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."