April 12, 2017

J. Geils — A Quiet Leader Who Made A Lot of Noise

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Has there ever been a band that created more excitement and joy on stage than The J. Geils Band? Now we have lost the name sake of the band. When the band was first created by J. Geils in 1967 they were determined to take blues and R & B to a new level. All the members grew up listening and loving the music that they ended up playing with a passion that brought those songs to a newer heights. These guys knew how to boogie.

It was a while before that Boston boogie sound was embraced by the rest of the world. They spread beyond being a regular act at the famous rock club in Boston known as the Boston Tea Party when a talent scout from Atlantic Records saw them play there and signed the group.

Since the band had been playing together for some time prior to recording, they were tight and ready. So ready that most of their debut LP was done with one takes and the entire album was done in three days. Unfortunately that first and follow up THE MORNING AFTER (whose photo shoot for the album cover literally took place after a late night party) didn’t capture the excitement of their live shows. This is a common problem for groups who are able to get the crowds on their feet in a live show, but that doesn’t translate very well on recordings.

Part of the problem was the material that the band did wasn’t their own. While they did a great job of covering some great blues and R & B songs that went over great live, these songs were not in the main stream of the current music at that time. Even their live album FULL HOUSE released in 1972, while it was a great representation of their stage show, didn’t solve the problem.

That changed dramatically with their BLOODSHOT LP in 1973. With more original material than any of their previous releases it went to the top ten on the charts. Leading the way was an original song called “Give it to Me” that did give you the sense of their dramatic live shows.

During the rest of the 70’s The J. Geils Band was in high demand for concerts. Here in Philadelphia it became an annual holiday tradition that the Boston Boogie Boys would play the Spectrum every Thanksgiving or Christmas. It was on one of those occasions that Bruce Springsteen went to see the band. Details on what happened that night can be read in my book CONFESSIONS OF A TEENAGE DISC JOCKEY.

One other very fond memory of the music of J. Geils was a trip that a car full of us made to Cleveland to see The Rolling Stones. For a good portion of the way we listened to the Geils boogie music. The entire car was singing along and the car was swaying from the passengers rocking to the music.

The group was just as much fun socially as they were on stage. We went out to eat together and ended staying long after the restaurant closed talking most of the night. Even the owner of the place joined us. The band had a million funny stories. That was especially true of the lead singer Peter Wolf who was a Boston DJ on the legendary WBCN prior to joining the band.

Oddly, the one member of the band that wasn’t very talkative was the leader of the band. One could easily wonder why he was the leader and not Peter Wolf who did most of the talking for the group. He wasn’t even up front in any of the photos of the band. While John Warren Geils didn’t write many songs and did very little singing, he was the brains behind the band.

When the band first formed John was studying mechanical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. From the very start Geils provided the steady influence on the band. He wanted a band that was not only tight musically, but could co-exist as people. A leader, he realized, doesn’t have to be in the spotlight to motivate people into a hard working unit. He was smart enough to realize that the group needed a wild front man like Peter Wolf. A move that made the band a huge success.

Perhaps because Peter Wolf had eyes on making it on his own (the last J. Geils album was released without Peter), The J. Geils Band broke up after becoming very popular in the 80’s. They had huge hits like “Love Stinks”, “Centerfold” and “Freeze Frame”. They enjoyed the success of not only a number one single, but a number one album. That apparently wasn’t enough to keep the band together.

After years of Peter Wolf trying to make it on his own and some legal battles that were eventually settled, The J. Geils Band had reunited. As their leader always thought, neither the group nor the lead singer could make it without each other. Their most recent show in Atlantic City was very much vintage J. Geils. They proved that they were still one of the best live acts ever.

It is very hard to believe that the J. Geils band is not in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. They have been nominated four times and this year missed the mark again. Sadly, if they do make it next time, they will do it without their leader. Peter Wolf wrote a short message on Facebook about his former bandmate, "Thinking of all the times we kicked it high and rocked down the house! R.I.P Jay Geils."


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