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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