Ultimate party band’s studio debut went largely unnoticed
At first sight it’s somewhat puzzling. When The J. Geils Band released their eponymous studio debut in November 1970, they already had established themselves as a dynamic live act opening shows all around the country for top-notch artists like B.B. King, Johnny Winter and The Allman Brothers Band. Yet this dynamite album went largely unnoticed, barely making the Billboard 200 at no. 195, and not charting at all in other countries.
I was reminded how great this record is when Apple Music served it up to me as a listening suggestion. I also think this observation from their bio of the band is spot on: 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.
The J. Geils Band started out as an acoustic blues trio in the mid-’60s, calling themselves Snoopy and the Sopwith Camels (clearly a ’60s name!) and consisting of J. Geils (guitar), Danny Klein (bass) and Richard Salwitz, known as “Magic Dick” (harmonica). In 1968, the band adopted an electric sound, hired Stephen Bladd (drums) and Peter Wolf (vocals), and became The J. Geils Blues Band. They completed their line-up when Seth Justman (keyboards) joined later that year. By the time they signed with Atlantic Records in 1970, the band had dropped “Blues” from their name and become The J. Geils Band.
Time for some music. Here’s the great opener Wait. One of the album’s five original tunes, it was co-written by Justman and Wolf.
Next up: Icebreaker (For The Big “M”), an excellent instrumental composed by Geils. Check out the cool guitar and harmonica harmony playing. This tune is cooking, even without Wolf’s vocals!
Hard Drivin’ Man is another terrific original track. It was co-written by Wolf and Geils.
I’d like to conclude this post with two covers by The J. Geils Band I’ve always liked. The first is called Homework, a tune co-written by Otis Rush, Al Perkins and Dave Clark. I believe the song was first recorded and released as a single in 1965 by Perkins and soul singer Betty Bibbs.
Last but not least, here’s First I Look At The Purse. Initially recorded by Motown act The Contours in 1965, the tune was co-written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers. It’s perhaps the example on the album, which best illustrates the above observation from the Apple Music bio. While it’s a great take, it feels a bit timid compared to the live version that can be found on the excellent Live Full House album from September 1972.
The J. Geils Band would go and record 10 additional studio albums and three live records, and release various compilations. Only one of their ’70s studio records, Bloodshot, charted in the top 10 on the Billboard 200 at no. 10. Ironically, shortly after the band finally hit commercial success with Freeze-Frame from October 1981, fueled by the singles Centerfold and the title track, The J. Geils Band started to fall apart.
Peter Wolf left in 1983. The band released one more album in October 1984, You’re Gettin’ Even While I’m Gettin’ Odd, and called it quits the following year. The J. Geils Band has since reunited for various tours. In 2012, J. Geils who after the 1985 breakup had gotten into auto racing and restoration, sewed the other band members, charging they had planned a tour without him. He quit permanently thereafter and sadly passed away in April 2017 at the age of 71.
Skynyrd Nation celebration also features Atlanta Rhythm Section and Peter Wolf as special guests
When Johnny Van Zant asked the audience last night whether folks showed up because they are die-hard Lynyrd Skynyrd fans or because it’s their farewell tour, I answered ‘both’ to myself. While I’ve listened to Skynyrd for 20-plus years and like many of their songs, I wouldn’t call myself a die-hard fan. And, yes, part of my motivation to see these southern rockers at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. on Friday was the fact that this may well have been the last opportunity, if they indeed retire.
Recently, I read that Skynyrd added dates to extend their Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour. Maybe additional gigs will follow. Maybe it’ll turn into a Deep Purple-like “long goodbye tour.” Or maybe they’ll change their minds altogether, just like Scorpions did a few years go when the German rockers realized they couldn’t just decelerate from running at 200 mph to zero. Who knows.
Compared to artists like The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Neil Young and especially 81-year-old Buddy Guy, Skynyrd certainly has relatively young members – at age 68, guitarist Rickey Medlocke is the oldest. Gary Rossington, guitarist and the band’s only remaining co-founder, is 66. Johnny Van Zant, the younger brother of co-founder and initial lead vocalist, the late Ronnie Van Zant, is 58. The other members are still in their 50s as well. One thing was crystal clear to me last night: Lynyrd Skynyrd sounded absolutely fantastic! And maybe that’s the whole point of the early retirement plan – go out while they’re still on top of their game.
Before Skynyrd came on and set the stage on fire, there were three guests. I didn’t catch the name of the band that opened up the long evening but certainly recognized the artists who followed: Atlanta Rhythm Section and Peter Wolf, ex-vocalist of the J. Geils Band. They compensated for my disappointment when I realized that contrary to what I had read somewhere before, Bad Company, a band I would have loved to see, wasn’t among the special guests.
Frankly, I wasn’t even aware that ALR are still performing. Two of their current members, Rodney Justo (lead vocals) and Dean Daughtry (keyboards), have been around since the band’s formation in 1971, though in Justo’s case, it looks like were some breaks along the way. The remaining current line-up includes Steve Stone (guitar, harmonica, backing vocals), Justin Senker (bass), David Anderson (guitar, backing vocals) and Rodger Stephan (drums, backing vocals).
Except for Spooky and So Into You, I’m not well familiar with ALR’s songs but can confirm that in addition to these tunes, their set included Champagne Jam and Imaginary Lover, among others. Here’s a clip I took of my favorite ALR tune So Into You, a song I liked for its smoothness from the moment I heard it for the first time on the radio in Germany in the late 70s.
Next up was Peter Wolf. I was pretty pumped when I found out he was among the special guests last night. I’ve really come to like the J. Geils Band and ended up seeing them a few years ago. These guys truly were the ultimate party band. Wolf pretty much brought out that same swagger last night. He still has his distinct voice, charismatic stage presence and the occasional machine gun-like fast talking!
The set included a mix of J. Geils Band tunes, such as Homework, Give It To Me, Must Of Got Lost and Love Stinks, and songs from Wolf’s solo career like Wastin’ Time and Piece Of Mind. The Midnight Travelers, which include Duke Levine (guitar), Kevin Barry (guitar), Marty Ballou (bass), Tom Arey (drums) and Tom West (keyboards), proved to be a top-notch backing band. Here’s my clip of Homework.
After Wolf and The Midnight Travelers had fired up the crowd with an energetic performance, it was time for the big enchilada. From the opening bars of Working For MCA till the last note of the epic Free Bird, Skynyrd made it clear they meant business and didn’t want to say farewell quietly. In addition to these tunes, their set included many other gems like What’s Your Name, That Smell, Saturday Night Special, Tuesday’s Gone, Simple Man, Call Me The Breeze and, of course, Sweet Home Alabama.
Below is my clip of What’s Your Name, one of my favorite Skynyrd tunes. Co-written by Rossington and Ronnie Van Zant, it appeared on their fifth studio album Street Survivors in October 1977 – released only three days prior to the devastating plane crash that killed Ronnie, Steve Gains (guitarist) and Steve’s sister Cassie Gains (backing vocalist), along with the pilot, co-pilot and the band’s assistant road manager. Incredibly, Rossington not only survived the crash, but eventually made a fully recovery despite breaking both arms, legs, wrists, ankles and his pelvis.
Another highlight of Skynyrd’s set to me was That Smell, also from the Street Survivors album, which was co-written by guitarist and founding member Allen Collins and Ronnie Van Zant. In particular, I dug the harmonizing guitar parts. Since my cell phone battery was starting to run low on juice, I didn’t capture the performance, so needed to rely on other footage I found on YouTube. Here’s a clip from a gig in Tampa last month. Obviously, it was taken from a location way closer to the stage where I was last night, and frankly it is much better than anything I could have recorded!
Another song I’d like to highlight is Call Me The Breeze. I’ve always liked that J.J. Cale tune and Skynyrd’s take of it. As they were playing it last night, they turned it into an homage to the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and many other music legends, displaying images of them on the main monitor behind the stage – I thought this was kind of cool. Apparently, Skynyrd didn’t do that during their concert back in March in Atlanta, where the following clip was recorded. But it’s great quality concert footage.
In light of my cell phone battery situation, it came down to a choice between capturing Sweet Home Alabama or the encore Free Bird. Given the extended length of the latter, I went for Alabama, which is also my favorite of the two. The opener to Skynyrd’s sophomore record Second Helping, released in April 1974, was co-written by Rossington, Van Zant and then-bassist Ed King. To me it hasn’t lost any of its appeal to this day!
Of course, making the above choice doesn’t mean skipping Free Bird in this post, especially when there are great other clips on YouTube. The song, which was included on Skynyrd’s debut album Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd from August 1973, turned into an emotional commemoration of Ronnie Van Zant. Here’s a beautiful clip from the above Tampa show.
In addition to Van Zant, Medlocke and Rossington, Skynyrd’s current line-up features Michael Cartellone (drums), Mark Matejka (guitar), Peter Keys (keyboards) and Keith Christopher (bass). The touring band is complemented by backing vocalists Dale Krantz-Rossington (Gary’s wife) and Carol Chase. Skynyrd’s upcoming dates include Jones Beach Theatre, Wantagh, N.Y. tonight; Coastal Credit Union Music Park, Raleigh, N.C., June 29; and PNC Music Pavilion, Charlotte, N.C., June 30. Earlier this month, Ultimate Classic Rockreported that the band announced 21 additional dates, which extend the current tour from early September all the way to December. Let’s hope there will be additional extensions.
Sources: Wikipedia, Setlist.com, Atlanta Rhythm Section official website, Ultimate Classic Rock, YouTube