Big Time Boogie from Boston: Peter Wolf & the J. Geils Band - Rolling Stone
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Big Time Boogie from Boston: The Dark Forces Behind the J. Geils Band

The J. Geils Band, featuring front man Peter Wolf, meld blues purism and R&B excitement

J. Geils Band, CopenhagenJ. Geils Band, Copenhagen

The J. Geils Band pose for a group shot in Copenhagen, Denmark in June, 1972.

Jorgen Angel/Redferns/Getty

Eighty-five degrees. A muggy Friday night in Columbus, Ohio. The sweating cab driver makes an illegal left turn in the Dytronics Corporation parking lot and pulls up to an immense, cement, coffin-shaped motel with an imperial name. The man is a Teamster and small-time gambler. He is still chuckling over his own story about the time he put a bullet through the upper right thigh of a would-be robber, and fetches a small caliber pistol from beneath the seat to document his deed. Absent-mindedly fondling the gun, he offers to play a quick game of license plate poker, double or nothing for the ten-dollar fare. The cabbie gets an eight high to his passenger’s pair of fives. Still the visitor think’s it best to fork over ten big ones.

“Consider it a tip,” he says expansively.

The Belmont Stakes were to be run the next day and the cabbie, figuring his fare for a high roller, suggests a quick ride down the street to a place where a friend of his makes a little book on the side. The passenger refuses, claiming that he has to meet some big rock & roll stars playing the Veterans Auditorium that night.

“You ever hear of the J. Geils band?”

“Naw, never heard of ’em.”

Which is a shame, because the driver might have liked the Geils Band. In point of fact, the group’s songwriting team, Seth Justman and Peter Wolf—along with manager Dee Anthony—are in the motel’s Carnation Room lounge at this moment, asking the manager of the place if he knows of any bookies.

“No sir,” the man says, “this town is as clean as a whistle.” His motel, which is decorated like a $1.29 steak house, draws a family trade, and talk about bookies makes him the slightest bit twitchy. In the air-conditioned coolness, Peter Wolf wears a black leather jacket and sunglasses. Seth wears black slacks and a black T-shirt. His eyes are hooded, like a junkie’s, but they are quite clear and his stare is disconcerting. Anthony is older, a music business heavy for nearly 20 years now. A bear of a man, he wears a powder-blue pullover sweater, exposing crinkly iron-gray chest hair. Despite his trimmed beard and an abundance of expensive jewelry, Anthony exudes an aura of New York–Italian street savvy. There is about him the merest sort of menacing suggestion. If you cross him, his demeanor says, he’ll send a few of the big boys over to rip your lungs out.

The motel manager is not immune to the unsettling dark force of his guests and launches into a brief big-timer’s spiel about corrupt-cities-and-gangsters-I-have-known. The trio listens politely, with obvious reservation. It is Anthony who has been joking about books. He already has five bills on Secretariat tomorrow, but the horse has recently been featured on cover stories in both Newsweek and Time. Any gambler knows this ought to be the kiss of death. Anthony isn’t sure. He smells a big winner and he wants in on it.

The motel manager excuses himself and the conversation drifts back to the business at hand. The band apparently feels Dee hasn’t been giving them enough of his time and experience. Anthony is anxious to let them know that this is not the case and that he is available to them whenever they need advice, night or day. None of this is stated outright: It is, in fact, a rambling, roundabout discussion punctuated by friendly put-downs and subtle statements of position.

“Look,” Anthony says, “I give you guys five telephone numbers. If you don’t get me, leave a message. Have I ever not gotten back to you?”

“Yes,” Seth says, smiling slightly, eyes fixed in a flat, cold stare.

Wolf lightens it up. “Dee, you’re always down at your place in Nassau, hanging out with Harry Belafonte.”

It is a straightman’s line and Anthony takes it gracefully. “Belafonte? An Italian boy, huh?”

Though the band takes great pains to present itself as a democratic entity, it is Wolf and more recently Seth who take care of business. Back when they began as the J. Geils Blues Band, in 1967, they were a high-energy, blues-oriented group with a singular respect for their Boston audience. If they didn’t pull three encores, they figured they hadn’t been good enough. In those years they were the house band for the Fillmore-like Boston Tea Party, a band that could fill the place on a week night; one that had an embarrassing tendency to blow headliners off the stage on weekends. Some of the big acts were beginning to object to playing on the same bill with J. Geils. And the word got around.

Mario Medious, The Big M, ex-dynamo promo man for Atlantic records, caught the act in 1968 and demanded that they be signed. The group had little experience with contracts and Wolf’s only non-negotiable demand was that they record on the Atlantic label and not a subsidiary. The demand was a sentimental and not a financial one. In the late Forties and early Fifties, Atlantic had signed and produced numerous black artists. The work of the Drifters, the Clovers, and La Verne Baker had been called race records up until the time Atlantic put them into general distribution. On the strength of this strategy, Atlantic, then an insignificant label, became a major force in the industry. Wolf explained to vice president Jerry Wexler that he had collected records for nearly 15 years. Fully 50% of his collection—and the best of it, at that—was on the Atlantic label. Wolf, if he was going to record at all, needed to be on Atlantic.

At this point Wexler turned to the lawyer. “Write that into the contract,” he said.

The J. Geils band made an abortive attempt to record in 1968. It was, the band agrees, a miserable series of sessions. There was no excitement in the tapes, none of the band’s customary audience-rousing snap and punch. No real dynamics. Two years later they managed to solve their problems and record the J. Geils Band to a silent cry of “finally” from Boston fans and an overwhelmingly favorable critical response.

The band needed a manager, a man to focus their energy. Peter Wolf had been one of the first of Boston’s free-form disk jockeys, doing an all-night show playing records from his collection on WCBN-FM. He had met Dee Anthony in 1968 when he brought acts like Joe Cocker and Ten Years After to the station for interviews. Wolf knew him to be a hard-driving pro, a man in the big time. The group approached Anthony in the fall of 1970 and he agreed to manage them.

“We wanted Dee for his foresight and expertise,” Wolf says. “We told him where we wanted to go and he told us how we could get there.”

Anthony’s first move was to negotiate a more favorable contract with Atlantic. Secondly, he put the band on constant tour. He knew which promoters could produce and which ones couldn’t be trusted. His strategy was to let people see the live performance—”the only way I know how to break a band is to get them on the boards”—which would, in turn, promote record sales, where the money is.

The pressure of the nonstop tour began to show itself in the summer of 1971 when the band went through a heavy period of motel smashing. One particularly memorable binge resulted when the band, quite by accident, found itself checked into a Hampton Beach, Virginia, motel with both Mylon and the 80-member cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. The party raged until dawn when a photographer assembled the bleary-eyed band in a despoiled room and took a roll of pictures showing them all lounging on the disheveled beds amid the wreckage of dressers and desks. One of the photos was immortalized on the cover of the group’s second release, The Morning After. Musically, the album was more of the same: good hard rock and blues, still a bit derivative, but just the kind of thing you’d put on the turntable and turn up loud during a hard-drinking party if you didn’t mind your place looking a bit like that motel room the next morning.

If there was any problem with The Morning After, it was that the band had failed to explore any new directions. In 1972, when the band released Full House, a live album containing material from the first two efforts, there was a growing suspicion that they had already stagnated and could not make the necessary transition from a good live band to a good recording band. Guitarist J. Geils admits that he was spooked by the empty studio and the lack of audience response.

Up to this point the band had consistently been compared to the early Rolling Stones, both because of their choice of material and because of the air of general pandemonium at their concerts. But where the Stones had made a seemingly effortless move into the studio, it took the Geils band fully five years to even feel comfortable recording. Bloodshot, the recently released album, proved the band’s capacity to deal with an alternate musical idiom. In Columbus this Friday night, you couldn’t turn on the AM radio without hearing “Give It to Me,” a tight reggae-influenced song with a hard electric bite to it. The album, as a whole, had a new authority and meanness; result, J. asserts, of a growing sense of confidence in the studio, of producer Bill Szymczyk’s gentle pacing, and the general improvement in the Justman-Wolf material.

It is true that the live album sold better than the first two combined. The problem was that it seemed to some an admission of ineptitude in the studio. Bloodshot fulfilled a promise that the J. Geils Band made to Boston nearly six years ago.

So the band was on the verge of their second big breaking phenomenon. In addition—perhaps because their rise had been slow—they showed little inclination toward the kind of self-destruction and paranoid impotence that sometimes accompanies spectacular success in the music business. They didn’t care much for drugs, drank a bit, and liked to consider themselves professionals with a near sacred respect for the stage.

Now, in the motel in Columbus, Ohio, there was a smell of success about them. Dee Anthony was there, letting them know he intended to be around, that he was betting on them and that Dee Anthony only bets on a sure thing.

That night the band took a single encore at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium and though they had gotten the sluggish, humidity-logged audience on its feet from the first song, they felt they hadn’t really burned. The band, its roadies, sound crew and light crew met to work out problems. They talked until six the morning of the next day. That day Dee Anthony won a bundle when Secretariat took the Belmont Stakes by over 30 lengths.

In the dressing room, before the disappointing Columbus gig, J., who has been warming up for his customary two hours and has half a quart of Thunderbird wine under his belt, is discussing the merits of Gerber versus Buck knives. Peter asks Dee Anthony if he can name all four of James Dean’s films.

Rebel Without a Cause, Giant, East of Eden, and uh …”

“He had a walk-on in Crossed Bayonets,” Peter says. “Plus he did two Playhouse 90s. I have the soundtracks.”

Danny, in black, is getting into a thigh-high pair of panther-pink boots. Panther-pink is a color he first saw and loved on a Dodge Polara. Stephen Jo Bladd, the drummer, wears a red body leotard and a pair of Everlast boxing trunks.

“We’re not opposed to a certain flash onstage,” J. says. “We just don’t wanna look like a bunch of faggots.”

The producer has provided a bottle of good Rhine wine, but J. prefers his Thunderbird. There are avocado and sprout sandwiches, but the band likes 12¢ hamburgers from White Castle.

The harpist, Magic Dick, dresses in black. He takes his name from the Chicago South Side urban-blues tradition—in which the late Magic Sam was a seminal force—a tradition that also spawned the Butterfield Blues Band.

Every man in the J. Geils Band started as a blues purist. In 1964 Peter was going to art school, drinking too much cheap wine, hanging out at Brandeis University and singing a bit in the dorms. He collected obscure R&B records and rare photos of the blues greats. That year he roomed for a while with Barry Tashian, lead guitar for Boston’s best rock band. Called the Remains, the band, in those years before the Beatles and the Who, played the loudest music anyone had ever heard. They used dynamics, teasing the crowd with a few quiet notes only to explode on a given signal. Barry learned the blues from Peter, Peter learned some showmanship from Barry.

A few months later Wolf was the lead singer for a blues band called the Hallucinations. As some Boston music critics remember, it was not a musically proficient band. They stuck pretty much to a 12-bar structure, to Tashian influenced dynamics, to a strong percussive background, and to the force of Peter Wolf’s stage presence. It was, in effect, more of a stage show than a musical experience. Peter jumped and sweated, shouted, dropped to one knee, once rolled onstage in a wheelchair: anything to entertain an audience more interested in drinking and petty violence than music.

In late 1967 there were some personality conflicts and the Hallucinations broke up. Wolf and drummer Stephen Bladd decided to stick together. They went looking for an interim band.

The J. Geils Blues Band—Danny on bass, J. on guitar and Dick on harp—was already playing the local clubs. The three had met at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and had originally formed an acoustic country blues band with a lightweight name that makes J. cringe to this day: Stoopy and the Sopwith Camel. During this period, Dick began listening to the great urban electric harpists, men like Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. He began playing like Little Walter. Uncannily so. J. realized that if he wanted to play with Dick, who was improving daily, he would have to pick up on the Chicago South Side style, on the deceptively simple licks of Luther Tucker and Robert Jr. Lockwood. It was a whole new school of thought for J. He remembers it as “a fevered search for the blues guitar.”

Danny Klein played washtub bass, a limited instrument at best. He remembers distinctly the day he knew he would play an electric bass. His class went on a field trip to New York and that night he caught a Muddy Waters set. “After that it was later for school.” J. showed him some moves on the bass strings of the guitar and Danny modeled his early licks on those of Duck Dunn, the bass for Booker T. and the MGs, then the studio band for Stax-Volt records in Memphis.

The original J. Geils Blues Band was a purist and perfectionist group, absolutely dedicated to the Chicago and Memphis sound. They had no stage-flash. They played music and asked to be respected as musicians. Enter Peter and Stephen in the early months of 1967. The five joined forces with no real intention of making it big, or together for that matter. Since the Geils section of the new group had a management contract and a fair local following, they decided to retain the name J. Geils Blues Band.

Within six months they were the hottest local group in Boston. Peter and Stephen added the charismatic ingredient that turned a set into a performance. The others had enough musical sophistication to fill in the gaps, to sound good as well as look good. It was, unexpectedly, a perfect affiliation. From the first gig in which they were paid $200 for a six-night engagement, two sets a night, they were suddenly commanding $600 fees for a single set.

Jon Landau, Rolling Stone‘s music and film critic, was and remains a friend of the band. He remembers that there was never a time that the group ever doubted they were worth every cent they earned. They moved audiences. Landau once accompanied Peter Wolf and the road manager to an out-of-Boston gig produced by a young promoter who had a sad story for the band. It seemed that someone had stolen his car and with it a suitcase containing all the money he was going to use to pay the bands. “I’m really sorry about this,” the man said sincerely, “but all the other bands have agreed to take a little less, and I was hoping you fellows wouldn’t mind if I couldn’t pay you everything …”

“What kind of car did you have?” Peter asked.

“It was a Porsche.”

At this point, as Landau remembers it, Wolf underwent a lycanthropic change of personality. “Don’t tell me about your fucking Porsche,” he snarled. Something in his voice and manner reduced the matter to its most elemental state: a simple case of three on one. “Give us our goddamn money,” Wolf said, as if the thing were a matter of ultimate survival.

The man opened his briefcase and came up with a bundle of small bills. Wolf grabbed the money, separated it into two stacks, and gave one to Landau, one to the road manager. “Count it,” he said. His eyes never left the promoter.

The man was frightened, but managed to quaver, “I want you to know that this is the most unprofessional conduct I’ve ever encountered.”

The bills added up to the agreed upon $600. “I don’t want to hear about your opinion of professional acts. You stand out in front of the stage tonight and watch us.

“It was,” Landau says fondly, “one of their finest nights.”

By 1968 the management contract had expired, but the band was about as big as a group without a recording contract can get. “We decided,” J. says, “against changing our name to the Vanilla Doorknob or something. We had a big following which we didn’t want to lose. We did drop Blues from the name because it limited what people thought about us and what we thought about ourselves.” J. takes great and modest pains to point out that it is purely by accident that the group bears his name. “The main point is that I’m not the leader and not a spokesman. Things are split up six ways and have been since we’ve been together.”

After the Atlantic signing and the ill-fated studio sessions in 1968, the band decided they needed another man to flesh out their sound: someone on guitar or keyboards. The early tapes sounded thin and undernourished. J. had to carry too much weight with his guitar and fill too many holes. It limited his essential contribution to the sound. Seth Justman, not yet 20 at the time, had been following the band around for months, asking for a chance to sit in on organ. One day in 1969, J. gave him a call and asked him to jam with the band for an afternoon. “It took about half an hour for Seth to completely blow us out,” J. remembers.

By 1970 they were ready to record.

* * *

If the band was down after the disappointing Columbus date, they didn’t show it the next night in Saginaw. The promoter had provided a plateful of baloney and several loaves of Wonder Bread. Danny, Stephen, Seth and Peter reasoned that since Wonder Bread was inedible, it must have been placed in the dressing room for doughball ammunition. The great Saginaw bread war, as J. styled it, lasted up until stage call. They went on smiling, vibed up for a high-energy show.

As the band took up their instruments, Peter threw out a bit of rhyming jive, something about getting crazy with us—a verbal feint, as it were, that asked the audience to back off for a second and look at the group. See if they didn’t look like they were going hit hard. It was a setup for the first note, an auditory haymaker a Boston fan might have expected from the Remains. When it came, Peter was off and leaping, making mad, Groucho-like dashes stage left and right. J. struck a series of ecstatic guitar-jock poses. He and Dick squared off and traded licks as if they were punches. At one point Dick fell into a strange backward somersault during a harp solo. There were rudimentary moves into Apollo theater–like steps.

And for all the choreography, there were no mistakes. The band was tight, relying on volume change-ups for excitement, as well as pure high-energy theatrics, as when Dick, Seth, Stephen and Peter stepped stage front for a long crisp run on conga drums. Then they were back at their instruments ready to come crashing down on that single note, tearing off into a screaming coda. Peter was in the air for every crescendo, only to drop to his knees and dramatically point out the man taking the next solo. He moved out in front of the microphone and led 7,000 people in an “Oop Oop a Doop”–like blues chant with his naked voice.

“And now,” he was yelling, “Magic Dick on the lickin’ stick.” The former Pittsfield Slim took his usual solo, which is to say he blew a harp so mean some knowledgable people have begun mentioning him in the same breath with Butterfield and Musselwhite. J. Geils was in close behind him, complementing the solo with tight, classic blues guitar.

The band took two encores. There was the customary stomping and whistling and one other thing that seems to be happening to the J. Geils band lately. Thousands of people held lit matches into the air to show they wanted more.

In the dressing room, sweating and happy, the J. Geils Band shook each other’s hands and said what they say to one another after every gig, good or bad.

“Been groovy jamming with you.”

“I know what you mean.”

Even so, there were some things to talk about. The guy at the sound board should be told that Danny’s bass is leaking into Stephen’s vocal mike. The spotlights had been sluggish. There was a need to get better cooperation between the stage crew and the light crew. Dick wanted his sound level brought down a bit and J.’s raised during one part in his solo. The stage had been bouncing under the volume and weight of the band. J. had difficulty adjusting his amp. The monitors could have been placed a bit better….

* * *

Nonprofessionals rarely understand just what it is about touring that tends to promote temporary hysteria in even the healthiest of hard-working bands. They assume a group pulls into town, does a bit of leisurely sightseeing, meets some groupies, works about two hours, and then drifts back to the motel for lurid orgy.

The truth is sometimes grimmer. J. Geils has a story about one particular day a couple of years ago that sums up, to him, all that can be hard on a man’s self-control. The band had just completed a date in Statesboro, Georgia, and was scheduled to play at a college in Albany, New York, the next night. No one got to sleep before three in the morning for the good and simple reason that it is impossible to jump and thrash around onstage until one and then go directly to sleep. Wake up was six AM. There was a short drive to the airport, where the band caught a local 15-seater to Atlanta. There was an hour’s wait until the flight to New York City. At JFK International there was a two-hour wait for the flight to Albany.

Down the hall from the boarding gate was a cutlery store featuring a display of exotic knives. Several of the group have a fetish for a good blade: J. has said he would pay up to $50 to own a state of the art gravity blade stiletto. So some of the band visited the store, killing time. Two bought finely balanced throwing knives and rejoined the others at the gate. The knives were passed among the band, the balance and sharpness were tested and commented on.

What they didn’t realize was that the other waiting passengers found all this activity disconcerting. Here were six mean-looking guys, all dressed in black, fondling blades preparatory to boarding an airplane. The group was approached by three cautious men in suits—federal marshals.

“We understand,” one of them said, “that you men are carrying weapons.”

The new knife owners were given a choice: surrender the blades to the marshals or return them to the store for a refund. The second choice seemed the proper action, so the band waited while the two ran off for refund and the rest of the passengers boarded the plane. After a fidgety wait and an expensive adrenaline outlay, everyone managed to board the plane seconds before takeoff.

In Albany they checked into the motel and J. left immediately for the auditorium and his habitual two hours of solitary warm-up. On arrival he discovered that the PA system consisted of four tiny Japanese guitar amps that would inevitably distort when the dynamics of the act called for high volume. In addition, the band had rented a Leslie organ from a firm in Schenectady, and though the organ was there, it was inoperative because the man had brought the wrong cord. He was politely asked to get a car and haul ass back to Schenectady for the proper cord.

The student promoter interrupted J. to ask if everything would be all right. J. said that it would. The Leslie man arrived with another cord with time to spare. Incredibly, the second cord fit no better than the first. It was uncomfortably close to show-time when he left for another high-speed chase to Schenectady. Worse, the rest of the band had not yet arrived.

“Is everything going to be all right?” the promoter asked. He was jittery and his state of mind had little positive effect on J.’s nerves. He found a pay phone and called the motel. No answer. They must be on the road. The Leslie man arrived five minutes before showtime with a cord that fit. The rest of the band, however, had not arrived. Half an hour after the agreed-upon starting time, everyone arrived in two strange cars they had commandeered. The transmission had fallen out of the one they rented.

The student promoter was threatening suit for breach of contract as the band mounted the stage. The PA, predictably, distorted, the audience failed to respond, and by the end of the set one of the amps fuzzed out completely. At this point two unnamed band members slid around the bend and began attacking the amps. The college technician, who was responsible for the equipment, went berserk and charged the stage. He was collared by a roadie and a brief fistfight ensued. The band took no encore and drove back to the motel, certain that everyone in Albany felt the J. Geils band was a stinking heap of shit.

So, sitting in a strange motel room in what they considered to be a hostile town at one AM, when no one had had more than three hours of sleep, J. got a call from his wife. Duane Allman, a friend and guitarist they all deeply admired, had died that morning in a motorcycle accident.

It didn’t happen that night. Everyone adjourned to his own room to deal with things privately. But on several other occasions there have been times when a fist through the plaster seemed to be a better response than spending the night grinding one’s teeth. Just let one desk clerk sneer or one waitress get surly and it’s an excuse. It is, in fact, excuse enough if Danny picks up a phone to get a cab to the gig and there is no dial tone. It’s grounds to rip the thing out of the wall and try to flush it down the toilet.

And if someone should sit on a table after a long day and the table collapses, it can spark a rampage. Or if the room in Los Angeles is a disgusting color, why shouldn’t someone order quarts of strawberry ice cream and do a little redecorating? Indeed, if you aren’t sleepy after a show and you’ve bought a watermelon to eat, and if there isn’t anything on the tube but a Z-class horror flick like Vampire Bat’s Daughter, and if the watermelon turns out to be brown and rotten inside, isn’t it poetic justice to smash one foul thing on the other?

There was, in fact, a roadie with the group who had a highly evolved aesthetic sense about motel destruction. It was his contention that tossing a TV out of a third-story window was effete. To do the thing properly, one should go down to the equipment truck for an extension cord. The TV should be plugged in and balanced lightly on the window sill. At the finest aesthetic moment—say when Zsa Zsa is chatting about anti-war demonstrations to Johnny—one gently tips the set out the window. It is essential that the thing remain on for the entire ride.

“And Dahling, about the way they smell….” Explosion, sparks, splinters, oblivion.

Aside from some destroyed inanimate objects, there is a man in Wichita who spent several uncomfortable seconds under a table coming to the conclusion that it isn’t wise to give the finger to six seedy-looking strangers in a downtown lunchroom.

Since this summer, after finishing Bloodshot, the band has been laying back a bit, playing weekend dates and spending weekdays in Boston. The motel smashing days are over, they say, and days are spent watching Saturday morning cartoons and the Three Stooges. The thing to do at night is find a good all-night diner. One reporter who accompanied the group on the Saginaw date says that this seems to be the case. He had interviewed the group as a whole after the show, and while he admits to drinking a bit too much Wild Turkey, he does remember that for an hour or so the conversation hinged around the concept of respect. Certain of the blues greats were stupidly neglected by white audiences. It wasn’t right.

Later the interview degenerated into an orgy of silliness, low puns and practical jokes. Someone asked if Harry Belafonte wasn’t an Italian Boy. Peter Wolf claimed he wore black because he was in mourning for James Dean. He said he was the reincarnation of James Dean.

About dawn the reporter left for his room. As he was undressing, there came a knock at his door. When he opened up, a plastic wastebucket full of ice-water emptied out onto his bare feet. His condition at this point has been described as barely coherent, but he did manage to catch sight of several figures dressed in black running up the cement stairwell, giggling maniacally in the cold false light of the Saginaw dawn.

The reporter says he fell asleep promising himself to portray the J. Geils band as a swell bunch of guys with a lot of homosexual chic.

Peter Wolf is a jive-talking, glad-handing extrovert, a loner given to insomnia and day-long headaches, a shrewd businessman, a sober man who relishes the rumors that he is both insane and drug-crazed, a closet intellectual who reads William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor on the road, a New York street punk on the road from age 14 or 18 (take your pick of stories), a sincere and literate person given to sincere and literate put-ons, the product of theatrical parents with a father who once sang at the Met and an uncle who used to be known as “the smoothest thing on two legs” at the old Roseland.

Peter Wolf is 22 years old and a bit ashamed of it. Peter Wolf is closer to 30 and a bit ashamed of it. Take your pick of stories. Juke Joint Jimmy, credited for songs on several Geils albums, is a legendary Boston bluesman. Juke Joint Jimmy is a private name the band gives itself when everyone has worked out a jam. Take your pick of stories.

Late Sunday evening, after the exhausting Columbus-Saginaw dates, Peter Wolf is sitting in his modest Cambridge apartment. He had arrived home in the late afternoon, showered, and visited: a college professor friend; a 14-year-old friend of his worried about probation problems; a friend singing at a local club; and a former radio colleague.

Now he was in his living room playing disk jockey—”It’s all right, all night.”—spinning stax of hot wax from “the college of musical knowledge,” a massive collection of records that would do most FM radio stations proud. In Saginaw he had joked about being called the “James Dean of Rock.” Here, in the place of honor in the midst of a wallful of alphabetically arranged soul, blues and R&B records, was the framed classic photo of Dean looking lost and surly.

Peter Wolf wears a black shirt and the kind of black slacks that bluesmen used to wear in the Chicago clubs: loose fitting pants with pleats which give easy access to the pocket and the knife in case of trouble. In a reflective mood, Peter might talk about his celebrated liaison with Faye Dunaway: about how they had met at a promotion party in San Francisco (she had attended because she liked the band), how she had accompanied them on several dates and was in the studio with them during the Bloodshot sessions. The notes in the gossip columns had been substantially correct and there had been a sort of nasty culmination reached at a press conference in San Diego. Peter had little patience with all the speculation on exactly who had burned whom and it seemed a moot point to him since the thing was blossoming again and he was in touch with Faye in Madrid where she was making a movie.

“All that really needs to be said about Faye,” Peter said, “is that we like hanging out with her and she likes hanging out with us. We respect her intensity. She is as crazy as we are and she works as hard as we do.”

What Wolf had in mind, as Sunday slipped over into Monday morning, was music. “All these records,” he said, nodding toward the college, “you know, most people never heard of seven-eighths of these artists. And to me it’s a tragedy.” Peter had played selections from his collection on his radio show, wrote the liner notes for Don Covay’s album Superdude No. 1, pointed out “This is a song by Mr. John Lee Hooker,” during the act. “It’s a sense of guilt with us. I remember one night we played on a bill with B.B. King. We all wanted to talk to him, but when we got the chance, we couldn’t stop apologizing. Finally B.B. said, ‘Don’t fight it. Stop acting guilty. Get it while you can. If you don’t take it, some other cat will. Tomorrow some cat is going to come around and take it all away.’ “

Wolf went to the college and pulled out an early James Brown album. “Listen to this cut.” Some of the phrasing and a bit of the lyric was similar to the Rolling Stones’ song, “The Last Time.”

“I think that’s where the Stones got that song. I suppose somebody could say they stole it; but if they did, they did it in the most complimentary sense.”

The next record is a battered 45 by a defunct and obscure group called the Valentinos. It’s “Looking for a Love,” a song the Geils band recorded on the second album. Instrumentally the Geils’ version is fuller, harder and meaner, but the young band hasn’t begun to match the Valentinos’ vocal harmonies.

“That’s Bobby Womack singing lead and Sam Cooke singing harmony. Cooke produced.” There was an important point to be made and Wolf waited for the end of the record. “T.S. Eliot, one of those cats, said, ‘The amateur imitates, the professional steals.’ “

It seemed to Wolf an important distinction and he considered himself a thoroughgoing professional. A few minutes later he was playing the horn intro from an old Major Lance record over once, twice, three times until he had it memorized. The lead-in was a perfect setup for the kind of volume dynamics the Geils band loves. “Ah, ain’t that just like butter melting in your mouth,” Peter Wolf said.

In This Article: Coverwall, J. Geils Band, Peter Wolf


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