Like most other people, the first time I heard about The J. Geils Band was in the early 80s when Centerfold was playing on the radio. The song and the album on which it appeared, Freeze-Frame, took the band to its commercial peak. Ironically, as is all too common in rock & roll, long sought and finally achieved success led to the band’s demise only a few years thereafter.
John Warren “J.” Geils Jr. was born in New York on Feb 20, 1946. As a child, he listened to Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and other artists in the record collection of his father, who was a big jazz fan. During his high school years, he took up the trumpet and learned how to play Miles Davis tunes. But after Geils had heard Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and other blues legends on the radio, he put the trumpet aside and switched to blues guitar.
In 1965, while attending Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, Geils got together with bassist Danny Klein and blues harpist Richard “Magic Dick” Salwitz to form Snoopy and the Sopwith Camels, an acoustic blues trio. In 1968, the band changed its style to electric blues, added singer Peter Wolf and drummer Stephen Bladd, and became The J. Geils Blues Band. Later that year, keyboarder Seth Justman completed the lineup. Prior to the release of its eponymous 1970 debut album, the band dropped “Blues” from its name.
While The J. Geils Band may be best known to most people for Love Stinks, Centerfold and Freeze-Frame, they were at their very best during their earlier years, particularly as a live band. In addition to 11 studio albums, 30 singles and various compilations, the band recorded three live albums between 1970 and its breakup in 1985. In particular Live Full House from 1972 is truly electrifying. I had a chance to see the band live myself in New Jersey in 2013, when they were an opening act – I believe for Bon Jovi. They played a great set, though Geils was not part of the lineup.
Justman and Wolf wrote most of band’s original material. Geils only has writing credits on their debut album, for which he wrote the instrumental Ice Breaker and co-wrote Hard Drivin’ Man together with Wolf, which I think is the best original tune of the album.
Apart from their own music, the band recorded fantastic covers of songs from other artists, especially on their early albums. First I Look at the Purse (Robert Roberts, Smokey Robinson) and Homework (Otis Rush, Al Perkins, Dave Clark) from their first album, and So Sharp (Arlester Christian) and Looking For a Love (J.W. Alexander, Zelda Samules) from the second studio album The Morning After are great examples in this context.
After the band split up in 1985, Geils got into car racing and restoring old sports cars. In 1992, he returned to music, producing an album for Klein and forming a band with Salwitz called Bluestime for Magic Dick. They released two albums: Bluestime (1994) and Little Car Blues (1996). Another project included New Guitar Summit, a blues trio with Duke Robillard and Gerry Beaudoin, which released two records in 2004. In 2005, Geils also put out a solo jazz album, Jay Geils Plays Jazz.
The J. Geils Band did occasional reunions after their breakup. Then things started to go downhill. In 2009, Geils obtained a trademark for The J. Geils Band name, of which he informed his band mates in 2011, his lawyer told Billboard. In August 2012, Geils sued his former band mates after they had announced a tour without him. As reported by Rolling Stone, he claimed Wolf, Salwitz, Klein and Justman “planned and conspired” to exclude him from the tour while unlawfully using the group’s trademarked name.
On April 12, Geils was found dead by police officers at his home in Groton, Mass. He appeared to have died of natural causes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Geils and his former band mates reconciled.
Here’s a clip of a live performance of First I Look At the Purse.
Sources: Wikipedia, AllMusic, Rolling Stone, Billboard, The New York Times, YouTube