Hard Drivin’ Man: J. Geils brought blues, jazz, soul -- and his name -- to one of rock’s great bands
The news was a tough blow for rock fans earlier this week when it was reported that John Warren Geils, Jr. -- better known as J. Geils -- passed away in his Massachusetts home at the age of 71. The guitarist and founding member of Boston’s J. Geils Band died of natural causes in Groton, the town he called home for the past 35 years.
Geils was born in New York City in 1946 and raised in New Jersey, moving to Massachusetts in 1964 to attend college. While attending Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he hooked up with bassist Danny Klein and harmonica player Richard “Magic Dick” Salwitz. They later moved to Boston, met drummer Stephen Jo Bladd, keyboard player Seth Justman, and vocalist Peter Wolf, and what started out as the J. Geils Blues Band soon became the J. Geils Band. They signed to Atlantic Records, and their self-titled debut album was released in 1970.
Although the band was Geils’ namesake, he was far from the center of the band’s attention. Wolf -- a former WBCN Boston disc jockey nicknamed the Woofa Goofa -- oozed charisma with his rapid-fire between-song dialog, soulful vocals, and in-your-face stage presence. Even Magic Dick regularly vied for the audience’s attention, with his amped-up blues harp wailing away on standard J. Geils Band fare like “Whammer Jammer” and “Stoop Down #39.” While he clearly had fun on stage and was a natural with his five bandmates, Geils was only too happy to let his guitar do the talking.
While some rock writers and fans of all stripes like to consider Aerosmith the American equivalent of the Rolling Stones, I personally think that’s an unfair assessment, as long as the J. Geils Band are around. Forget Aerosmith and consider instead their Boston-based cousins in the Geils Band (worth nothing -- for a band known for being “from Boston", Bladd is their only Massachusetts native). The Stones/Geils comparison makes more sense -- both bands are dedicated to the preservation of their beloved blues and R&B roots, and while they meandered down more modern musical roads over the years -- some exciting, some ill-advised -- they always managed to retain that sense of tradition.
While it’s impossible to picture the Stones without Keith, it’s equally baffling to imagine the J. Geils Band making their unique stew of rock, soul, blues and funk without the six-string buzz of Geils. It’s true that he rarely contributed original songs to the band’s repertoire: Wolf and Justman wrote the lion’s share of their music, although Geils wrote the killer instrumental “Icebreaker” and co-wrote the live staple “Hard Drivin’ Man” with Wolf, both on their debut album. What he brought to the table was an innate love for rootsy guitar playing, inspired by his love of artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker (the latter’s song “Serves You Right to Suffer” was brilliantly covered by the Geils Band). Like a lot of his blues-loving guitar playing contemporaries, Geils took his love of the blues and retrofitted it for the modern rock audience. Whether it was a funky riff, a stinging lead or just a bluesy string bend, Geils made sure that the band never forgot that his band would not exist without the towering influence of the past.
Throughout the ‘70s, the J. Geils Band enjoyed healthy album sales, a few minor hit singles (“Give It to Me", “Must of Got Lost", “One Last Kiss”) and gained a reputation as a phenomenal live act not to be missed. Sure, a lot of people went to a Geils Band show to catch Wolf’s antics, but the band was always a tight, well-oiled machine that expertly mixed original material with a wealth of blues and soul covers (including songs by Curtis Mayfield, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, Otis Rush, Albert Collins, and many more). If you need proof, check out the trio of live albums released throughout their career: ’Live’ Full House (1972), Blow Your Face Out (1976) and Showtime! (1982).
At the dawn of the ‘80s the J. Geils Band recalibrated their sound even further, releasing two albums, Love Stinks (1980) and Freeze Frame (1981) that managed to embrace the punchy, keyboard-heavy new wave sound of the times while still maintaining a bluesy funk. “Love Stinks” wouldn’t sound nearly as catchy and anthemic without Geils’ updated “Wild Thing” guitar riff. Their roof-raising cover of the Strangeloves’ “Night Time” sounds like a young, hungry bar band on the rise. And while “Centerfold” was their undeniable smash hit and the golden ticket to the MTV VIP club (with the band gamely participating in the video’s antics), the song itself is virtually unrecognizable without the Geils/Magic Dick twin guitar-harmonica riff that runs through it. You’ve got it stuck in your head already, don’t you? You’re welcome. The young kids loved the J. Geils Band, and the old-school fans could still respect themselves. A win-win.
Not long after the success of Freeze Frame, Wolf left the band for a successful solo career, and they made one stinker of an album without him (the embarrassing You’re Gettin’ Even While I’m Gettin’ Odd) before breaking up. Over the years the band has performed the occasional reunion tour until Geils himself quit the group in 2012 and sued his bandmates for conspiring to tour without him and unlawfully using the band name.
But life went on for Geils in his final years. Settled in suburban Massachusetts, he made some jazz-based solo albums and continued to feed his longtime passion for vintage Italian cars (for some time he operated a business, KTR Motorsports, that serviced such vehicles).
While the aforementioned legal entanglements caused estrangement between Geils and his former bandmates, the loss still stings. “Thinking of all the times we kicked it high and rocked down the house! RIP J. Geils,” Peter Wolf commented on social media. The J. Geils Band may have taken their craft seriously, but when you get down to it -- as they once said so eloquently back in 1973 -- it ain’t nothin’ but a party. Rest in peace, John Warren Geils, Jr.