The J. Geils Band: Funky, Frenetic and Back on Top

The long-running band revives their career with 'Love Stinks'

J Geils Band, 1970 Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

"Früt!" shouts bassist Danny Klein. Instantly, a chorus of hoots rises up from the other five members of the J. Geils Band, who, a week before embarking on their latest tour, are scattered like a handful of loose guitar picks around the office of their homey Boston rehearsal loft.

"Früt, yeah, there was a group," Klein chortles, referring to a now-defunct Detroit band (pronounced fruit). "Started off in white tuxes and ended up in Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear. A band before its time." "

And abandoned before its time," cracks lead singer Peter Wolf, slouching on a sofa next to Klein, his ever-present black beret tugged so low over his forehead it almost touches the rims of his impenetrable black aviator shades. Wolf is trying to recall some of the more memorable acts that have opened for the J. Geils Band over the years. They weren't all Früts: Bob Seger, the Eagles, the Cars, Billy Joel. Name a major band and Geils has probably headlined over it at one point or another during the past decade.

It's a source of some irritation, actually, because the J. Geils Band has always seemed tipped for the top ranks of a rock stardom that never quite arrived. Ten years after its debut album, which had critics hailing the group as America's answer to the Rolling Stones, Geils is still waiting for the big payoff. Ironically, as the wheel of musical fashion comes full circle, it may now be at hand.

Whereas the Stones used their blues and R&B roots as a launching pad, Geils has remained stubbornly committed to its original idiom, resisting the commercial blandishments of discomania in the late Seventies as firmly as the band rejected any connection with the ill-starred "Bosstown Sound" of 1967 or the mindless stomp-and-spit boogie bands of the early Seventies. "There were a lot of temptations to cash in," Wolf admits. "I could have put on a three-piece suit and we could've gone disco, and maybe have been incredibly successful. It just didn't feel right. We've committed ourselves to doin' what we're doin'— you know, three chords and unh! We are not prisoners of rock & roll. We are volunteers."

And so, by maintaining a generally steady commitment to tough, flashy, R&B-tinged rock, the J. Geils Band finds itself right at home in the era of New Wave. Love Stinks, the group's eleventh album, has made more noise right out of the box than any other Geils LP in years, and 'Come Back," the album's single, is making a quick rise up the chart. Powered by the hard-nosed title tune — a loving evocation of every three-chord junk-rock basher from "Louie Louie" to "Sweet Jane"—and a raw, pounding cover of the Strange-loves' 1966 classic, "Night Time," Love Stinks cops the perfect attitude for the nascent Eighties without even trying.

"There's a fascination now with a lot of the music that we all grew up with," says Wolf. "And we're basically not any different from some young cats gettin' together right now in a garage, you know? That's how we started and we've never really let up since that fuckin' day. If we got super big now, we'd be able to do so much more with the show, with the music, with where and how we can record. That's why success is important, it gives you some breathin' room. I ain't had a breath in years, boy. I don't know what would happen if I took one."

Asked why the new album has such an angry, aggressive edge to it. Wolf shifts into his patented, posthipster patois. "Well how would you feel man, if a fuckin' dude came over to your house to put aluminum siding on your Samsonite suitcase and fucked it all up? I mean, it's got to reflect itself in the recording studio."

One of the true originals of latter-day rock & roll. Wolf started developing his breathless jive-talking style as a teenager in the Bronx in the late Fifties. His father was a vaudeville dancer, then a record retailer; his uncle was a theatrical manager whose clients included a gorilla, a wrestler and "the world's fastest baton twirler." Wolf lived in the same neighborhood that spawned Dion and the Belmonts, Phil Spector and Bobby Darin; he can still remember the raps of classic New York DJs like Alan Freed, Jocko Henderson and the Magnificent Montague, and crowding into the Bronx' Valentine Theatre to catch Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and the Chantels. "It was incredible," Wolf says. "Rock just wiped me out."

In fact, Wolf was so busy checking out rock & roll shows, the jazz action at Birdland and the midnight gigs at Harlem's Apollo Theatre that he never got around to graduating from high school. "I went through the four years, but when I went up onstage to get my diploma, there was an envelope with one of those yellow slips in it. It said. 'If you want to know why your diploma is not here, please come and see me at your convenience.' I never went."

Despite his youthful mania for music, Wolf never played in a teenage band. "I had what they call dyslexia—the left hand can't coordinate with the right hand. When I would spell, it would come out reversed. I was like a spastic. It took me a real long time to get around that I couldn't play sports, either. I was always the guy they used as the baseball, you know? I was so uncoordinated. Except for dancing, somehow I just got into that. It was an emotional feel, and I enjoyed it. It was always like, if there was a chick across the room, if you could dance it was one way of makin' an approach."

With high school behind him, Wolf and a girlfriend set off for Boston. A dedicated painter at the time, he hoped to enroll in the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. Boston was a hotbed of folk and blues revivalism then, and Wolf, an inveterate record collector with a God-given rap and an innate sense of street-corner collector right in. Soon he had his own all-night radio show on WBCN, The J. Geils Band where, as the "Woofuh-Goofuh," he helped forge the "underground" radio style by playing Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Otis Redding sides from his extensive collection. He also got his first gig — as lead singer with a popular local group called the Hallucinations.

"The Hallucinations were an outrageous show band," he recalls. "We weren't that great musically, but the guitar player had a twenty-foot-long cord, and the rhythm guitarist played his guitar with a drumstick, and we all did steps. Every place we played people just went crazy."

The Hallucinations eventually tell apart, but Wolf and the group's drummer, a fellow art student named Stephen Jo Bladd, decided to stick together and try to make it big. All they needed was a band Fortunately, at just that time the J. Geils Blues Band was looking for a drummer and singer to round out its lineup. Originally formed in 1965 as an acoustic band by three Worcester Polytechnic Institute students — guitarist J. Geils, harp virtuoso Magic Dick and bassist Danny Klein — the Geils, group had gone electric by 1967. "They were really technically great," says Wolf, "but they kind of didn't know shit about showmanship." After a few jams, Wolf and Bladd slipped right into position, and the J. Geils Band became a byword around Boston for wild shows and hot musicianship.

The group was ambitious but didn't want to rush things. They remained aloof from the Bosstown Sound — an egregious attempt by the record industry to create a prefab San Francisco-style scene on the East Coast — and went their own way until 1968, when Atlantic Records offered them a contract. They happily accepted. Atlantic, after all, was the home of Ray Charles, La Vern Baker, Joe Turner, the Drifters and many of the other R&B greats idolized by Wolf and his cohorts. But Geils' first recording sessions, held in a Detroit studio, weren't up to the band's standards. They had to ask the label for more time to get their direction together, and possibly add another member to fill out the sound.

The sixth member was Seth Justman, a young, R&B-obsessed keyboardist from Atlantic City, New Jersey, who had moved to town to study at Boston University. "My first night in town I decided to check out the J. Geils Band," Justman says, "because my roommate had seen 'em once and he said, 'Wow, you gotta see this band, they're into your thing.' So I went, and they blew me away. I asked 'em if I could jam with them. But I was talkin' to Peter, and I was so nervous about it and so intense that he thought I was a speed freak, and he didn't want anything to do with me." Undaunted, Justman showed up at every Geils gig and by day badgered J. Geils with phone calls begging for a chance to jam. Finally, the group gave him a shot. "I went over with this big Hammond organ," Justman recalls with a grin," and I immediately turned Wolf off again. He said it looked like a piece of furniture that belonged in his grandmother's house. I think the other guys were impressed with it, though. They said I could stay. I said, 'Gee thanks, guys.'" And that was the end of Justman's college career. "I struck off into the world of music with Wolf by my side — and you know where that can lead."

With Justman signed on, the J. Geils Band recorded its first album — and took off like a rocket. The Morning After, their 1972 followup LP, was similarly acclaimed for its ferocious R&B feel and danceability, and later that year they attempted to consolidate their stage-show strengths with a live set titled Full House. Wolf and Justman started to click as a songwriting team, and Bloodshot, in 1973, yielded a hit single, the reggaefied "Give It to Me." But the more adventurous Ladies Invited album, released in 1974, was greeted with dismay by hard-core fans. By then, some critics began to wonder whether Geils' onstage flash and fury were all they really had going for them, and whether the group would ever mature into a creative studio band. Geils, apparently afraid to take any more serious chances, retreated to the turf they knew best.

Meanwhile, Wolf was keeping company with actress Faye Dunaway, whom he'd met backstage at a Geils gig in 1972. Two years later they were quietly married in Los Angeles — a liaison that friends of the group think may have drained away a considerable amount of energy from the band's career. It was a stormy marriage, and even today Wolf declines to discuss his relationship with Dunaway. "We never wanted to be a public couple," he says. As to whether they're still married, Wolf quips: "Let's just say I'm sleepin' single and drinkin' doubles."

Whatever effect Dunaway had on the J. Geils Band's fortunes, her departure from the scene seems to have coincided with a renewed sense of vigor and purpose on the band's part. After nine albums with Atlantic, Geils switched to EMI in 1978 and immediately scored with Sanctuary, their first gold album in five years. Now, radio programmers have jumped on Love Stinks, and the band is gearing up for its most extensive tour ever, kicking off a U.S. trek in Miami, followed by a European jaunt and its first visit to Japan. After thirteen years together, it feels like the first time all over again, and the atmosphere in the rehearsal loft — "Geils World Headquarters" — is definitely up.

"The other night I was celebrating at this restaurant," says Wolf. "I was supposedly standing on this table doing an imitation of George Raft — my 'Bolero' — and knocking bottles of champagne over with my feet. We had just gotten back on the charts, you know?"

"Wolf, you're an artist," says Klein affectionately. "You're the world's greatest social drinker. I couldn't keep up with you."

"I told you how to do it," Wolf replies. "Just keep enough alcohol in your system so it will kill the germs as they enter."

"That's right," J. Geils chimes in, "make your body a place where no self-respecting germ would want to live."

All six men fall back in their seats laughing. They may be the longest-running rock band still recording with all its original members, but there's a crazy kind of camaraderie and intensity that wouldn't be out of place with a group that had just started wood-shedding in some garage.

"We all have personal lives," says Justman. "We all have a lot goin' on. But when you're obsessed with something, you're obsessed with it. And if it's what you want to do, then you get through whatever you have to get through to continue. Because basically, we're rock & roll fans. We're not just musicians. We get off on rock & roll."

Or as Wolf puts it, shouting out an old R&B lyric: "'Some people ask me why I scream and shout/I say it's in me, it's gotta come out.' Rock & roll's the great American gene, man."

And Wolf is ready to spread it around the world. The group is very big abroad — especially in Germany, where geil, in German, means horny. Wolf finds this most appropriate. "The great American hard-on," he whoops. "We're like a hard-on that won't go down."