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Peter Wolf: From J. Geils Band To 'Midnight Souvenirs'

As a radio DJ in Boston, Peter Wolf was known as "The Wolfa Goofa." As a solo artist, he expanded the name, calling himself "Woofa Goofa Mama Toofa." (Getty Images Entertainment)

Peter Wolf was the lead singer of the R&B-influenced J. Geils Band, and he's released seven solo albums, but his musical career started in elementary school, when he played the triangle in his school's band.

It was expected that Wolf would take up an instrument. His grandmother had performed in Yiddish theater, his father toured the vaudeville circuit and worked at the Tanglewood Music Festival, and his sister danced weekly on Alan Freed's show.

Wolf says his eclectic musical influences came from his family, and from sitting in their crowded Bronx apartment together, listening to the radio.

"Radio provided me with a great outlet, and I would learn so much about music through radio," he tells Fresh Air host Terry Gross. "But on a certain day — on Thursdays and Fridays, in the Bronx — you could get [a signal] from WWVA, from Wheeling, W.Va., and there was a certain coffee-drinking DJ named Lee Moore. And he would play this bluegrass and these guys called The Stanley Brothers, and they would sing songs, and it was through that that got me into country music."

Shortly thereafter, Wolf started attending the High School of Music and Art in Harlem. The high school, on 135th Street, was blocks away from the Apollo Theater, and Wolf made it a priority to visit the theater on a weekly basis. From the Apollo, he says, he learned how to be a performer.

"During that time, I saw all the great artists," he says. "I saw Ray Charles. I saw James Brown. I saw Jackie Wilson. And the list went on, but the showman and the pageantry ... was like in a church, they were performing for their congregation ... The dancing and the interaction and the communicating with the audience was the art that I learned there at the Apollo Theater. It was very important. You didn't just come out and do a song. You came out, and it was your job to get the audience riled up and not unlike someone in church, where by the end, the audience was up on their feet, the performer just gave it its all and it was always 110 percent."

Immersed In Music

After hitchhiking across the country, Wolf settled in Cambridge, Mass., in an apartment near a jazz venue called Club 47. Because the dressing room at the club was so small, Wolf would invite the performers — Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Bill Monroe — to change in his apartment.

"And so every day, they would come and use my apartment as a hang-in, and then James Cotton would come and cook up all sorts of chicken, and it became a clubhouse. And Muddy would tell Howlin' Wolf, 'Hey, this young guy has an apartment,' so he'd come by. ... And they would just all hang," Wolf says. "Fortunately, I had a tape recorder, and I'd tape-record a lot of the stories they were telling. But it was a way for them to relax — because, really, other than going to Europe, playing the college circuit was really new to them. Because the chitlin circuit that they were on was sort of dying out, and this was a whole new adventure for these great musicians."

A Career Of His Own

Peter Wolf's band, The Hallucinations, began performing with Waters when he'd come to Boston. In 1967, several of the group members left and Wolf started looking for new bandmates. He went to a coffee house, where he met a guitar player named J. Geils. Along with Richard Salwitz (a.k.a. Magic Dick), Stephen Jo Bladd and Danny Klein, they decided to form a band.

"We never expect the Geils band would even get out of Boston," Wolf says. "That's why it was called the J. Geils band. I met J. ... and he had a manager who didn't quite like me and thought I was going to steal Jay away or something, so he said, 'If you want to play with J., you can play with J., but it has to be under the name J. Geils.' And so I said, 'I don't care. We just want to play music.' "

A year and a half later, the J. Geils Band had built up enough of a following in New England to open for Black Sabbath when the group played at the Fillmore East.

"People were just sort of screaming out [for Black Sabbath] and [the promoter], who'd never seen us before, got out to the audience and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I invited this band to play, I've never seen them before, I think some of you are being really rude, people who don't want to see this band — I'll allow you to take your ticket stubs and leave — but I would like to see this band, and I appreciate if you give me and other people who want to give this band the opportunity."

From 1967 to 1983, the J. Geils Band recorded several hits, including "First I Look at the Purse," "Love Stinks" and the 1981 single "Centerfold," which stayed on top of the Billboard charts for six weeks.

Two years later, Wolf left J. Geils and decided to pursue a solo career. His seven albums have included Sleepless — named one of the 500 greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone — and Long Line, co-produced with Bob Dylan band member Stu Kimball. His latest album, Midnight Souvenirs, is heavily influenced by the country music Wolf used to listen to on the radio as a kid.

"There's something so classic and so simple that it reminds me of the songs of that great honky-tonk era," Wolf says of "It's Too Late" — the track he sings with country-music legend Merle Haggard. "There was a certain sadness about it. And there was a Lefty Frizzell quality. And Merle Haggard embodies much of Lefty's work in certain ways, and so Merle seemed to be a natural person to ask if he would choose to participate."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back from vacation. Thanks to Dave Davies for hosting while I was gone.

My guest today is Peter Wolf, who has just released his seventh solo album. From the late '60s to 1983, Wolf was the front man of the J. Geils Band, and his electrifying performances led many people to assume he was J. Geils. The band had the hits "Centerfold," "Freeze Frame" and "Love Stinks."

Before he was in a hit band, Peter Wolf was one of the first DJs on WBCN radio in Boston when it started its progressive rock format. He hosted a show called "The All-Night House Party." When he was in his teens, he got to meet and befriend some of the blues musicians who were his heroes, like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.

Wolf's new album, "Midnight Souvenirs," reflects his love of country music. Let's hear a track on which Wolf sings a duet with Merle Haggard.

(Soundbite of song, "Too Late for Me")

Mr. PETER WOLF (Musician): (Singing) The lovers two by two along the avenue are such a beautiful sight to see. But as they pass me by, it makes me want to cry 'cause I know it's too late for me.

Mr. MERLE HAGGARD (Musician): It seems so long ago when someone loved me so, and we were both, both so young and so free. I thought I still could see how good life used to be, and I know that it's too late for me. The days go by. The days go by...

GROSS: Peter Wolf, welcome to FRESH AIR. Bravo, that is a great song and a great track and a brilliant idea to get Merle Haggard to sing with you. Did you write this song knowing that you'd be doing it as a duet with Merle Haggard?

Mr. WOLF: No, I wrote this song with a gentleman whose name is Will Jennings. And Will is a very special friend of mine, and he's quite an accomplished songwriter. And Will and I sat down, and this song came out. We were both in that sort of time and place. And I stayed with it for a while. And I just thought, you know, there's just something so classic and so simple, it reminded me of the songs of that great honkytonk era, and there was a certain sadness about it.

And there was a Lefty Frizzell quality. And Merle Haggard embodies much of Lefty's work in many ways, and so Merle seemed to be a natural person to maybe ask if he would choose to participate.

GROSS: You're so associated with the blues. When did you start listening to country music?

Mr. WOLF: Well, that's a good question. When I was growing up in The Bronx, in New York, I was addicted to radio. And in my little three-room apartment, which looked very much like the apartment in "The Honeymooners" TV show with Jackie Gleason...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WOLF: And there was a little kitchen. It was my mother, father, sister, myself, two cats and a parakeet and a dog. And radio provided me with a great outlet, and I would learn so much about music through radio.

But on a certain day, on Thursdays and Fridays, you can get from WWVA, from Wheeling, West Virginia, in The Bronx, you can get that radio station, and there was a coffee-drinking DJ named Lee Moore. And he would play this bluegrass and these guys called The Stanley Brothers, and they would sing songs...

Mr. WOLF: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

Mr. WOLF: And, you know, I thought they were women or something. It just was the strangest sound. And it was through that that got me into country music. And also, it was in the era when radio had such a sort of smorgasbord, may I say, of music. So you could have Buck Owens being played right next to a Motown song right next to a Rolling Stones song or whatever. So it wasn't as segregated musically as it sort of seems to be today.

GROSS: So I want to play another track from your new CD, "Midnight Souvenirs," and this is a duet you do with Shelby Lynne that's co-written with Angelo, who's Angelo the producer of Kings of Leon. And do you want to say anything about writing this song before we hear it?

Mr. WOLF: Well, I knew Angelo up in Boston. He was in a band called Face to Face, and he moved down to Nashville to do some writing. And we have been friends for a long time, written a lot of songs. And one day, we were just sitting with two acoustic guitars in his living room, and we just finished we finished the song. And the moment the song got finished, I thought it could be a really interesting duet.

And I thought for a second, well, who boom, Shelby Lynne. The name just popped into my mind, and I'm such a fan of Shelby Lynne's. And she has a recording out, people don't know about it, called "I Am Shelby Lynne," and she has a new record coming out, too, as we speak. But "I Am Shelby Lynne is one of those great masterpieces. And I remember the first time I heard it, I was riding in a car, and actually had to pull over to the side of the road to listen to it.

And strangely enough, I called up a friend of mine, who was in the music business, an A&R person by the name of Sue Drew(ph), and I asked if she could help me find Shelby Lynne. And it turned out - she said, Pete, I'm meeting with Shelby in an hour. And so the whole thing came together pretty quickly. And as I say, I thought it was destiny knocking. And Shelby and I got together, and this is what you hear.

GROSS: Okay, so this is "Tragedy" from Peter Wolf's new CD "Midnight Souvenirs."

(Soundbite of song, "Tragedy")

Mr. WOLF: (Singing) I think I won the fool's award today, the way I made my baby cry. I can't believe the stupid things I say without one good reason why. I know that life has got its ups and downs. I could take whatever comes around. But if you ever take your love from me, now that would be the tragedy.

Ms. SHELBY LYNNE (Musician): (Singing) This game of love is (unintelligible). I thought we'd never have to hide. And all this (unintelligible).

Mr. WOLF: (Singing) Now you can hit me with a wrecking ball, throw me down the stairs and watch me fall, but if you ever take your love from me, now that would be the tragedy. Love so serious it always (unintelligible).

Ms. LYNNE: (Singing) Did I get my goodbye kiss? Are you telling me this is the end?

Mr. WOLF: (Singing) ...this is the end?

GROSS: That's "Tragedy," a duet with Peter Wolf and Shelby Lynne from Peter Wolf's new CD "Midnight Souvenirs."

You've had such an interesting life. So I want to go back to the very beginning. Now, if what I've read is true, your grandmother was in Yiddish theater. Your father was a singer. So what kind of music were you exposed to when you were a child at home?

Mr. WOLF: Oh, quite a lot. My dad also was in vaudeville. And when he was about 14, 15, he left and joined the Schubert Theater, and he was what they call a chorus boy. And so, he was on a train traveling throughout the United States, doing plays like "Merry Widow" and "The Student Prince." And he then wanted to become an opera singer, joined The Met Choir, then eventually the Robert Shaw Chorale.

And so music was around, but he was a very progressive gentleman. He loved all different kinds of music. And when I first encountered Little Richard, I remember him standing in the room and said man, that's wild. That's great. And he had as much enjoyment hearing Little Richard as I did. And so through him, I got to meet so many interesting people. I got to meet Maria Tallchief, the great ballet dancer. And I was a young kid, and I remember sitting on her lap, saying boy, you can really dance.

GROSS: Now, your older sister danced on the Alan Freed show, is that right?

Mr. WOLF: She was on the Alan Freed show, "The Big Beat" show, and you would go down, and had some - you know, there were favorites. Like on the Dick Clark show, there were certain people like The Mouseketeers started having favorite dancers and writing them fan letters.

I would follow her to the Alan Freed "Big Beat" shows, and I remember seeing on one show Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis. There was Dickie Doo & the Don'ts, the Chantels. And it was just this tremendous pageantry.

And that was my baptism into rock 'n' roll because when Little Richard came out, he just tore up the stage, and each performer would do one or two numbers. And then when Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers came out, that was it. I was just gone for good.

GROSS: Now since she danced on the Alan Freed show, and you probably watched and got to see all the dancers and learned the dances, did that help you when you became a front man?

Mr. WOLF: Well, it did. But the thing that really, I think, affected me the most as a performer and as a front person, I went to a place called the High School of Music and Art, which was a specialized it was a city school, but you needed to take an academic exam to get in. And to this day, I don't know how I got in because I was a terrible student.

And I was accepted as an art student, and the school was on 135th Street in Harlem, Convent Avenue. And once a week religiously, I would go to the Apollo Theater. And for three years, every week I went to the Apollo. And during that time I saw all the great artists. I saw Dinah Washington. I saw Ray Charles. I saw James Brown. I saw Dyke and the Blazers. I saw Jackie Wilson. I saw Joe Tex. I saw Don Covay, and it just - the list went on, but the showman and the pageantry and the actuality of here came these performers, like the church, were performing for that congregation.

And there was it was sort of one for the money, two for the show. And even someone like Billy Stewart who's one of these fantastic singers, who is 320 pounds. He would come out, but by the time he got done, you just fell in love with him. And the way they would tear up a stage, or Jackie Wilson would take off his jacket and pretend he was going to throw it into the audience and just drop it on the side of the stage. It just drove the women wild.

And you had Bobby Womack. I remember seeing Bobby up in Boston not too long ago, and he was performing, and it was a great performance. And then Bobby said man, the women out here look so beautiful. I want to kiss each and every one of you. And he sat on the lip of the stage, and all the women lined up, and Bobby kissed every woman in that audience. And that's what I call showmanship.

(Soundbite of laughter)

But also, Terry, if I may, you know, the dancing and the interaction with the audience and communicating with the audience was the art that I learned there at the Apollo Theater. It was very important. You didn't just come out and do a song. You just came out, and it was your job to get the audience riled up. And not unlike someone in church, where by the end of the performance, the audience was up on their feet, the performer just gave it its all, and it was always 110 percent.

GROSS: My guest is singer and songwriter Peter Wolf. His new album is called "Midnight Souvenirs." We'll talk more and hear more of his music after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Wolf, and he has a new CD called "Midnight Souvenirs." Before being a solo artist, he was the front man for the J. Geils Band.

You know, it's kind of interesting to me that through your father, you knew all about vaudeville because he was in it, your grandmother in Yiddish theater. So you had this kind of, like, old-school show business in your genes, you know, just like that was air you breathe.

And then when you started getting involved in music, you were really interested in blues and in early blues. And you became friends with some of the older blues musicians as they during the blues revival era, when they were touring around the country, mostly probably the college circuit, college coffee houses and clubs, and you got to meet Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker. It must have been amazing for you to do that. You must felt lucky to be coming of age during a time when those performers were there.

Mr. WOLF: Oh, yeah. And the interesting thing is a lot of artists or performers or musicians who were playing at that time got to meet Muddy and John Lee because they were, we were all playing in sort of the same kind of venues.

But the interesting thing with me is there was this club in Boston called the Club 47 and the Jazz Workshop, and I had an apartment that was not too far away from these venues. And during the breaks, sometimes these artists would do one or two shows. They'd be in a very small dressing room.

And I was waiting for Muddy Waters to arrive at this coffee house, and I sat there from 3 o'clock in the afternoon. I just could not believe he was coming to town. And finally, these two cars, this Cadillac car rolls up, and out comes a station wagon behind it, and the door opens up, and out steps one of the most handsome men I've ever seen. And there was an elegance in the same way you would see with Duke Ellington. There was just something there was just a nobility with this man. He came out, and I walked up. And I said Mr. Waters, hi. I'm, you know, such a fan, and is there any way I can help you?

And he thought I was with the club. So, he asked me if I can help him carry some of the equipment in. And I did. And I was in the bathroom, and Otis Spann was the piano player, and James Cotton was in the bathroom, unbeknownst they didn't realize then - I heard Otis Band say to James Cotton: This is a coffee house. And James Cotton says, well, what does that mean? Well, they serve coffee. And he goes, yeah? No whiskey or anything? He said no, man, they just serve coffee. He said, well, what are we going to do? I don't know. Go get some whiskey.

And I came out. I was underage. I was like 17 and a half. I said, well, I can get you some whiskey. And he said yeah? I said yeah. And so I ran down the street, and I went to a friend's house who was, you know, a little bit older. It was Bob Siggins, was with the Charles River Valley Boys. He was a banjo player.

I said Bob, can you do me a favor? Can you get me some whiskey and stuff? So we went out, got a whiskey. I ran back, and I gave it to Otis and James. And that began a kind of friendship. And then they realized I had an apartment. So they said to Muddy: Hey Muddy, this young fellow has an apartment down the street.

And so every day they were there for about 10 days - they would come and use my apartment as a hang-in, and then James Cotton would cook up all sorts of chicken, and it became a clubhouse. And then Muddy would tell Howlin' Wolf: Hey, you know, there's this young guy has an apartment. So he would come by. John Lee Hooker would come by, and all sorts of musicians would come by, and they would just all hang.

And fortunately, I had a tape recorder, and I recorded a lot of the stories that they were telling. But it was a way for them to relax because, really, other than going to Europe, playing the college circuit was really new to them because they were it was just the chitlin circuit that they were on was sort of dying out, and this was a whole new adventure for these great musicians.

GROSS: How long did you have this relationship?

Mr. WOLF: Oh, a very long time. There was Marty Scorsese put out a series, a blues series that was on video, but there was a gentleman by the name of Peter Guralnick who put together a book from that series. And I personally think that the book transcended the actual DVDs from the films. And there's a little story in there that Pete encouraged me to write about my meeting Muddy, and this went on for many years.

GROSS: One of these things you say about Muddy Waters, you described how he was dressed, and you say Muddy was always impeccably dressed, elegant gray suit with an off-color white shirt, perfectly knotted tie, manicured fingernails.

And I'm reading this, comparing it to how I figured you were dressing at the time, which is probably like jeans, T-shirt. And so I guess, you know, seeing the kind of, like, elegant dress and how important it was to Muddy Waters, what impact did that have on you when you became a performer?

Mr. WOLF: Well, a big impact because, you see, I understood it because going to the Apollo for all these years, dress was, it was so important. The idea of the whole aspect of your stage clothes and the car that you had, it gave you a credibility. And there was a sort of formal, classical sense of you didn't wear regular clothes on stage. It would have been blasphemy. It just would've been an insult to the audience.

You had to really put on the nines. You had to really spark up, and that was part of your job as a musician. And if you see all the early big bands, everybody was dressed up. You just that was part of the requirement.

GROSS: Yes, but you came of age during the counter-culture when a lot of people onstage were dressing in jeans and T-shirts.

Mr. WOLF: Yeah, but not me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOLF: If I wore jeans, they were black, and if I wore shoes, they were pointy, and if I wore shirts, they had ruffles on it because I, too, was affected by it. And the whole counter-culture, the whole Woodstock era, I was sort of the odd man out with all of that. I was very much - being born in The Bronx and growing up in The Bronx, there was a sort of rock tradition, and it was pointy black boots, black jeans, black shirt, slicked-back hair and black jacket, sometimes leather, sometimes not, and that stayed with me for quite a long time.

GROSS: My guest, Peter Wolf, will be back in the second half of the show. His new album is called "Midnight Souvenirs." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with singer and songwriter Peter Wolf. He's just released his seventh solo album. It's called "Midnight Souvenirs." From the late '60s to 1983, he was the front man of the J. Geils Band. His music reflects his love of rhythm and blues, blues and country music.

I want to play something else from your new CD "Midnight Souvenirs." And, I guess I have an odd reason for playing it here. This strikes me as a kind of loving parody of a certain kind of rhythm and blues song from, I'd say, the late '60s, early '70s. The song is called "Overnight Lows."

Mr. WOLF: Oh, oh yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And it just strikes me as you kind of paying tribute to a kind of song that isn't really you, but that you really love.

Mr. WOLF: Well, yes. This is an homage to the great Philly Sound.

GROSS: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Mr. WOLF: That's what it's called: the Philly Sound. And Gamble and Huff and Tom Bell and gentlemen who just, not unlike Motown, in a very short period of time produced such great, great songs, great productions that had a certain kind of charm, and the songs that start out were like, you know, hello. My name is Steve. I'm an Aquarius - and these raps, and that would build into these beautiful melodies, beautiful songs. And this was an homage to that - not a parody, but just our - a way of showing the great love and trying to capture, maybe in our own way, some of the charm.

GROSS: With irony.

Mr. WOLF: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOLF: Lots of irony.

GROSS: And is that the only way you could do a song like this with the love rap in the beginning is if you did in irony?

Mr. WOLF: Well, it's not the only way to do it, but many of those songs had these kinds of raps, and it was just being something that - working with somebody like Don Covay and people like that. And on stage, when I would perform with the Guiles band, I would do these love raps with (unintelligible) and, you know, love comes once, and when it comes you got to grab it fast. Ain't no telling how long the love you grab is going to last. That's why, baby, I'm knocking at your door and I'm saying baby, baby - and things. So that was with things that I learned from the Apollo.

Those are the things that I learned from listening to a lot of the Philly music, so it was something that we felt if we could do it with respect and dignity and charm, let's try it. So that's what we attempted to accomplish.

GROSS: Okay, this is really fun. This is "Overnight Lows," and this is from Peter Wolf's new CD, "Midnight Souvenirs."

(Soundbite of song, "Overnight Lows")

Mr. WOLF: (Rapping) You know some people are always running away from love. Huh. I guess I've been doing that for a long, long, long, long time. And when I first met you at Audrey's house, well, heh, you know, I didn't think much about it. But then I realized you was looking at me and I was looking at you and you were looking me, I was looking at you, and all of a sudden we were looking at each other together. But baby, now I realize lovers can never say goodbye. So I was a fool girl to let you walk away. I didn't care where I thought I'd find somebody else. So I told you girl you go out and do your own thing. Now after a while, I realize the mistakes I made.

You know, I can't take back the words I said and I can't undo the things I've done. But tonight, you know, tonight I'm sitting here in the kitchen, right in the dark, sitting all alone in my underwear with a cold baloney sandwich and a confused, confused heart there, girl. And let me tell you something, oh, listen: (Singing) call me. Oh, call me girl. Ooh, yeah. I'm so lonely.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Overnight highs, overnight lows, poking around, nowhere to go.

Mr. WOLF: (Singing) I got nowhere to go, girl.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Overnight highs, overnight lows, all through the town, end of the road. Yeah.

GROSS: That's "Overnight Lows" from Peter Wolf's new CD "Midnight Souvenirs." And producing this must have been fun, too, you know, getting, like, the strings and the backup singers.

Mr. WOLF: Oh, yeah. And as we produced it, we really - our respect for these type of recordings from that era grew even stronger. And then there was like hey, where's the sitar guitar? Who knows where we can get a sitar guitar? And boy...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOLF: ...you know, it's not as easy as you think. So, yes. This one was a lot of fun.

GROSS: So when you had a band called the Hallucinations, and then...

Mr. WOLF: Oh yeah.

GROSS: ...and then it was J. Geils after that.

Mr. WOLF: Right.

GROSS: You know, you and J. Geils and had the J. Geils Band, which was initially like more of a blues band. But when you started to perform with that band, did you have to create a stage persona for yourself as the front man, figure out like how you're going to put yourself together, what kind of movement or dancing you were going to do on stage, you know, what the whole personality of you would be?

Mr. WOLF: Well, the Hallucinations, the first band you mentioned, I was in art school. I was - I spent - I really didn't quite graduate high school, so I spent a good deal of time hitchhiking around the country pretending I was an art student and just walking into a university. And someone told me about the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. And so I got there and brought in the paintings and they told me it's like a $7 admission fee or something. And weeks later, I ended up getting this scholarship and I was accepted to the school, and that brought me to Boston.

And I was looking for a place to stay, and this gentleman comes up to me and asked if I knew somebody who was looking for a place to stay. And I said yeah, I am. And it turned out to be David Lynch, the filmmaker. And David and I lived together in Boston for about a year. And he went off to start movies, and I went off to join this band called the Hallucinations, who were made up of all art students, and we were like a neo-punk band. We were so entrenched in this music. We didn't really quite know how to play it so well. But we had 10-foot guitar chords, and we would jump into the audience and just go totally wild, which eventually happened years later at CBGB's, where many of the bands would just - it was just total energy. And...

GROSS: Were you uninhibited from the start?

Mr. WOLF: Yes. I think if I gave it any thought, I would never do it. And I was - really had a - I had a great - I almost had a nervous breakdown at one point, because I was painting all my life and the music became - I was getting so transfixed in it and I was painting less and less, and I knew I might have to leave school. And the idea of being a musician, it frightened me because, you know, was I crazy? Was this, like, just a silly dream? Was this just an adolescent dream?

And there was a place called Mass Mental. It was a hospital, an actual mental hospital where you hear people in cages screaming from the windows and stuff. And I was so having such anxiety about leaving this great - because all my life, I was painting. And I once walked into this place and said, I think I need to be here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOLF: And the doctor said why? I said doc, I'm just really nervous. And he said, well, what's it about? I said well, I want to do this music thing, but I've been working so hard with the painting. And he said, well, Peter, you know you can - why don't I suggest this: Take a year and you can always go back to school, but you might not be able to pursue this dream with your friends if you have this band. And give yourself a year, and if it doesn't work out, go back to school. And if it works out, well, then, the question will be answered.

And it seemed such a simple solution that this great weight was lifted off of me. And I remember walking out of there, and I felt, yeah. This is what I can do. I could really dedicate my life to this for this next year. And that happened, and I never looked back.

GROSS: As an art student, what you were for years, did you know that you could sing?

Mr. WOLF: Oh, no. Terry, I consider myself music fan, and there are singers that I respect. I don't put myself in that category. I am still learning about singing, and I feel I'm just starting to get there. It just seems...

GROSS: But is this why you were so afraid to become a musician, because you felt like you were a fan of music, but you really couldn't sing?

Mr. WOLF: Well, first of all, what helped - I was dyslexic, and the idea of music, learning stuff became so hard. Where so many of my friends could, you know, pick up a song real quickly, and for me to have to learn the song, I almost had to go through three different processes in my brain to somehow, in this dyslexic way, to get the song.

GROSS: Even if you were singing it or if it was just the melody, or are you talking about playing an instrument?

Mr. WOLF: All of it.

GROSS: All of it.

Mr. WOLF: I mean, the melodies, everything. It comes to me very - it's not an easy thing. It's very, very hard. I have to do a tremendous amount of work before I can really feel somewhat comfortable for it. And...

GROSS: So what do you do to learn a song?

Mr. WOLF: Well, I put - I'm a great believer in collaboration. And for instance, I just performed a song in tribute to Jesse Stone, who was a great songwriter, did a lot of songs for "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and a lot of songs for Ray Charles and was one of the great, Brill Building songwriters. And he had a song that Clyde McPhatter from the Drifters sang called "Money Honey."

It's a very - it's not a complicated song, but to get it right, it took me a while. And I just sat down with some friends, and we just went over it and drilled it and went over it and drilled, and until it sort of becomes second nature. And I have to do that.

GROSS: My guest is singer and songwriter Peter Wolf. His new album is called "Midnight Souvenirs."

We'll talk more and hear more of his music after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Wolf. He has a new solo CD, which is called "Midnight Souvenirs." I say solo, but there's some really great duets on it, too, including duets with Shelby Lynne and Merle Haggard. And you've had such an interesting life. You know, I mean, you were also a DJ at WBCN, which became, like, the big progressive rock, or a big progressive rock station in Boston. But you were there on the station as a DJ when it first switched to a, you know, a progressive rock format. And tell us the name of your on-air character.

Mr. WOLF: Oh, I was the Wolfa Goofa Mama Toofa - Peter Wolf making your knees freeze, your bladder splatter. If it's in you, it's got to come out. Welcome the O'Jays, the little ladies of the night. The kid from Alabama, keeping it all here. (unintelligible) a little fun. We're going to be rocking it out until the sun, so give us a call and don't just stall. Doing it to it and getting right through it. If it's in you, it's got to come out. So come on baby, let's scream and shout.

And that went on from midnight to seven in the morning. And since it was the only real music that was pounding away on the FM airways, when musicians would come to town, they heard about it and they would listen and come in, and so I got to interview people like Roland Kirk. I got to interview Carla Thomas. I got to interview Howlin' Wolf. I got to interview Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant. I can't even think of so many people that stopped by.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting. Like, you had your radio show and this like great persona and played great stuff and all this rhyming stuff. Your father had a radio show, too, right, called the Boy Baritone?

Mr. WOLF: He was the Boy Baritone, and it was in the era where they would have singers, but there were song pluggers, is what it was called. And they would sometimes be in department stores and music stores, and there would be a piano player, and they'd - and sheet music was very important. And so if you heard a song, people would buy sheet music and they would go home, and many people had Apollo pianos. And that's how you learned songs, and people would learn the latest songs.

And my dad had a show - 15-minute show "Allen Blankfield: Boy Baritone." And he would sing the latest songs from Tin Pan Alley. And the publishers would give him the song, and there'd be a pianist, and he'd sing the songs. And if you liked the songs, you would go to your local record store or furniture store, where a lot of recording stuff was sold, and buy the sheet music.

GROSS: So I'm just thinking about how different those two radio shows were. Your father's from the song plugging era, where the main thing was to sell sheet music and your show.

Mr. WOLF: They were very different. But, you see, I would go with my father with his brother, who managed my father, managed - also managed a champion baton twirler...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOLF: ...managed the world's strongest man and a gorilla. And they would -his office...

GROSS: Vaudeville.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOLF: His office was at the automat off of 42nd Street, right next to Jack Dempsey's, and they would all meet. This was sort of like a "Danny Rose" -"Broadway Danny Rose" film that Woody Allen did. There would be people with parrots and this and that.

These people had a different act. One guy would do different voices or imitate cars. And one would do bird whistles. And they were all there and everyone would sit around the table and they'd all talk about work or out of work. And everyone had a copy of Variety under their arm. And...

GROSS: Did you feel any connection to that when you got into the music business? Like when the J. Geils Band was really popular, did you feel any connection to that old school, vaudeville era that your father was from?

Mr. WOLF: Well, there was a commitment. It was something that you were honored to be there. And I think one of the things about the Geils Band Im very proud of, is we worked really hard on stage. And we really gave it 110 percent.

GROSS: Did you ever expect that the Geils Band would actually have hits?

Mr. WOLF: No, we never expect the Geils band would even get out of Boston. That's why it was called the J. Geils band, because when the Hallucinations broke up, this first band of art students, they were all going off in these artist retreats and things and some of them were just getting a little bit too crazy. And I met J., who was very serious, and he and the harmonica player, Magic Dick and the bass player, they really were great students of the music I loved and we put it together.

But he had a manager that didn't quite like me and was afraid that I was going to steal J. away or something. So he said, if you want to play with J., you can play with J., but it has to be under the name J. Geils. And so I said, I don't care. You know, we just want to play music.

And that lasted for about a year and a half. And within that time, we built such a big following. And you're in New England, you're not thinking about the bigger world. And we figure, well, people know us in New England.

Bill Graham invited us down to the Fillmore East and we were to open up for Black Sabbath. And people were, want Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath. And they were just sort of screaming out. And then Bill, who'd never seen us before, got out to the audience said, ladies and gentlemen, I invited this band to come and play. I've never seen them before. I think some of you are being really rude, people who don't want to see this band I'll allow you with your ticket stubs to leave and come back in afterwards, but I would like to see this band and I'd appreciate if you give me and other people who'd like to see this band the opportunity.

And we went out on stage and five encores later, Bill was just enraptured. He came upstage and he walked in the dressing room and came up to me and says, J., you are fantastic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOLF: I said, Bill, Im not J. He goes, you're not? And I go, no. I say Im Pete Wolf. He goes, well, who the hell is J. Geils? And I said, oh, that's -it's the guitar player. And he goes, why is that? And I go, oh well, dont get me started. So thats how it all began.

GROSS: My guest is singer and songwriter Peter Wolf. His new album is called "Midnight Souvenirs."

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is singer and songwriter Peter Wolf. He has new solo album called "Midnight Souvenirs." When we left off, we were talking about his years as the front man of the J. Geils Band.

Do you have a favorite of the J. Geils' tracks?

Mr. WOLF: No, but I do have a favorite album. And the favorite album for me and the template of the J. Geils Band was an album put together by James Brown "Live at the Apollo, Volume I." And that was an album that James' record company didnt want to make. James funded it himself. And to me, the way that record starts and doesnt stop, and song leads into song, is the same, from seeing many of the shows at the Apollo when I was putting together the Geils Band, that was the formula we used for our shows.

And so I think the album that to me I would say represents the band that I love is an album called "Full House" that was recorded in our adopted city of Detroit. And it's like it was decisive moment of J. Geils Band on stage, and it's a communion between us and the audience and the energy is captured in there. And because of that, I think it's my favorite.

GROSS: Let's play something from that. Do you want to choose a track?

Mr. WOLF: Well, maybe either "First I Look at the Purse" or "Hard Driving Man," or "Looking for a Love" - Bobby Womack song. Either or, ladies choice.

GROSS: I think Im going to go with "Looking for a Love."

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

(Soundbite of song, "Looking for a Love)

Mr. WOLF: (Singing) Somebody help me. Somebody help me now. Oh, somebody help me now. Somebody help me find my baby. Somebody help me find my baby right now.

I'm looking for a love. I'm looking for a love. I'm looking here and there. Im searching everywhere. I'm looking for a love to call my own.

Oh, baby. Gonna get up in the morning and rub my head. I'm looking for a love to call my own. Fix my breakfast and bring it to my bed, I'm looking for a love to call my own. Do my love do it all the time. I'm looking for a love to call my own.

With lots of love and kisses but people until then. I'm looking for a love to call my own.

I'm looking for a love. I'm looking for a love. I'm looking here and there. I'm searching everywhere. I'm looking for a love to call my own.

Well, I want you to stay in my corner all the way, yeah. I'm looking for a love to call my own. Stick by me, baby...

GROSS: That's my guest Peter Wolf with the J. Geils Band. Peter Wolf has a new solo CD, which is called "Midnight Souvenirs."

You were talking about how "Live at the Apollo" - "James Brown: Live at the Apollo" was kind of like your model for a while. But you didnt have like a guy introducing you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...as like the greatest, the way James Brown did.

Mr. WOLF: No. No. No, we didnt have, ladies and gentlemen it is star time and I'm...

GROSS: Exactly, yeah.

Mr. WOLF: But what we did have is, the band would go out and do a couple of instrumentals and then I would walk out. And I remember playing in Worcester, Mass, and I had these patent leather shoes and tight peg pants and ruffled shirt and a jacket and all these kind of fake diamond rings on. And we were opening up for this lady by the name of Janice Joplin.

And she was watching the band from the side doing this instrumental and we were kicking it in pretty hard. And she looked at me and she said, man, who is that band? I said thats the J. Geils Band. And she said, are they an instrumental band? And I said, no. And she says, where is the singer? I said, hold on, honey.

And I walked out and I started singing. And all of a sudden, I could see her walking out into the audience and sitting smack in the front row and she watched the entire show. And then backstage, we got together and spent many a night yakking and talking.

And she was - because, you know, we came from the same place. She loved the R&B music. She came out of, I believe Texas, and understood all the country honky-tonk. It was a melting pot for us. And she was - she, too, believed in the show was the thing. You can sing the song, you can do a record, but if people are going to come see ya, you got to give it to them. You got to get down there and sweat for them.

GROSS: Is there anybody that you dont know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You seem to know everybody.

Mr. WOLF: Well, I dont know, Terry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You were roommates with David Lynch.

Mr. WOLF: Right.

GROSS: You knew Van Morrison just on the cusp of his fame. Did you tour with The Beatles?

Mr. WOLF: I never toured with The Beatles, but I spent many quality - good quality time with every Beatle, except Ringo Starr. And I have some fun stories of John Lennon during the lost weekend in...

GROSS: Oh, well, you could tell one of those.

Mr. WOLF: Oh, I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOLF: They're all kind of episodic. But there was a lot of Remy Martin and milk, and Harry Nilsson. And it went on for several days and several nights. And we ended up in the studio with Jimmy Iovine, who became quite a big producer who's still involved in the music industry. He was the engineer. I was singing. John was playing guitar. Harry Nilsson was on drums. For some - I dont know how he appeared - the bass player for Alice Cooper.

And while we were recording all this stuff, in came Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel with this lady that I think maybe Paul was dating by the name of Diane Keaton who just singing, I think, at the Blue Angel or something before she got into acting.

And it just ended up being this like two day craziness where Harry, John and I would get out and - let's put it this way, too much, too soon, too twit, too fast. And there were a lot of adventures and I think time would not allow. But the cognac and milk flowed freely.

GROSS: Peter Wolf, it's really been fun to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. WOLF: Well, thank you so very much.

GROSS: Peter Wolf's new album is called "Midnight Souvenirs." You can hear two tracks from it on our Web site, his duet with Merle Haggard, "It's Too Late For Me," and his duet with Shelby Lynne, "Tragedy." And when you go to our Web site, freshair.npr.org, you can also download Podcasts of our show.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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