Tuesday, April 18, 2017

J. Geils, 1946-2017

I first knew of the J. Geils Band some time after my arrival in Cambridge for law school. Looking through one of the local "what's happening" papers, I saw they were the featured act at a nearby venue, probably the Boston Tea Party. My law school routine that year was such that I didn't get out to sample the music scene, which was splendid at the time. I missed J.Geils, as well as folk icons like Joni Mitchell and Tom Rush, who were regulars at Cambridge spots like Club 47.

The first time I heard J. Geils was sometime in the early 1970s, while I was in the Army. I was visiting a friend, and he played the album, the cover of which is shown above. I'm not sure why "live" is in scare quotes, as it was recorded live in concert at Detroit's Cinderella Ballroom on April 21 and 22, 1972. It includes some able and lively R&B - Smokey Robinson's "First I Look at the Purse" - and blues -  Otis Rush's "Homework" and John Lee Hooker's "Serves You Right to Suffer." The first song that really grabbed my attention was "Hard Drivin' Man,"written by Geils and the band's lead vocalist Peter Wolf. It's straight-ahead, over-the-top, hit-the-road rock. Introducing the song, Wolf got the crowd worked up with, "You've heard of the Boston Funky? [Yeah!] You've heard of the Philly Freeze? [Yeah!] We've got the Detroit Demolition now! [Pandemonium]."



The piece de resistance for me, though, was the final cut, a segue of "Juke Joint Jimmy's" (a pseudonym used by members of the band for joint compositions) "Cruisin' for Love" and "Looking for a Love" (a cover of a Valentinos hit from 1962) the latter of which breaks into pure frenzy. The clip above shows the band doing "Looking for a Love" at the Oakland Coliseum on March 22, 1980. Wolf, in the striped shirt, demonstrates his acrobatic as well as his vocal talent. Geils plays what appears to be a Gibson Flying "V" (or perhaps a Jackson King or ESP) guitar.

J. Geils was found dead in his house in Groton, Massachusetts last Tuesday. According to his Boston Globe obit he was found by police on a "well being check," indicating he may have been in poor health for some time, and lived alone. He separated from his wife, Kris, in 1999, but they remained friends. He was born in New York City in 1946 (also the year of my birth) and raised in New Jersey, where his father was an engineer at Bell Labs, and a jazz and blues enthusiast. It was while Geils was a student at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute - evidently he considered following his father's career path - that he met bassist Danny Klein and harmonicist Richard "Magic Dick" Salwitz, who shared his father's love of the blues and who, along with him, formed the nucleus of what became the J. Geils Band.

The band quickly became a staple of the Boston music scene in the late 1960s and '70s, but didn't achieve national fame until the early 1980s with a hit single, "Love Stinks," followed by a hit album, Freeze Frame, featuring their only chart-topping release, "Centerfold." The band broke up in the mid 1980s, but reunited on several occasions, mostly for benefit concerts. Later in life, Geils returned to hhis jazz and blues roots. In 1994 he and Salwitz formed a group called Bluestime that covered works by great Chicago blues artists that had inspired both of them. Geils' last venture into recording was about 2005, when, as Jay Geils, he and Gerry Beaudoin performed as the "Kings of Strings," doing jazz guitar pieces in the style of greats like Charlie Christian, whom Geils had long admired.