Not that long ago the rock world lost a great, a guy whose name everyone knows, but I’m not sure whether everyone knows he was that name. Huh? John Warren Geils Jr., better known professionally as J. Geils, was, of course, the namesake for the long-time blues/rock powerhouse, the J. Geils Band, the group he formed and founded in Boston, prior to the release of their first album in 1970. But I’d venture to say that Geils was at best only the 3rd most recognizable member of the band.
There was Magic Dick (yes, that’s really how he was known, but his real name is Richard Salwitz), whose towering black afro and register-piercing harmonica were a fixture of the band’s look and sound. And then you had vocalist and frontman Peter Wolf, the hyperactive, charismatic, fast-talking quipster, ostensibly, and I would suppose to most, logically the band’s clear leader (Wolf’s life was colorful and notorious on multiple levels: among other things, he roomed with neo-noir film director David Lynch while a young art student, and he was the Clyde to Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie, married to the famed actress during much of the band’s prime).¹ By comparison, J. Geils, the man, was far less noticeable in J. Geils, the band. He was merely the guitarist, and not one I’d consider to be of the flashy variety.² Still, while his demeanor and playing style seemingly neither sought nor gained the limelight, it undoubtedly formed the backbone of the band’s long-term success and distinctive, hybrid style of performance and production. The J. Geils Band put out 11 albums between 1970 and 1985, when they eventually broke up. They were, at heart, a hugely popular rock band with countless radio-staple hit songs as well as a deep catalogue, though with influences ranging from soul music, R&B, and the blues, their musical niche proved, at times, difficult to categorize. According to some critics, their recognition was allegedly limited by being “too black for the white kids, and too white for the black kids.” This, perhaps, is borne out in the fact that the J. Geils Band have been 5-time nominees for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, starting in 2005 and including this past year, but still are not yet selected (all the while, a long list of dubious to laughable entrants get annually inducted – but I guess we’ll leave that aside). Maybe some year they’ll be a sentimental choice, with consideration of Geils’ untimely death at only age 71 from what were determined to be natural causes. I hope so; they do so deserve it. But I also hope that if that does turn out to be the case, people realize that the band who’d be accepting the honor will be without the man in whose honor it is named.
¹as an aside, another musical and Beantown-area Peter Wolfe (this one with a trailing ‘e’) is my step-nephew, recently profiled in the Boston Globe for his habit of playing electric guitar while walking his 20-minute morning commute to work. So there’s that.
²interestingly, Geils’s musical background was not even formative on guitar; from an early age he listened to Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and primarily played jazz trumpet until shortly before establishing his band.