J. Geils, the Prototypical All-Around Guitarist: An Appreciation
"I've never considered myself just a blues player or just a rock player or anything like that. I just go with whatever it feels right to play at the time."
Peter Wolf might have gotten the (deserved) spotlight in the J. Geils Band. But anyone who paid attention knew that John Warren "J." Geils Jr. himself was the Boston group's secret weapon.
Geils -- who was found dead on Tuesday (April 11) in his home in Groton, Massachusetts, at the age of 71 -- was a prototypical all-around guitarist, with a facile touch that made him tight as a sealed envelope playing rhythm and electrifying as a soloist. The Geils Band's broad stylistic reach reflected the Geils man's own diverse tastes during his tenure with the group through 2011. He was as comfortable, and adept, at playing the gritty rhythm & blues of "Pack Fair and Square" and "Homework" as he was the crunchy rock of "Detroit Breakdown," "Love Stinks" and "Just Can't Wait" -- with side trips into reggae, jazz, straight blues and more.
"Duke Ellington said there's only two kinds of music -- good and bad -- and I always adhered to that," Geils told Billboard during the mid-'90s, when he launched the band Bluestime with Geils harmonica player "Magic" Dick Salwitz. "I've never considered myself just a blues player or just a rock player or anything like that. I just go with whatever it feels right to play at the time."
Ellington was, in fact, one of Geils' earliest musical touchstones. Born in New York City and raised in Far Hills, New Jersey, Geils was schooled on his father's jazz albums, listening to Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman records at home and checking out Louis Armstrong in concert as a youth. He learned trumpet -- which he played in the Northeastern University marching band -- and drums first, then gravitated to guitar after hearing Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and other blues pioneers on the radio.
"That music felt very real to me -- very raw, very much from the gut," Geils said. "It really became the foundation for everything that came later."
Geils also became a fan of the Boston folk scene and met the other members of the J. Geils Blues Band after he transferred from Northeastern to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute to study mechanical engineering. "The reason the band got named the J. Geils Band is J. was working with a manager who wouldn't let me or anyone else work with J. unless we kept it under that name," Wolf recalled during 2012, after Geils and the band became embroiled in a bitter legal dispute over the name.
Wolf added: "By the time we got to the Fillmore by Bill Graham, he hadn't seen us. We did the show, and after the fifth encore Bill came into the dressing room, wrapped his arms around me and said, 'J. you were fantastic.' I said, 'Bill, it's a pleasure to meet you, but I'm not J.' 'You're not?' It became a ritual; Bill and I would go out and have lunch or dinner, and after the second glass of wine he'd go on this thing: 'You've got to change the name of the band. It's so confusing.' But it stuck, just like Booker T. & the MG's."
The name was not an issue -- and, if anything, was an intriguing curio not unlike Jethro Tull or Uriah Heep -- during the Geils Band's initial run to 1985 and again when the band reunited in 1999. But group manager John Baruck said in 2012 that "it was always a struggle to get J. into the fold" for the group's reunion concerts and tours. His ouster from the band started in November 2011, when Geils informed the others that he had filed for a trademark on the group name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2008 and received it the following year. The group filed a challenge to Geils' trademark claim, citing a 1982 agreement limiting the guitarist's use of the band name or even his abbreviated J. Geils stage name outside of the group. Geils and Francesca Records, the label he co-owned, responded with the suit in U.S. District Court alleging "trademark infringement and deceptive business practices" if the other band members continued to use the J. Geils Band name.
The J. Geils Band, sans Geils and with Duke Levine and Kevin Barry on guitar, continued touring despite the legalities. No details on a settlement have ever been revealed.
Outside the Geils Band, the guitarist produced an album for Geils bassist Danny Klein before forming Bluestime. He was also part of the New Guitar Summit with Duke Robillard and Gerry Beaudoin and produced an album for blues rockers the Installers, Nail It!, in 2004 and occasionally joined the band onstage. During the '00s, he returned to jazz for a pair of solo albums as well as teaming with Beaudoin again for the Kings of Strings.
Geils also enjoyed a lifelong passion for restoring and driving sports cars as well as racing, and he started the KTR European Motorsports shop, eventually selling it in 1996.
Geils has been scarce in recent years, but he never envisioned an end to his music career. "Y'know, the music I play -- blues, jazz -- is timeless," he said. "It's not trendy. It's not always in fashion, but it's never out of fashion either, I don't think. It holds up."