Skilled But Shy Musician Jay Geils Remembered As Setting The Bar For Rock 'N' Roll

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An archival photo of the J. Geils Band. (Courtesy J. Geils Band via Facebook)
An archival photo of the J. Geils Band. (Courtesy J. Geils Band via Facebook)

The J. Geils Band bore his name and his imprint, but he was never the focal point. He was not the wild man at centerstage, bouncing up and down, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. That was Peter Wolf’s job.

J. Geils (John Geils Jr., professionally billed as Jay Geils) was the oft-shy guitarist, skilled in rock, blues and jazz idioms. A former mechanical engineering student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he tended to hang back on stage during concerts. He was found dead from undisclosed causes on Tuesday at his home in Groton. He was 71.

“I remember those days of going to the Tea Party and seeing them,” Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry said Tuesday night, reached in LA. The Tea Party was Boston’s key late-‘60s rock club and the J. Geils Band’s launching pad. Perry recalled being in those audiences as "a dewy-eyed kid."

"They would start off as a three piece and then another guy would come up on stage, and then another guy, and finally Peter would come out," Perry said. "They always had such showmanship and dynamics. But Jay was all about the song, the music. He played great solos, he knew blues inside and out and they just took it to the max. The image I have is him driving the band, whether he’s playing rhythm or lead. It was always about the band and about the show.

"I mean, man, if you saw that band when they were in their prime, you were spoiled. You probably expected that that’s how rock is."

Joe Perry

“I mean, man, if you saw that band when they were in their prime, you were spoiled. You probably expected that that’s how rock is. Well, no. They’re a cut above. They definitely were like Sly and the Family Stone, and two or three other bands had that thing. They knew how to take a whole arena and just tear it up. Boston doesn’t have the roster that New York or LA does, but [the J. Geils Band] set the bar for rock 'n' roll as far as I was concerned. They could stand toe-to-toe with any band in the world. And they did. Jay was, to me, the anchor.”

In 1967, Geils started the J. Geils Band — originally called the J. Geils Blues Band. What happened was that three guys in Geils’ Worcester-based group merged with Wolf and his drummer from Boston-based band The Hallucinations.

The newly re-christened band played scorching blues and R&B covers. They signed to Atlantic Records in 1970, Wolf and Seth Justman started writing original material, and over the course of four studio albums and the incendiary live album, “Full House,” they became New England’s “house party” band, rocking arenas from Boston to Bangor.

The band found greater fame in the early MTV era with their more pop-oriented direction via their “Freeze Frame” album in 1981. It built on the success of “Sanctuary” in 1978 and “Love Stinks” in 1980.

It seemed as if the J. Geils Band — which opened huge shows for the Rolling Stones in 1982 — was on the way to the top. But all that momentum skidded to a halt in 1983, when Wolf left the band. They carried on two more years, making one album, with keyboardist Justman taking over lead vocals.

The J. Geils Band has reunited several times over the years and last played Boston the summer of 2015. Geils joined some of those reunions, but played with the band for the last time, he told me two years ago, “at the Fenway Park show in 2010 and maybe one or two after that. Sorry I can't be more specific. I honestly don't remember where and when my last show was with the band.”

But by 2013, he considered himself out of the J. Geils Band and reached an agreement with his former band members to use the name “Jay Geils” (as opposed to J. Geils) when he played without them. He did so with Bluestime, the New Guitar Summit and the latest incarnation, The Jay Geils Blues and Jazz Revue with guitarist Gerry Beaudoin.

“Of course, I'm proud of our legacy,” Geils told me two years ago, of the J. Geils Band. “I founded the band as a Chicago-style blues band and it evolved into a bluesy rock band. I wish them well. There is no bitterness on my part. I don't know how they feel about me. I was tired of playing our brand of high-energy rock ‘n’ roll.”

Indeed, the last time I saw Geils play live was with the Jay Geils Blues and Jazz Revue in 2010; he played jazz and blues sitting down. He was ebullient after the set, and said, “I'm also playing trumpet again — my instrument from age 8 to 18 — and getting pretty good except for running out of lip!”

Geils had done a reunion tour with the band in 1999, but by 2001 he’d seemed to have had it with rock. He told me about that transition from J. Geils Band-style rock back to his early loves, the music that he and Beaudoin, among others, were making as part of the New Guitar Summit.

“We all love the same music," he said. "We're all junkies for the swing era through the early '50s — Count Basie, Duke Ellington and their guitar players. My father was a big jazz fan and I got exposed very early to Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong. When was I was 14, for my birthday my dad took me to see the Miles Davis Quintet at the Village Vanguard" in New York.

"That's always been my main thing. I didn't like rock 'n' roll when it first came around. I started out being a blues player and fortunately got to play with Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, James Cotton. When the J. Geils Band formed in the late-'60s, early-'70s, the guys brought in R&B influences like Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and James Brown, which was pretty cool. It's all a natural extension of Muddy Waters. But always underneath all that I was this jazz guy."

“I'm devastated with Jay’s passing,” Beaudoin said Tuesday night. “I lost a good friend; the rock world lost an icon and the blues and jazz world lost a traditionalist and passionate cheerleader for both those idioms. I'll always remember Jay’s real passion and love of the music. It was an honor to play with him for 25 years, as well as a learning experience about the history of the music and the players that made it great. He was a real musicologist. Lots of miles in vans and lots of gigs and recordings we did together I'll always treasure. But I'll never forget his passion for the music. Jay was the real deal and I'll miss him.”

Although Geils retreated from the rock ‘n’ roll that brought him fame, he did not scoff at the mainstream pop success the J. Geils Band finally achieved after years of slugging it out. “I don't care what any recording artist says,” Geils told me, with a laugh. “They all want a No. 1 gold single and we have two. And both originals by Seth and Peter, 'Centerfold' and 'Freeze Frame.' I actually have an autographed-to-me Playboy centerfold by a girl named Angel [as in the lyrics 'My angel is the centerfold']. It was her favorite record.”

There was, for a few years, a fair amount of acrimony on both sides of the divide — Jay Geils and the J. Geils Band. A large part of that had to do with a lawsuit over ownership rights to the J. Geils Band name.

“The suit is resolved and finalized to the benefit of both parties, in my opinion,” Geils told me in 2015. As to any thoughts about the J. Geils Band continuing, albeit sporadically and in brief spurts: “It's fine with me; it helps sell CDs and generate royalties.”

Wolf did not return an email Tuesday night when asked for comment but posted on his Facebook page: "Thinking of all the times we kicked it high and rocked down the house! R.I.P. Jay Geils."

Geils had an avocation that became a real profession after the J. Geils Band folded: A longtime antique car buff — particularly Ferraris — he opened up a shop in Ayer, called KTR Motorsports, specializing in racing, restoring and servicing racing sports cars.

“He loved his car buddies at KTR,” said Geils' former girlfriend Tennie Komar. “He had a group he met with for lunch every Wednesday.”

Komar, former lead singer of Boston new wave band Tennie Komar & the Silencers, dated the guitarist for five years. She was shocked by news of Geils’ death and, yet, she said, “There were numerous among us who knew this was coming. After he got picked up for his second DUI in the fall, it was bad. He couldn’t get over the drinking problem. At his age, he’s been smoking and drinking his whole life and it caught up with him. This is the rock ‘n’ roll life lifestyle issues thing.”

“He had an addiction issue, but he was a very sweet man,” Komar says. “There’s not much bad you could say about Jay. Everybody that met him said he was kind and down to earth. Jay didn’t have an angry bone in his body toward anybody; he was a very gentle man. He was very shy, hanging back on the stage behind everybody else. He was a very sweet, caring man and in many way too fragile for certain parts of this world.”

Perry said when news of Geils’ death popped up on his cell phone, “It really hit home. It all flashed before me, all those years of great music. I always thought Boston was Peter and Jay’s town and we were the young upstarts. They were the s---, man. I still don’t think there are any bands that put on the kind of show they did and we were lucky enough to see that. They took every page out of the book. I still think they are unparalleled as far as a live band goes.”

This segment aired on April 12, 2017.


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Jim Sullivan Music Writer
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for WBUR.



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