For many musicians, even seasoned ones, having Keith Richards and his entire family make a special effort to catch one of your gigs is a pretty stellar moment. Probably kinda hard to top.
But for Peter Wolf – legendary front man of 70’s/80’s rock & soul kings The J Geils Band, and for the last 30 years a successful solo performer — that’s a drop in the bucket. Just Stones-wise, he’s not only had Richards and his clan catch his solo show, but he’s cut tunes in the studio with Richards, including a duet with Mick Jagger, and J Geils hit the road with the Stones as their opening act on their Freeze Frame tour back in the day. But as far as being in touch with musical heavies, that’s the only the tip of the iceberg.
Even before he stepped onto a stage to sing one note, Wolf has been awash in a glow of musical luminaries that crosses the rock and roll spectrum, it’s a great story, the stuff of legends, really. How a teenager from the Bronx moved to Boston in search of a new life as an artist (I mean paintings), got woven into the burgeoning FM radio and Boston music scene, then sang a song at a party and soon became one of rock and roll’s top front men working with dozens of legends in a music career spanning decades and still going strong. It’s classic, really. Classic ROCK.
Wolf’s early years in New York were not without some amazing education in the college of musical knowledge. Way before he actually became a rock star, he was absorbing some of the greatest music ever by living almost within earshot of the one of music’s hallowed halls. “When I was going to high school, man, it was ten blocks away from the Apollo Theater. I’d go to the Apollo every week, and I got to see all my favorite artists. It was one of those experiences that really helped me later.”
Like has been the case with many great rockers, Lennon and Bowie among others, Wolf’s journey away from home started out with the dream of being an artist with a brush, not a guitar. Oddly enough this quest would soon cross paths with another yet to be unknown superstar from another genre: film.
“Painting was my first love. I was really a very dedicated artist and took many lessons, What got me up to Boston was I got a scholarship to the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, and I was hangin’ around, actually livin’ on the streets for a while, so I needed a roommate and found one, and it turned out to be David Lynch. We were sort of like ‘The Odd Couple’, David was a very neat guy and I was a slob. I had not gotten into performing music, I was only a music fan, and it was before he got involved in film, so we were both just serious art students at the time.”
With his deep love of music continuing to be his driving force, Wolf became part of the burgeoning FM radio scene in Boston, getting a jock job at WBCN, which would rise to be one of the top FM stations in the country in its heyday. But it was an unexpected moment at a college party that would morph Peter Wolf from music fan into rock star almost overnight.
“It happened at a party that was basically made up of art students. Sort of not unlike David Byrne and the Talking Heads, they were at [Rhode Island School of Design] and it was kinda the same deal. People at this art school I was going to would have these loft parties so I went to one, and the admission was you had to bring a jug a’ wine. So I brought a jug of wine and everyone was drinkin’, and there was this band of art students playing, and they were very much into R & B, that blues stuff that I was into. They were starting a song and no one could remember the words to the song, and I could, so I jumped up and started singing. That was the moment. We got together and from that point on, we started what became my first band which was called The Hallucinations, and the drummer (future Geils drummer Stephen Jo Bladd) and myself later went on to put together the J Geils Band.”
The Hallucinations would become a late 60’s Boston club staple and things would begin to steamroll. Wolf befriended iconic bluesman John Lee Hooker one night in his dressing room and convinced him to let Wolf’s band support them on their tour. Wolf would also befriend other blues greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Son House because his apartment was right near the Boston club they’d all play at, and he’d invite them to come back to his place given the club’s dressing room was so small. Surely one way to engrain yourself into the best that music has to offer.
Meanwhile, Wolf’s new musical life would take off like a plane at Logan, and the manic onstage persona that would be part of his entire career took shape. “The Hallucinations was a band that was ahead of the curve, like a neo-punk band, before there was punk. We were all attitude, and we would jump into the audience, the guitar player would have a 60 foot cord, and he’d jump into the audience, and our first gigs were backing up John Lee Hooker, and then we started playing with bands like The Shirelles, The Kinsgmen and all those bands that were on the circuit at that time. Then we worked in an area in Boston called the Combat Zone, we would do five sets a night, and that’s where I got alot of my musical training, playing those kinda clubs. That and my earlier experiences in New York as a kid all really kinda helped me do what I ended up doing with the Geils band and with the solo band.”
The J Geils Band would record their first album in 1970 after Wolf and Bladd joined forces with guitarist Geils, and their musical imprint would begin in the shape of a searing hot rock brew of soul, blues and R & B. Stones-like but even rawer, a blend of Detroit R & B muscle and Boston rock and roll brashness, led by Wolf’s wild man frontage. Starting from those manic Geils days when you could feel the sweat pouring off the gyrating Boston Garden rafters, he has always left it all onstage and owes that to those he witnessed doing the same years before.
“Growing up as a young kid seeing people like Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis live, they were just such great showmen, and then when I went to the Apollo and witnessed people like Tommy Hunt and James Brown, you just realized that look, you can listen to a record and hear the music, but if you’re going to go out and see somebody, it was one for the money but it was two for the show, and I learned from those artists the importance of putting on a show.”
J Geils and Wolf would find bigtime fame from the mid 70’s to the early 80’s (he would even briefly marry actress Faye Dunaway) and would grow to play arenas and warm up the Stones, becoming a major US act. But like many of its kind, their staying power fell victim to the many claws that pull down even the great bands of the moment.
“With a band, it’s a very unique experience. As Bruce Springsteen said at one of the Hall of Fame inductions, I think when he was inducting U2, it’s easy to start a band, but real hard to keep a band. There were what we call ‘artistic differences.’ So once I found myself forced to kinda pursue a solo situation, and it wasn’t really my choice, I found that experience to be really as engaging.”
Wolf would reluctantly leave the J Geils Band to enter the solo life, and lucky for him, his innate talent and sense of what rock and roll really is has kept him vital and active for the three decades since Geils split up. He has kept his collaborative routine going strong, working with everyone from Jagger and Aretha Franklin to Merle Haggard, Steve Earle, Neko Case and Shelby Lynne. He has written songs with giants like Lamont Dozier and Will Jennings. And overall, he has embraced the solo gig with open arms.
“With the solo band it’s a lot more intimate, I think it’s a lot more personal. The Geils band was exciting and great for what it was, it’s a different kind of movie and something I got alot of artisitic pleasure from. They both have their merit, but I really enjoy the solo groupings and the solo performances because they are more intimate and I can be more personal, and connect with the audience in a more personal way which I find an interesting challenge.”
Wolf has done a couple reunion shows with Geils over the years and all seemingly went well, including the huge Boston Strong concert this year to benefit victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. Those who follow Wolf or who just want to enjoy a truly special evening of kick ass reverential rock and roll are lucky: he comes to The Birchmere in Alexandria on October 28th. “I find The Birchmere to be a very special room, it’s a great atmosphere for artists that are doing what I’m doing. I find it really unique and the audience seems to be really serious about the music, they’re very respectful. And yeah, by the end of the night, we tend to rock down.”
What strikes you about Peter Wolf is that this is a man who has appreciated the innate magic of music for a long long time, and that his lifelong encounters with music royalty, as well as his own illustrious 50-plus year music career, has all been something that was meant to be. It’s refreshing knowing that a rock and roll mainstay like Wolf appreciates all that music has been and will be, and can point to his own experiences to tell the tale.
But I had to ask him, after crossing paths and working with so many of music’s true legends, who’s left as far as Wolf’s musical idols?
“Well, Steve, if I was to answer that question, I think we’d be talking for three and half more hours. Between the people I admire so much in the jazz world, or the country world, or in the rockabilly world, and in the rock world, even in the classical world, there are just so many great artists that have affected me, from Hank Williams to Elvis, to the great singers and songwriters from Johnny Ace to Jackie Wilson, Van Morrison….that’s a tough question. That’s one I’m gonna have to take the Fifth Amendment on.”
For tickets to Peter Wolf at the Birchmere, click here.