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The J. Geils Band

Skippered by New York City-born (New Jersey-raised) guitarist John Geils Jr., The J. GEILS BAND shared their love of R&B, rock’n’roll, soul and doo wop, giving a new-found credence and commerciality to pieces from the past, while shooting from the hip, their own blend of bar-room blues and good-time gusto. As the 70s turned a corner into a new wave-fixated 80s, so too did the JGB, and with that the stalwart group could expand their once-limited horizons to come up with a chart-topping, MTV-sponsored signature song, `Centerfold’, an albatross around their necks to which they could never expect to emulate.
Formed in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1967 their namesake abandoned the rather bubblegum-orientated Snoopy & The Sopwith Camels, for the more opportune and poignant J. Geils Blues Band. A guitarist and vocalist up to this point, John, plus bassist Danny Klein and harmonica player Magic Dick (born Richard Salwitz) amplified their sound and their line-up to include drummer Stephen Jo Bladd, former motor-mouth disc jockey-turned-singer Peter Wolf (aka Bronx-born Peter Blankfield) and last, but not least, keyboardist/co-songwriter Seth Justman; both Bladd and Wolf had cut their teeth in RnR revivalists The Hallucinations.
In 1970, after ill-advisedly turning down a Woodstock Festival appearance the year prior, the hard-grafting touring combo convinced the mighty Atlantic Records to give them a shot at the big time. By the end of the year, THE J. GEILS BAND {*7} set served notice that the sextet were more than just a raucous retro-rock bar band. Well received by most critics, the eponymous debut sold only moderately. Complementing their own Justman-Wolf pieces `Wait’ and `On Borrowed Time’ (or even Geils & Wolf’s `Hard Drivin’ Man’), nearly half were down to some rip-roaring renditions of the blues (and some R&B); namely JOHN LEE HOOKER’s `Serves You Right To Suffer’, OTIS RUSH’s `Homework’, ALBERT COLLINS’ `Sno-Cone’, BIG WALTER PRICE’s `Pack Fair And Square’ and Motown nugget, `First I Look At The Purse’; the mystery to who was behind the Juke Joint Jimmy credit (on `Cruisin’ For A Love’ and subsequent set contributions) was simply down to group-penned songs.
Fast-forward a year, the JGB had their first of numerous hits when a high-energy re-vamp of `Looking For A Love’ (made famous by The VALENTINOS) breeched the Top 40. Spawned from their rollicking (ROLLING STONES-esque) sophomore set, THE MORNING AFTER (1971) {*7} continued their formula of combining covers (also including `So Sharp’ and DON COVAY’s `The Usual Place’) with their own brand of jumped-up, no frills R&B a la `I Don’t Need You No More’ and `Whammer Jammer’.
However, it was in concert that The J. GEILS BAND made their name; Wolf’s “jive” patter and boorish charisma providing an onstage visual focus for their rolling grooves of 1972’s “LIVE” FULL HOUSE {*8} – captured at the Cinderella Ballroom, Detroit. Fast and furious and bringing back blues fans in their droves, guitarist Geils, red-hot mouth-harp exponent Magic Dick and formidable keys man Justman, were almost – but not quite – overshadowed by the bearded and magnetic Wolf man; check out their 9-minute `Serves You Right…’.
Bolstered by an edited Top 30 `Give It To Me’ (a part cod-reggae/part funky jam work-out), BLOODSHOT (1973) {*7} placed the JGB as a Top 10 act. Nothing diverse or different elsewhere in their back-to-basics boppin’ blues, with the exception of 50s-styled ditty `Make Up Your Mind’, one could almost imagine the lip-smacking JAGGER on `Back To Get Ya’, `Don’t Try To Hide It’, `Southside Shuffle’ and others, while covers of R&B/soul stirrers `(Ain’t Nothin’ But A) House Party’ and `Hold Your Loving’ rivalled anything that rock’n’roll gate-crashers SHA NA NA could muster.
Without the necessary impetus of a hit (`Did You No Wrong’ flopped), the wholly Justman-Wolf-penned LADIES INVITED (1973) {*6} could not sustain the levels of its predecessor, and therefore just missed out on a Top 50 place. Encompassing their usual AOR traits, while adding a touch of country-rock swagger by way of `My Baby Don’t Love Me’, or blue-eyed soul with `Lay Down Your Good Thing’, the GEILS factor would have to wait it out until the dust settled.
Having just wed actress Faye Dunaway on August 1, 1974 (though they were to divorce five years later), Wolf was in fine fettle on the cock-sure NIGHTMARES …AND OTHER TALES FROM THE VINYL JUNGLE {*7}. Tracking big hitter `Must Of Got Lost’ into the business end of the charts, the Bill Szymczyk-produced LP proved the Geils gang would not be shaken by a few doubters of fickle fans. A nod to their second home, `Detroit Breakdown’ was one of the other successes on the set, while the lengthy `Stoop Down #39’ (stylised on The JAMES GANG motif) and a cover of ANDRE WILLIAMS’ `Funky Judge’, were irrepressible pieces of R&B.
A missing ingredient to the band’s soul-searching brand of blues was their high-end assortment of covers and originals, but this was reinstated on 1975’s HOTLINE {*6}. Whilst their own `Mean Love’ was the pick of Justman & Wolf’s five contributions, there was no less than four blazing outsider tracks on the Top 40 record; from HARVEY SCALES & THE SEVEN SOUNDS’ `Love-It is’ and CURTIS MAYFIELD’s `Believe In Me’, to the bluesier JOHN BRIM’s `Be Careful (What You Do)’ and EDDIE “GUITAR” BURNS’ `Orange Driver’.
One of the many poignant concert double-discs to surface in the early months of ‘76 (PETER FRAMPTON and BOB SEGER had integrated through this medium), LIVE – BLOW YOUR FACE OUT {*7} was an irresistible choice at what had become part and parcel of the group’s make-up. Divided into recordings cut over two nights the previous November (15th and 19th respectively): one was on home-soil Boston Garden, the other in their adopted Detroit haunt at the Cobo Hall. Exclusive to the first of these discs was a resounding reading of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s `Where Did Our Love Go’ (a minor hit), while among slightly extended JGB greats on both discs, was a cool cover of EDDIE FLOYD’s `Raise Your Hand’.
Roping in a plethora of session players to augment the sextet (the only possible reason to call themselves GEILS), the genre-busting and near-schizoid MONKEY ISLAND (1977) {*6} was, on reflection, a bad decision in so many ways. Biting their ankles was the nascent new wave scene, where Darwin’s theory of evolution would cull many of the dated dinosaurs that were still rocking the Earth – Magic Dick could not waive his er… wand to avoid the inevitable. That said, the GEILS gang were incorporating everything from AM pop to FM-friendly soft-rock, and under this awning (despite good-time pop covers of The Mighty Marvelows’ `I Do’ and Louis Armstrong’s `I’m Not Rough’), the presence of the swaggering `Surrender’ and the sentimental `I’m Falling’, was enough to keep the other “Wolfs” from the proverbial back door.
While not jumping ship to hop on the new wave gravy train just yet, long-time similarities to the ‘Stones and relative newcomers to the scene, GRAHAM PARKER & THE RUMOUR, was probably what E.M.I. International Records saw in The J. GEILS BAND. Buoyed by the Top 40 pop directive the group had taken on `One Last Kiss’ (and modest hit `Take It Back’), the Joe Wissert-produced SANCTUARY (1978) {*6} clawed back sales from a widescreen spectrum of followers willing to accept the harder-edged feisty side to their rock-pop agenda a la the title track, `Wild Man’ and `Jus’ Can’t Stop Me’.
With co-scribe Seth Justman burning the midnight oil to take on production duties, The J. GEILS BAND switched the allegiances (although not all of them) to the new wave beat on the platinum-selling LOVE STINKS (1980) {*6}. Also hitting pay-dirt with the synth-addled `Come Back’ and the infectious title track (and who could forget Peter’s ZAPPA-esque `No Anchovies, Please’ rap), there was only one cover in sight: The STRANGELOVES’ `Night Time’.
Happy now to hone their new-found songwriting skills on the pop-rock market, their approach paid off in spades by late 1981, when the JGB enjoyed a massive transatlantic hit with Seth’s anthemic earworm, `Centerfold’. The accompanying synth-enhanced album, FREEZE-FRAME {*7}, also topped the American charts (UK #12), becoming their biggest-selling set of their entire career. On a course that The BOOMTOWN RATS might’ve bitten one’s hands off to feed from, the jaunty Top 5 title track, plus `Rage In The Cage’ (very “Mary Of The 4th Form”), `Flamethrower’ and the doo wop `Angel In Blue’ (a third Top 40 entry), were far from The J. GEILS BAND of old; “My blood runs cold… My memory has just been sold”:
but surely not in the name of rock’n’roll, or a “Centerfold” – time would indeed tell.
In order to let fans test out some of their most recent works, SHOWTIME! (1982) {*6} – their live-in-concert document from Detroit – cashed-in on their new-found fame, whilst bringing back to life, `I Do’ and a former B-side in FATS DOMINO’s `Land Of A Thousand Dances’ (both modest hits).
However, all was not well within the ranks; Seth and Peter not seeing eye to eye in the turn of events that had witnessed the group switch up a commercial gear. PETER WOLF, unhappy with his lesser share of the songwriting chores, subsequently departed in 1983 for a relatively fruitful solo career that saw initial Top 20 success with `Lights Out’ (the single and album). Meanwhile, assuming his position as lead man, Justman stepped up to the plate for, what turned out to be, The J. GEILS BAND’s swansong set, YOU’RE GETTIN’ EVEN WHILE I’M GETTIN’ ODD (1984) {*3}. Unconvincing to everyone except their most loyal brigade, this and their accompanying single, `Concealed Weapons’, only just managed to squeeze into the Top 100.
When the main title theme from the `Fright Night’ movie registered only a flicker of chart light in ’85, it was indeed time to hang up their instruments stage left. MAGIC DICK & JAY GEILS (i.e. Richard and John) later resurfaced for albums `Bluestime’ (1993) and `Little Car Blues’ (1996), and it would take some reconciliation and the 60th birthday of Klein, in 2005, before the sextet would perform together again. Since then, several reunions have taken place, one in particular in 2012, without Geils, who promptly instigated a lawsuit against “conspirators” Salwitz, Justman, Wolf and Klein. There was sad news delivered on April 11, 2017, when J. Geils was found dead at his home in Groton, Massachusetts; police had been conducting a mandatory well-being check.
© MC Strong 1994-2000/GRD // rev-up MCS Jan2016-Apr2017

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