I found out a few days back that John Geils Jr. had died. He was guitarist and namesake of the J.Geils Blues Band, Boston's unruly pack of mostly Jewish and all-white lovers of R&B, soul and blues.
The band dropped their first record in 1970, then began a crisscross of the U.S. and later the globe, building one of the hardest tour schedules of rock bands then or now. Then the slightly horrific '80s MTV onslaught cashed in the band's dues for big money, bigger fame and a wild change of musical direction.
Don't get me wrong, man. Sure, in those days when a song would repeat endlessly on radio and on the monolithic MTV i'd cuss, run to change stations or switch off the T.V. ... trying to juxtapose "First I Look at the Purse," "Whammer Jammer" or "Southside Shuffle" against the homogenized "Centerfold," "Love Stinks," and oh so many more.
But I understood that this band who shucked, jived, played every sweaty room that'd have them deserved to make that big payback that James Brown defines on so many levels.
I learned a long time back too that you're not handcuffed to a favorite group, singer or star as they define and redefine what music they make. Sometimes with bands I feel particularly loyal to, I buy their newest records out of respect—or a weakness for a nostalgia their sound brings me. Late at night I'll put that new record on and am disappointed in the majority of the songwriting, the interpretations I hear. But only a few people come to mind who constantly make music that still feeds the soul, and man everyone gets lost now and then, sells out, makes that live record that was tired the very night it was recorded.
Do you recall the first time you tagged along with an older sister to her friend's house and asked if you could look at the record collection, on you knees, thrumming through each disc? I remember the yellow cover with playing cards in the title, the J. Geils Band Fullhouse, recorded live in their second home Detroit rock city.
I remember my detached opinion of the first few songs; after all, this group was pointing back to a time I wasn't part of. Their first three albums were heavy on covers, say The Valentinos' "Lookin' for a Love" from 1962 featuring Bobby Womack, who'd record it again in a 1974 solo release. "Homework" by Otis Rush or Motown's "First I Look at the Purse" penned by Smokey Robinson.
Lead singer Peter Wolf (who was so rock star he married Faye Dunaway), flamboyant with near-evangelical speed rants, rapping long before it was the code of the ghetto. Magic Dick on harp donning a huge red afro, looking like a hip Bernie, from Room 222. And J. Geils, peeling paint from his electric guitar.
Back on my knees, I pulled out the band's Bloodshot album, with It's black-trimmed cover and ruby-red band pic. I slid the red-vinyl disc out and put the needle down on "Give it to Me," the single. A ska-like tempo with piano and harp trading time between the snare/hi-hat, which builds and builds until the chorus ("Why keep me cold, when it's so warm inside"), which kicks into a heavy organ solo. It comes up for air as Geils takes a funk riff straight off the J.B.'s; all chucku, chuckuas, the time changes with whistles and percussion as Magic Dick and Geils trade solos and the band slams this chartbuster home.
I salute John Geils, a black music fanatic who took fans—at least those listening close—back to doo-wop, dirty blues and soul through rock 'n' roll, and did it the hard way.