The first time I heard the J. Geils Band was during those early ‘70s late night performance programs on TV – “Midnight Special,” “In Concert” and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” to be exact. While it wasn’t the first champion roadhouse rock band to roll across the screen, it was one of the first – for me, at least – to have so many components of rock ‘n’ roll, in its most live and celebratory form, make sense when slammed together.
There was the outrageous frontman in Peter Wolf (a hotwired Boston hybrid of Mick Jagger and James Brown), a band with a tireless rhythm section bolstered by two monster soloists and a musical palette that took blues, R&B and juke joint influences from decades past and fashioned them into a roaring sound of its own. The results countered music cooked up by all the faux boogie-men of the era with a sense of combustible soul that quickly ignited in a performance setting.
Geils, who died yesterday at the age of 71, wasn’t even the focal point of the band that bore his name. That was undeniably Wolf. Geils wasn’t a showoff as a guitarist, either. As a rhythm player, he propelled a roots-savvy sound and the undeniable party atmosphere it triggered. As a soloist, he was always commanding in his playing. On several seminal ‘70s albums, especially 1973’s “Bloodshot” and “Ladies Invited” and 1974’s “Nightmares… and Other Tales from the Vinyl Jungle,” his playing was often the second half of a one-two punch initiated by the band’s other principal instrumentalist, harmonica ace Magic Dick. The last songs on each of those albums, “Give It To Me” (a 1973 hit built around an unlikely reggae groove), “Chimes” (a blast of funereal cool) and “Gettin’ Out” (one of the meanest sounding and most overlooked tunes the J. Geils Band ever cut), respectively, were diverse examples of how resourceful the group was. In short, the Geils crew could do battle with the most outrageous rockers of the era, but it also boasted the charisma, depth and drive to be something far greater.
Of course, stardom took hold of the band during the early ‘80s with the albums “Love Stinks” and “Freeze Frame.” Fun as both were, neither possessed the roots abandon of records Geils and company cut a decade earlier. Curiously, the next most appealing era of the guitarist’s career came in the ‘90s when he and Magic Dick toured in a jazz, blues and swing unit called Bluestime that purposely downplayed his rock roots but not the roots itself.
“We had a lot of fun and a fair amount of success in the old days, but I had gotten a little tired of it,” Geils told me in an interview prior to a Bluestime show at the Kentucky Horse Park in 1995. “I just want to make it clear that we’re not some rockers trying to capitalize on the blues boom. Any serious jazz or blues guy will tell you the same thing, that music like this is a lifelong journey. The more you learn, the more you learn how much you don’t know yet.”