What I’ve Been Listening To: The J. Geils Band/The J. Geils Band

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.

J. Geils Band 1970
The J. Geils Band (promotional photo from 1970)

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.

Sources: Wikipedia, Apple Music, YouTube

In Memoriam of J. Geils

Earlier this week, blues and jazz guitarist J. Geils, who led what Rolling Stone called “the world’s greatest party band,” passed away at age 71.

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 EllingtonBenny 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.

J Geils Band Live Full House

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.

J Geils and Peter Wolf

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