April 11, 2017 – John Warren “J” Geils was born on February 20, 1946, in New York City and grew up in Morris Plains, New Jersey. His father was an engineer at Bell Labs and a jazz and vintage car fan, two passions little John Geils’s took with him for the rest of his life. For his 10th birthday, his father took him to see Louis Armstrong. For his 13th birthday, he went with his father to see Miles Davis. Drawn to jazz early, he said he did not have the ”chops,” or jazz virtuosity, but discovered that he could play the blues. The chops are something he developed later in life, after the whirlwind years of touring with the J. Geils Band.
In 1964, he went to Northeastern University and was a trumpeter in the marching band. When he became busy absorbing the live music around him, he transferred to Worcester Poly-Technic Institute. “I wound up transferring to Worcester Tech…because I wasn’t doing too well at Northeastern…going to see all those guys,” he said. At the Worcester school he met harp player Magic Dick Salwitz and bassist Danny Klein and they formed what Geils termed “this little kinda acoustic folk blues group,” which they called the J. Geils Blues Band.
”Engineering just didn’t work out for us,” said Geils, so they began performing as an acoustic blues trio and in 1967, drummer Stephen Jo Bladd and vocalist Peter Wolf joined the group, and the band went electric.
Geils was trained as a mechanical engineer, which would serve him well decades later as he opened his own vintage auto restoration shop.
Before joining the J. Geils Band, Bladd and Wolf played together in the Boston-based rock revivalist band the Hallucinations. Both musicians shared a love of arcane doo wop, blues, R&B, and rock & roll, and Wolf had become well-known by spinning such obscure singles as a jive-talking WBCN DJ called Woofuh Goofuh. Wolf and Bladd’s specialized tastes became a central force in the newly revamped J. Geils Band, whose members positioned themselves as tough ’50s greasers in opposition to the colorful psychedelic rockers who dominated the East Coast in the late ’60s.
There’s a video from the early days of the Boston Blues Allstars with Billy Briggs on piano and Barry Tashian on vocals and drums, both from the Remains, along with Magic Dick, Danny Klein, and Geils, recorded by a friend of Tashian’s for a Boston University Communications Department senior project in 1969. Tashian turned Geils on to Billy Butler, a longtime guitar player with Bill Doggett, someone Geils calls “one of the great undersung players.”
The J. Geils Blues Band merged with two members of the Hallucinations, singer Peter Wolf and drummer Stephen Jo Bladd. After promotion man Mario Medious brought them to the attention of Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, they recorded a bit with rock critic Jon Landau, but the project was abandoned. About a year later in 1968, organist/songwriter Seth Justman joined the group and they started to tour for the next few years, during which time The J. Geils band became one of Boston’s original party bands.
They landed a record contract with Atlantic in 1970 and their first album, The J. Geils Band was a regional hit upon its early 1970 release, and it earned favorable reviews, especially from Rolling Stone. The group’s second album, The Morning After, appeared later that year and, thanks to the Top 40 hit “Looking for a Love,” the album expanded the band’s following. However, the J. Geils Band continued to win new fans primarily through their concerts, so it was no surprise that their third album, 1972’s Full House, was a live set. It was followed by Bloodshot, a record that climbed into the Top Ten on the strength of the Top 40 hit “Give It to Me.” Following the relative failure of 1973’s Ladies Invited, the band had another hit with 1974’s Nightmares, which featured the number 12 single “Must of Got Lost.” While their live shows remained popular throughout the mid-’70s, both Hot Line (1975) and the live Blow Your Face Out (1976) were significant commercial disappointments. The band revamped its sound and shortened its name to “Geils” for 1977’s Monkey Island. While the album received good reviews, the record failed to bring the group increased sales.
While their muscular sound and the hyper jive of frontman Peter Wolf packed arenas across America, it only rarely earned them hit singles. Seth Justman, the group’s main songwriter, could turn out catchy R&B-based rockers like “Give It to Me” and “Must of Got Lost,” but these hits never led to stardom, primarily because the group had trouble capturing the energy of its live sound in the studio.
In 1978, the J. Geils Band left Atlantic Records for EMI, releasing Sanctuary later that year. Sanctuary slowly gained a following, becoming their first gold album since Bloodshot. Love Stinks (1980) expanded the group’s following even more, peaking at number 18 in the charts and setting the stage for 1981’s Freeze Frame, the band’s high watermark.
After 11 albums, the band’s 12th album, ”Freeze Frame,” ( the group tempered its driving rock with some pop) and the makeover paid off as the album went to Number One and remained on the chart for 70 weeks. As MTV was just gaining momentum, the video shot to accompany the single ”Centerfold” exposed the band to a whole new generation of fans. A substantial departure from their earlier style ”Centerfold” spent six weeks at No. 1 on Billboard and the title track ”Freeze Frame” made it to No. 4.
”It didn’t happen overnight for us,” said Geils. ‘‘It was lots of hard work. Like the saying goes — success is 10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration. Like with any band, a lot of positive forces got aligned at the same time, and it just happened for us.”
The live album Showtime! became a gold album shortly after its late 1982 release.
By the time the band prepared to record a follow-up studio album however, tensions had grown considerably, particularly between writing partners Justman and Wolf. When the group refused to record material Wolf had written with Don Covay and Michael Jonzun, he left the band in the middle of a 1983 recording session. Justman assumed lead vocals, and the group released You’re Gettin’ Even While I’m Gettin’ Old in late 1984, several months after Wolf’s successful solo debut, Lights Out.
The J. Geils Band’s record was a flop and the band broke up in 1985. After working for years to reach to top of the charts, the J. Geils Band couldn’t stay there once they finally achieved their goal.
In assessing the J. Geils legacy, Anthony DeCurtis, contributing editor at Rolling Stone, called the group ”a hard-working band.”
‘‘Did a single J. Geils record alter the course of popular music? No,” said DeCurtis, a member of the nominating committee for the Rock and Roll hall of fame. ”But they proved that you can go out night after night, set after set, win over audiences, and finally become successful.”
For DeCurtis, theirs is a classic rock and roll story. ”After all of those years of hard work, slogging it out and earning their stripes on the road to make it to the point where success comes, and then as a collective group they can’t handle it,” he said. ”There is strange bad blood. They should have been cruising along, but it all fell apart.”
No one in the band will comment on what happened, and when asked about the breakup, Geils said simply: ”Irreconcilable differences. Let’s leave it at that.”
After the break-up Geils put down the guitar to concentrate on auto racing and vintage car restoration. Geils claims he “didn’t even touch a guitar”. He opened KTR Motorsports, an automobile restoration shop in Carlisle, Massachusetts, to service and repair vintage sports cars such as Ferraris and Maseratis. He sold the shop in 1996, after returning to music 4 years earlier, though he continued to use the shop and participate in the company.
J. Geils formed Bluestime with Magic Dick in 1992, also playing with various musicians like Kevin Visnaskas in the Blood Street Band. Along with producing friend Danny Klein’s Stone Crazy band (Geils was a brilliant and underrated producer, having worked with Michael Stanley in 1972 on the Friends & Legends LP), Geils worked with Gerry Beaudoin and Duke Robillard in the New Guitar Summit (utilizing the Bluestime rhythm section). Geils and Beaudoin also performed in an acoustic trio, Gerry Beaudoin’s Kings of Strings, where Geils played rhythm guitar and Jerry Miller provided his mandolin. With all this musical output, Geils released his first solo record in 2003, a jazz CD which features many guest sax players. From the days when members of the J. Geils Band were on his case to learn more Jimi Hendrix riffs and he was off playing Charlie Christian instead, the founding member of a hugely popular and respected ensemble that opened for the Rolling Stones live and performed with Buddy Guy on record, now had his guitar singing the music of his heart, the sounds that inspired one of the most familiar names in rock music.In 2005, he released his first solo album, a jazz album.
The band had several reunion tours over the years, but Geils finally quit the band in 2012 and later sued his bandmates, claiming they were conspiring to tour without him and unlawfully using the band’s trademarked name.
In 2015, Geils was named to the Wall of Honor at his alma mater, Bernards High School in Bernardsville, New Jersey.
The band was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the fourth time in the fall of 2016, but once again was not selected as part of the 2017 class.
“This is our fourth nomination, and going through that process, with its inherent disappointment, you’re not sure you want to take that ride again,” lead vocalist Peter Wolf told Billboard at the time. “It’s great to be recognized, but it’s a drag to be disappointed. I hope that we make it in. That would be great.”
A reunion on the stage of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will not be possible anymore, as John “J” Geils passed from natural causes at his home on April 11, 2017. He was 71.