionally, to such a degree that I can't understand. It was the working of the audience as a congregation, with the art­ist as a minister or soul bearer. I came out of that, and I was possessed."