Music

Appreciation

A working man’s guitarist, Geils’s riffs got the party started

J. Geils during a J. Geils Band show at the Music Hall in 1977.

globe staff/file

J. Geils during a J. Geils Band show at the Music Hall in 1977.

It’s very simple. Anyone who talks about the best rock concert act in Boston history has to start with the J. Geils Band. Aerosmith is right up there, of course — and many folks will have their own nominees — but there was nothing quite like the explosive house party rock of the J. Geils Band during their domination of Boston Garden in the ’70s and early ’80s.

Nailing it all down was guitarist J. Geils, whose piston-like riffs and rhythms were the joyous bond between singer Peter Wolf and the rest of the Geils crew who came to play with undeniable, working-class grit every night. That was especially true during their run of three sold-out shows at Boston Garden in 1982, when even Mayor Kevin White was in the audience and invited them to City Hall afterward.

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It was one of maybe a dozen Geils shows this writer saw in nearly 30 years of covering music for the Globe, including gigs at the Worcester Centrum, Cape Cod Coliseum, Music Hall, the Garden, and Fenway Park, but mostly in their Garden heyday.

“J. was incredible back then. He could play with the best of them,” Geils bassist Danny Klein said of his bandmate, who was found dead in his home in Groton on Tuesday at age 71. “Every night he’d play something that would cause me to lose it for a minute.”

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J. Geils was a bit of a mystery man — he shied away from interviews and let Wolf and keyboardist Seth Justman do most of the talking — but his work ethic was second to none.

“I remember when we started, he was playing acoustic guitar and jug band stuff,’’ said Klein. “But then he started playing electric guitar and would practice 12 hours a day studying blues guys like B.B. King, Otis Rush, and Howlin’ Wolf. He just put so much time and effort into it. He would incorporate all this other stuff into his own playing.”

Justman broke into tears as he talked about Geils Wednesday. “J. was an engineer, and he was really into precision. But what made him a great guitar player was not only did he have that precision, but he had a deep expression in how he played. He brought a jazz element, an R&B element, and definitely a blues element, but he would never force anything. He played what he thought was right for every song.”

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“J. was shy and maybe quiet and a little aloof, but once you got to know him, he had great depth,” said Justman. “He was just an amazingly soulful guy.”

A Geils show was a bacchanalia — with singer Wolf sometimes swigging champagne openly onstage — but J. was less of a hedonist than his peers. “We all sipped as the shows went along,’’ said Klein. “J. would drink Thunderbird wine, but he’d only drink it to the gold line on the label and would then go back to the hotel and watch Johnny Carson on TV. He was not a big partier.”

The band, which played up to 280 shows a year and also opened several tours for the Rolling Stones, broke up in 1985 after their peak MTV-era hits “Centerfold” and “Freeze-Frame.” Wolf left the band after an apparent dispute about songwriting — and the group did not perform again until 1999, an eternity by rock standards. The long layoff did not help their chances of getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They have been nominated four times, including this year, to no avail. Shame on the Hall of Fame — many voters obviously didn’t see Geils in their prime.

During the long hiatus, J. became a mechanic of high-end sports cars such as Ferraris and Maseratis. He formed KTR Motorsports in Carlisle (it’s since moved to Ayer) and barely picked up a guitar for years, but his work ethic hadn’t abated. “I didn’t have time for guitar. I had to make a living,” he told the Globe in 1992. “That’s when I opened a high-performance foreign car shop. I worked 14-hour days.”

Still, it’s his musical legacy that most endures.

“We had a great time,” said Justman, who is also a member of a latter-day version of the J. Geils Band. “We listened really closely to each other onstage. That’s what made it work. And J. was an especially powerful, inspiring guy. I’m going to miss him.”

Steve Morse is a former Globe music critic. He now teaches a rock history course for Berklee College of Music.
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