J. Geils, 1946-2017, Rocker with Blues and Swing Sensibilities

Apr 12, 2017

Jay Geils died on April 11 at his home in Groton, Massachusetts, at age 71, from what police determined were natural causes. The guitarist lent his name to one of the hardest-working and most popular rock bands of the 1970s and '80s, and his death is making headlines everywhere. While Geils was born in New York and raised in New Jersey, the J. Geils Band got its start in Worcester, where Geils and Magic Dick and bassist Danny Klein attended WPI and first teamed together in a campus-based jug band. Before signing with Atlantic Records in 1971, they played their earliest gigs around town as the J. Geils Blues Band at Tammany Hall, Becker Jr. College, Assumption, and Holy Cross. 

J. Geils Band

I saw them several times during my high school years in Worcester. Geils & Co. floored me as a blues band, but I turned away as they gradually turned toward bigger venues, higher ticket prices, and rock dynamics. Still, they never drifted so far from the source that they couldn't drop down a devastating blues or deep-soul cover, and I don't know of another rock'n'roll band that gave such prominence to the harmonica. Of course, they had one of the great masters of the instrument in Pittsfield native Richard Salwitz. His blues harp models included Little Walter, Big Walter, and the recently deceased James Cotton, and when it came to his famous instrumental, "Whammer Jammer," Cotton's show-stopping original, "The Creeper," was a prototype. 

In Kim Field's historical survey Harmonicas, Harps, and Heavy Breathers, Magic Dick talked about the band's origins, "I first learned about the Chicago blues sound at Worcester [Tech]. I discovered those players from records at first, but a lot of them came through the Club 47 in [Cambridge]: Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, James Cotton. The main guy that I missed and never saw directly was Little Walter [who was killed in 1968]...I met Jay Geils and Danny Klein at college. I was walking across campus one day and they were out on the quadrangle playing some acoustic blues. I'd only been playing harp about three months. I just sat down and started playing with them, and I've been playing ever since...The first [Paul] Butterfield album had come out, and that was a big influence on us. We all decided to quit school, move to Boston, and form an electric band. Peter Wolf was already in Boston...a tough kid from [The Bronx], a record collector, and a great disc jockey. [Wolf inducted the Butterfield Blues Band into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.] We loved the blues thing and we played it a lot. We were honing our teeth on Junior Wells's Hoodoo Man Blues album-- that had even more of an influence on us than Butterfield's band. I emulated everything on that record for a long time." He added that "the J. Geils Band never had the impulse to be a museum group...We learned those blues things and played them a lot live, but when it came time to get serious as a group in the studio, that material wouldn't necessarily...have been the best business move to make."

22-year-old J. Geils leads his blues band on Cambridge Common in 1968

In one significant way, however, the band carried on with an instrumental element that was truer to Chicago blues than any other idiom: the prominence of harmonica both in the ensemble and as a solo vehicle vying with organ and guitar as the band's lead instrument. Magic Dick said, "I don't know of any other band that used it the way we did. Everybody in the band were harp freaks. I always got great support, and they always knew what the backup requirements were for a great harp solo." Here's Magic Dick backstage in 1979 with his cohorts hand-clapping while he plays Sonny Boy Williamson's "Peach Tree." 

 

With Peter Wolf, who joined in 1967 after stints in Boston as a deejay at WBCN and a singer with the Hallucinations, they had one of the great frontmen of the age, a master purveyor of blue-eyed soul, a rapper before his time, a humorist of Bronx-born proportions. Wolf has pursued a solo career, and drawn high marks for his songwriting skills, since the '80s, and I see him at every opportunity, usually with Worcester native Duke Levine on guitar. (Levine has also been featured in recent years when the J. Geils Band reunites.)

(This blurry footage from a 1972 concert at Holy Cross College in Worcester was probably the last time I saw them in person, though in recent years, I've delighted in watching some of their hard-driving shows, and their uproarious appearance with talk-show legend Joe Franklin, on YouTube.) 

Geils and Magic Dick returned to a basic Chicago blues repertoire in the '90s with Bluestime, a quintet that featured Jerry Miller on lead guitar and was anchored by two mainstays of the New England blues scene, bassist Michael "Mudcat" Ward and drummer Steve Ramsay.  

Histrionics, knee drops, splits, and black leather were basic requirements of the rock trade, of course, but Geils always impressed me as a soft-spoken rhythm guitarist, and once the band started to collapse in the '80s, I wasn't surprised to see him returning to the styles that inspired him in the first place. In an interview with Tom Guerra in 2005, he named Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, and B.B. King, a triumvirate he called "the big three," as his primary influences, and recalled a night he spent with Mike Bloomfield when the Electric Flag played the Psychedelic Supermarket in Boston in 1968. "He hung out at our apartment the night before the show, and I sat in with the Flag the night of the gig. He was great. That night at our apartment, we were talking about Albert King. This was right around the time that Albert's Born Under a Bad Sign came out. Bloomfield kept saying, 'You've GOT to get this record. Let's go out, you've got to get this record right now.' I said, 'Mike, this is Boston, there are no record stores open at 12:30 in the morning.' But I got it the next day."

Giels also told Guerra, "Another big influence on me...was the Chess session guys, Matt Murphy, Luther Tucker, Louis Myers, Robert Jr. Lockwood, all the guys on the Little Walter records, because they were playing all those cool little figures behind the harmonica players and I learned all of them. That was a secondary influence only because I was working with a harmonica player, but I enjoyed that backup role."

Geils also hooked up with Duke Robillard and Gerry Beaudoin to found the swing jazz combo, New Guitar Summit. Here they are playing the jazz standard, "Broadway."

Geils made no secret of his musical affections in this 2005 interview with CNN, where he began by saying that his father took him to see Louis Armstrong when he was a ten-year-old, and that he'd loved classic jazz ever since. He also made a telling point about another of his favorites, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. He says that Wills's front line of guitar, pedal steel, and mandolin was highly appealing, but that his rhythm concept was a "little corny." At the time, Geils had just released his Stony Plain album, Jay Geils Plays Jazz, and said that while he used the Playboys front line instrumentation on a few cuts, his aim was to combine it with a "Count Basie" style rhythm.  

WGBH in Boston aired a feature on Jay several years ago in which he gave viewers a guided tour of his guitar collection and hailed a trio of giants whom he called the Big 3: Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, and B.B. King.

By the way, I always thought Jay's given name was Jerome (you know, like Bo Diddley's "Bring It to Jerome"), because that's what Peter Wolf called him, but the Times obit confirms that it was John Warren Geils, Jr. 

Here's the complete set by the J. Geils Band at Holy Cross.