Just over two months ago J. (John Warren) Geils passed away at the age of 71. He was best known as the lead guitarist in the eponymous J. Geils Band, a group that had their heyday in the 1970s and were last heard from, in recorded form, in the 1980’s.
In recent years, Geils had reinvented himself in a way few aging members of Baby Boomer rockdom have chosen–as a ‘serious’ musician playing ‘grown-up ‘music. I was fortunate to encounter that as close to in-person as possible last September, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
For all my love of music based in the blues, the J. Geils Band never really made it on to my roster of must-listens. There were a lot of reasons for that, some more valid than others. A major stumbling block for me was that in many ways they were a cover band.
That’s a criticism that doesn’t apply only to them. The fact is any number of bands that formed in the 1960s were at some point cover acts. That includes The Rolling Stones at the start of their career and, arguably, The Allman Brothers Band at the beginning of theirs. I kind of prefer the Stones in cover band mode so I’m not exactly dogmatic about this being negative.
In this case there were other factors in play. You may recall they were considered a Boston hometown band and somehow that didn’t seem right, at least 200 and some odd miles down the coast. For me, though, there was a problem even bigger than Magic Dick’s afro.
That would be the band’s frontman, Peter Wolf. A hyperkinetic kid from the Bronx, Wolf had a lot to do with the band’s live reputation. Even worse than being a cover band, though, Wolf always struck me as a cut-rate Jagger imitator. I dislike preening fools and that’s how he always appeared to me.
While the band had a deserved reputation as a live act, radio play proved more elusive. I have vague memories of an R&B medley–sort of like the Mitch Ryder tribute that Springsteen always plays–that would emanate from WNEW-FM or one of the other rock stations in the area. But radio play was inconsistent. My friend John always said that if you wrote a song about radio it got played. Wolf, a one time WBCN jock, offered a corollary: radio guys who joined rock bands always got airtime.
What saved the band and gave them their brush with superstardom was the advent of MTV. Before music videos became short films laden with imagery and meaning, they typically revolved around the band. The ensuing scampering about a set required a suspension of belief–much like watching a movie musical–on the part of the viewer.
In that earlier genre, and still in Disney films, people burst into song, and often dance, for narrative but not necessarily sensible reasons. In early videos, frontmen mugged for the camera and tried to hold the viewer’s interest. It was an approach tailor-made for Wolf who was not exactly a blues vocalist of the first rank.
Starting with the January 1980 release of ‘Love Stinks‘ the band crested. The 1980 album showcased distinctly AOR fare and while the title song was a hit single, as was ‘Come Back,’ the best, or worst, was yet to come. With 1982’s #1 album ‘Freeze Frame’ the band rode MTV to the top of the charts in a pre-cursor to 1984 when album after mainstream album started spawning singles like salmon.
Amazingly, Peter Wolf left the band at this point over differences in direction and pursued a solo career. That never truly panned out and for much of the last 30 years the J. Geils Band was a nostalgia act with a heavy road schedule. If Wikipedia is right, the original members wandered in and out of the lineup over that time.
You couldn’t have bungled the timing any better if you tried. Just as these R&B fans turned pop the roots rock that I love exploded simultaneously in half a dozen cities. Boston sported at least two bands–the underrated Scruffy the Cat and the moderately successful Treat Her Right–-while right down I-95, in Providence, Roomful of Blues was busily resurrecting the jump blues and swing music of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
It’s that last bit that’s important.
Roomful has seen more guitar players and vocalists than I can name in their 50-year career. In the beginning there was Duke Robillard, handling both chores. He’s an amazing guitar player in his own right and maybe someday I’ll write of my thirty-plus year love affair with his playing.
One of my observations would be that those who play guitars against a horn section play better. I think it’s because the key signatures that work for horns force guitar players to learn how to transpose. From there it’s a short step to moving through the melody and playing over the changes. So J. Geils did.
Mr. Geils, it seems, played jazz trumpet in high school. And at some point in the last couple of decades he got serious about the guitar.J. hooked up with the Roomful/Providence contingent and set about developing a deserved place among the musicians who play that music.
You needn’t believe me. Listen to any of the more recent J. Geils’ records. Then give Charlie Christian on an old Benny Goodman record, or T-Bone Walker or Roomful with or without Robillard a spin. You’ll hear fabulous, sophisticated guitar playing that is noticeably the blues and yet a breed apart from the blues-rock that too many think is the real thing.
Last September I found myself in Boston for a couple of days. My hotel contained a jazz club where J. Geils was playing both nights I was staying. Dinner plans precluded me from getting a ticket. But my second-floor room, it turned out, was right above the stage.
I sat up with a mini-bar beer listening to a man who loved the blues in any form playing his heart out. He’s still doing that somewhere, I hope.