The Late J. Geils Was Once A Giant

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It’s possible that the only thing more absurd than the wave of ’60s British blues bands is how five Jewish kids from the Boston suburbs created the early ’70s’ most perfect blues and R&B album.  J. Geils was the only gentile in his eponymous band, and he was from New Jersey.  But together with Peter Wolf, Magic Dick, Seth Justman, Stephen Jo Bladd, and Danny Klein, the blues guitarist who died Tuesday created, on the band’s self-titled first album, one of rock’n’roll music’s greatest records.

Yeah, we know, they made hits in the ’80s.  But by that time we’d stopped listening.  And while the follow-up album The Morning After, as well as 1973’s Bloodshot (the first red vinyl album we remember), were both pretty good, it was the band’s debut that secured The J. Geils Band’s permanent place on our hard drive.

The J. Geils Band had three soloists and a great singer.  Magic Dick usually went first, invoking Little Walter on blues harp.  Seth Justman’s keyboard work was stellar.  But it was J. Geils who played those stinging leads, as angry a lead guitarist as ever there was, a near perfect student of Hubert Sumlin, Robert “Junior” Lockwood, and Luther Tucker.  And like the soloists in the band, Geils was willing to drop down into the rhythm section when Peter Wolf was singing, or when the others were holding the spotlight.

In their own way, the early J. Geils Band were like one of Miles Davis’ combos, with different focal points but no question who musically was the leader.  Peter Wolf got all the attention, but it was J. Geils who ran the band.  No band has ever killed a John Lee Hooker song like they did on “Serve You Right To Suffer,” and the indelible groove on our brain came from Geils’ guitar.

We loved this band, and especially that first album.  Our fond memory isn’t only because of the way, when we were 16-years old and ran into Peter Wolf on the streets of Cambridge, he took time from picking up his dry cleaning — all black shirts — to talk to us at length.  Our fond memory is because of the way a bunch of Massachusetts misfits synthesized the best Chicago blues and Motown into a tight machine that live played like it was nothin’ but a house party; they never just noodled over a 12-bar span.  Never so important, perhaps, they were as tight, and as loose, as the Rolling Stones of that era.  Which is one helluva of a compliment.

We lost interest in the band when they seemed to repeat themselves in the ’70s, and by the time they’d gone New Wave and had hits, we were long gone.  But the news this week that J. Geils had died alone was sad, as we remembered one of the great guitarists of the age, now obscure, but once a giant.

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