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J. Geils' Band of Angels

April 13, 2017

       The cause of John Warren Geils Jr.’s April 11 death was not listed as a broken heart.

       The deceased, of course, was the J. Geils whose band had a string of hits in the late 1970s and early ’80s. And which, although nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was not among those inducted only four days before its leader’s death, at the age of 71.

       I’ve given my humble opinion of the RRHF and its selection process in this space before, and won’t weigh in much on whether or not the J. Geils Band was deserving of the recognition or not. But there are certainly performers in the Hall who were, for me, anyway, less entertaining. 

       Whatever his band’s merits, Geils’ personal story is interesting. Although the JGB is considered a Boston group — that’s where it got its start, after all — its founder grew up in the New York City area, where his father was an engineer.

       Geils Sr. was also a jazz enthusiast, and his son’s early musical influences were Dad’s albums by the Big Band jazz greats like Basie, Ellington and Goodman. Jr. learned to play jazz on the trumpet and drums, but was turned onto the blues when he heard Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters on the radio.

       After moving to Massachusetts to attend Northeastern University, where he played in the marching band and got into folk music, Geils Jr. ended up studying engineering at Worcester Polytechnic. That’s where he was when he formed the J. Geils Blues Band, in 1970, with mostly the same lineup that would produce the successes of a decade or so later.

       The group quickly dropped “Blues” from its name, and released its first album in November 1970. That self-titled LP barely cracked the Top 200, but the next one was a No. 64, and the band had a 10-year run of Top 50 (or 51) albums after that.

       That run started with “Bloodshot,” a No. 10 that featured “(Ain’t Nothin’ but a) House Party” and “Give It to Me.” It included “Love Stinks,” with the anthem-to-dysfunctional-relationships title tune, got to No. 18.

       That title tune was a No. 38 single, one of a handful of Top 40s the band had during the ’70s. Their highest-charting single during that period, though, was 1974’s “Must Have Got Lost,” a No. 12.

       That changed in 1981, when “Centerfold” went ballistic. That catchy lament to innocence lost to soft-core porn spent a month at No. 1, and the band followed that with a No. 4, “Freeze-Frame.”

       But JGB never repeated that level of success, and Peter Wolf — whose blues-raspy voice was part of the band’s signature sound — left two years later. The cause of the divorce was the band’s musical direction, which after his departure was mostly downhill.

       JGB broke up in 1985, and it’s hard to believe it’s been defunct — other than a handful of short-term reunions — for 32 years. Geils produced albums for a couple other groups, and also formed a band named Bluestime with another JGB alumni, Richard “Magic Dick” Salwitz, but also started a company that restored sports cars.

       Getting back to the Rock Hall of Fame thing, JGB wasn’t as successful commercially as many acts that have been voted in. In terms of artistic impact, it’s hard to say what the band did that the changed face of The Music.

       Maybe the use of harmonica — “Magic Dick on his lickin’ stick,” as Wolf exclaimed — in blues-influenced rock/pop? Paul Butterfield had already covered a lot of that ground.

       But if fun counts for anything, JGB should get another crack at induction. You can’t hear the opening bars of “Give It to me” without wanting to get up and shake it, “Love Stinks” is hilarious and “Centerfold” — though a bit over-exposed — infectiously hits the mark lyrically.

       Likewise, the band’s founder’s passing wasn’t quite as impactful as some of the losses The Music has suffered in the last few years. But J. Geils boogied pretty well for a guy who could have been an enginerd; may he Rest in Peace.

       I don’t have any JGB albums — just one song, “Freeze-Frame,” downloaded for my sister-in-law’s Class of ’85 reunion years ago. On reflection, may need to correct that deficiency, though.

 

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