The J. Geils Band got it crazy every night. They got down to it. Did they ever.
History tells us that the year 1967 was all incense and peppermints, paisley and Pepper, and other things groovy. But those lazy, hazy daze also produced one of the world's all time great, hard driving white rhythm and blues show bands.
For the next 15 years-14 albums and what must've been a million gigs - The J. Geils Band, in the words of former lead vocalist Peter Wolf, "felt obligated to give 100 percent of ourselves to our audience. We were a bunch of guys who had the passion and wanted to share it."
"There was a love affair between this band and its audience. We wanted people to know that we were gonna give it all that night", adds Seth Justman, the band's keyboardist, arranger, and later producer, who, with Wolf, co-wrote most of the J. Geils Band original songs. "Whatever we had in the tank, that tank was gonna be empty at the end of the show."
Although they will forever be favorite sons of the city of Boston, most of the J. Geils Band's six members were born and raised in other East Coast cities. By the mid-60's they had each found themselves in Boston with the intent of going to school, but enrolled instead in what Wolf liked to call the College of Musical Knowledge, earning their master's degrees in rock n' soul.
Before there was The J. Geils Band there was the J. Geils Blues Band, an acoustic trio. Geils himself was a Southside-style slide guitarist who counted not only the Chicago blues masters bust also Steve Cropper, Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown's guitarists among his many influences. Stand-up bassist Danny "D.K." Klein was also a major soul fan, and harmonica wizard Magic Dick drew heavily from a wide array of blues and jazz musicians, ranging from Little Walter to Roy Eldridge, King Curtis to John Coltrane. They had found a comfortable niche within the booming folk music scene in Cambridge when they were overheard by a transplanted Bronx native named Peter Wolf.
Wolf had spent much of his adolescence at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater, checking out his R&B idols - among them James Brown and Jackie Wilson - and absorbing the street sounds of doo-wop and the era's great disc jockeys: Alan Freed, Jocko Henderson, Symphony Sid. A Jazz fan as well, Wolf immersed himself in Manhattan's bustling jazz scene, catching Thelonious Monk, Coltrane, and the like.
Wolf had every intention of pursuing his love of painting when he packed up for the Boston Museum Of Fine Arts in the mid-60's (where his roommate would be future film maker David Lynch), but once there he landed a gig as a jive-talking DJ on Boston station WBCN and met up with other art students who shared his then outré fervor for black music. Wolf soon formed The Hallucinations, a flashy soul group that also included fellow doo-wop aficionado Stephen Bladd on drums. When Wolf caught the nascent Geils trio in action, though, he saw a merger in his near future.
"They were a great band, really smooth", Wolf says. "They knew everything there was to know about Chicago blues." Wolf and Bladd joined forces with Geils, Klein, and Dick and "began jamming all night", recalls Wolf. At the insistence of J. Geils' first manager, and with none of the other band members seeming to mind, they kept the J. Geils Blues Band name (soon thereafter dropping the word Blues), and began building a reputation in the Boston clubs. That they were no mortal white boys playin' da blues was confirmed by the cats they called their friends: When Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf or John Lee Hooker came through town, The J. Geils Band served as their hosts.
In 1969 keyboardist Seth Justman completed the lineup that would remain intact through early 1983. A Washington, DC, native raised in Atlantic City, Justman shared the band's obsession with R&B and blues. A musician by age five, Justman was influenced by Ray Charles, Jimmy Smith, and Otis Spann and had gone to see every act that came through town to play the Steel Pier, including Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Rolling Stones, Louis Armstrong, and Stevie Wonder, before leaving for school in Boston at age 18.
Justman had already worked with several bands in Atlantic City. "In one band, when I was 14", he remembers, "we unknowingly booked a gig that turned out to be a nudist colony. It was weird; they had a stripper for entertainment between sets! Anyway, I hadn't been without a band for even a day since I was 12 or 13, so on my first day in Boston I check out the J. Geils Band because my roommate said they were good. I couldn't believe they were into the same songs I was."
The J. Geils Band became a fixture at the happening Boston Tea Party club, where they were heard by an Atlantic Records talent scout, Mario "The Big M" Medious. At that point the band, particularly the Wolf-Justman team, had only recently begun working on original material, having concentrated previously on mastering semi-obscure soul and blues covers by the likes of Dyke & The Blazers, Don Covay, and Rodger Collins.
The eponymous debut album by The J. Geils Band, released in 1970 and produced by Atlantic staff producers Dave Crawford and Brad Shapiro, consisted of a number of originals, including the lead track of the Anthology album, "Cruisin' For A Love" (credited to the every-mysterious Juke Joint Jimmy, reportedly a six-headed Boston blues legend), alongside such staples of the live show as "Homework", an Otis Rush showstopper. The album barely squeaked onto the charts, its sales performance hardly matching the band's quickly burgeoning reputation as a live act second to none.
"Like a lot of bands cutting their first albums, we were ready", says Justman. "We'd been playing these songs for a long time. We were so excited to get into the studio, we just played the tunes, and they just pressed the record button. A lot of the versions you hear on the record were first takes and the whole thing took just three days."
For the second album, 1971's The Morning After, Atlantic flew the band out to Los Angeles and teamed them with producer / engineer Bill Szymczyk, who'd recently worked on B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone", and with whom they would remain for most of their Atlantic tenure.
The Morning After was another union of well-chosen covers - including Valentino's "Looking For A Love" and Don Covay's "The Usual Place" - and homegrown tunes. Of the originals, Wolf-Justman's "Cry One More Time" - later covered by Gram Parsons - and the Juke Joint Jimmy instrumental funk fest "It Ain't What You Do (It's How You Do It!)".
The album's cover, incidentally, was literally photographed the morning after a blowout hotel party attended by not only The J. Geils Band but members of War, the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, and the Bay Area Bombers roller derby team!
In February 1972 the Geils band recorded a Willie Dixon song, "Dead Presidents". Originally released as a single B-side, it appears on Anthology for the first time on an album.
By album number three, "Everyone kept saying, 'You guys knock 'em dead live, why don't you try a live album?'", says Wolf. Live - Full House, the first of three live J. Geils Band albums, harnessed the band's manic charisma as well as any record could. Recorded at Detroit's Cinderella Ballroom in April 1972, "It was like a great photograph", says Wolf.
"Yeah, Pete's right", adds Justman. "It really captured what we were onstage at the time."
Four of Full House's tracks, including Magic Dick's harp piece-de-resistance, "Whammer Jammer". The Contour's "First I Look At The Purse", which had become one of the band's showpieces, is another Full House highlight encoring on Houseparty, as is Wolf and Geil's "Hard Drivin' Man".
The J. Geils Band had played literally thousands of gigs by the time they recorded Bloodshot in 1973, and the hard work paid off in the band's first Top 10 album. "We were branching out musically", says Justman.
One of the Bloodshot songs that also appears on Anthology, "Give It To Me", was indeed a departure. Based on a reggae rhythm at a time when Bob Marley was barely known outside of Kingston, the record was deemed "suggestive" by the FCC, according to Wolf. It was denied a shot at the Top 10 when sheepish radio stations pulled the comparatively mild, yet definitely sexy, tune from their playlists.
If the next three Geils albums - Ladies Invited (1973), Nightmares And Other Tales From The Vinyl Jungle (1974), and Hotline (1975) - represented something of a commercial falling off (although each placed well inside the Top 100), they each still contained moments of undeniable get-down-to-it-ness. Wolf and Justman had by then developed into an outstanding song writing team, while the musicians transcended their roots to become the kind of unpredictable, intuitive music machine that leaves listeners breathless every time.
"The key to the band was chemistry and loyalty", says Justman. "We wanted the solidity that Booker T. & The MG's or the Funk Brothers of Motown had. You play together until it becomes second nature, like breathing together."
"Detroit Breakdown" and "Must Of Got Lost" (the latter the band's highest charting single up to that point, reaching #12), two Wolf-Justman originals from Nightmares, and Hotline's "Love-Itis" (written by Memphis soulster Harvey Scales with Albert Vance) and "Believe In Me" (written by soul legend Curtis Mayfield) illustrate Justman's point and stand out among studio recordings done for Atlantic.
A studio recording of the band covering The Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go", produced by Atlantic cofounder Ahmet Eretgun and available only as a single on its release in 1976, did not make its first album appearance until Anthology, though a live version was on Live-Blow Your Face Out.
The spring of 1976 saw the release of the second live J. Geils album, appropriately titled Live-Blow Your Face Out. A two record set record in late 1975, it doubled as something of a greatest hits collection, featuring killer in-concert reprises of material recorded and performed by the band throughout its history, in addition to a handful of newly uprooted covers. Scattered throughout Blow Your Face Out are Wolf's manic, spontaneous, never-the-same-twice raps, something he perfected during his radio days.
"We were getting something like seven encores a night during that period", notes Justman. "We were so together it was like an explosion once we hit the stage."
Shortly after cutting the live album, the band stopped in at the Record Plant studio in New York in November 1976 to put down a cover of The Marathon's 1961 R&B novelty hit "Peanut Butter". This song appears for the first time on Anthology.
It was clear to both the band and Atlantic Records by 1977 that it was time for a change. Monkey Island, The J. Geils Band's final album for the label, was that change. From the jazzy nine minute suite that served as the title track to the temporary shortening of their name simply to Geils, Monkey Island was like nothing they'd ever before attempted.
"It was a turning point for us", says Justman. "We were at the end of our contract with Atlantic, and we didn't know what was going to happen next, so we said, if we're going out, we're going out breaking some new ground." Like the few albums preceding it, Monkey Island charted in the mid-reaches of the Top 100.
"Surrender" is notable for soul great Cissy Houston's co-lead vocal, while Luther VanDross is among the track's backup singers.
After Monkey Island, the group was courted by, and signed with, the new EMI America label, which released Sanctuary at the tail end of 1978. Their first gold album since Bloodshot, it was undeniably a great leap forward artistically.
Produced by Joe Wissert, who had worked with Boz Scaggs and Earth, Wind & Fire, Sanctuary was another musically diverse affair. "One Last Kiss" was a slice of pop perfection deserving of a higher position in the Top 40 than it achieved. The album's title track could have been a Rolling Stone's cut, with its slicing lead guitar by Geils and precision drumming and bass work by Bladd and Klein. "Teresa" was arguably the band's most gorgeous ballad ever, a powerful lament that featured Justman's mournful piano buildup and an impassioned Wolf vocal that left the listener numb.
The J. Geils Band had moved far from its party-hardy boogie-band roots - but not so far that they were no longer the J. Geils Band.
Justman himself took over the production reins for Love Stinks, released at the beginning of 1980. The next step in the band's transformation, the album reflected the superior compositional strengths of Wolf and Justman, as well as the group's ability to update its trademark sound for the new decade.
The title track couldn't help but receive critical notice and substantial airplay, while the stomping "Night Time" was a grand celebration on the age-old theme of the best time to be with the one you love.
Whatever was suggested by Love Stinks, however, came to fruition on Freeze Frame, the band's twelfth album. Released in November 1981, Freeze Frame ascended to #1 on the Billboard album charts, spent four weeks there, and remained on the chart for a total of 70 weeks. Also produced and arranged by Seth Justman, Freeze Frame was, he says, "like looking at freeze frames of life, watching where you've been while you're moving forward. We felt it really encapsulated what we were doing, and I know we were feeling like we could do anything."
Freeze Frame's release happened to coincide roughly with the launch of the video channel MTV, which aided the album's success in no small part. The album's first single, "Centerfold", and its video became instant hits (the song spent six weeks at #1 in Billboard), introducing The J. Geils Band to a generation that might've been too young to have heard of the blues heroes that initially sparked the group.
Whatever it was that got them there, The J. Geils Band, with the help of singles and music videos, had finally become an overnight success - after 14 hard years grinding it out on the road. "A lot of young kids saw us for the first time", says Justman, "and they could see we were having a ball".
Adds Wolf, "There was a rediscovery, people were hungry for rock and roll bands. People wanted new, funky, sweaty rock 'n roll. The clubs that had been discos started getting back into rock and roll. Between the emergence of MTV, the song "Centerfold" itself, and EMI being at an aggressive stage, that all came together for us."
Freeze Frame's title track followed "Centerfold" to the upper reaches of the charts, peaking at #4. The group followed its most successful album with another live one, Showtime!, once again capturing their potency and proving that The J. Geils Band was truly electrifying both onstage and on record.
"I think to see it was to believe it", says Peter Wolf, summing up the band he fronted for a decade and a half. "The J. Geils Band was a real American band - six guys with a love of music, really feeling blessed that we were able to prevail and keep going. We were no fills, no tricks, just hard, sweaty rock 'n roll. And when we hit the stage it was showtime!
Addition to the original article...
The J. Geils band reunited for a tour of the United States in 1999 and played to sold-out audiences across the country. The boys from Boston passed the test of time and rocked both new and old fans. Five of the six original members made the tour -- drummer Steven Jo Bladd was the only member who decided not to tour.