Headed to town with his longtime group the J. Geils Band as the opening act for Bob Seger Thursday night at United Center, I spoke with Peter Wolf about radio as a gateway to the blues, working with artists like Neko Case and Merle Haggard in his solo work and what exactly it is that keeps the J. Geils Band exciting for him after more than forty-five years...
Eschewing the low expectations that classic rock reunion tours have a tendency to generate, Peter Wolf remains an exciting frontman, his J. Geils Band lending an energetic boost to the often staid stadium atmosphere as the opening act for Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band.
Exposed to the blues and a wide-ranging group of different artists at a time when "Top 40" radio meant more than just bubble gum and spanned countless genres, Peter Wolf cut his teeth in radio as a disc jockey, working in Boston, at one point, alongside Norm Winer, longtime Program Director at Chicago heritage station, WXRT.
In the interest of full disclosure, it was as an intern at XRT where I was first exposed to Wolf's solo work, as he performed tracks from his 2002 effort Sleepless live in studio. Over the course of seven solo studio albums, Wolf has broken new musical ground, exploring diverse sounds through work with artists like Keith Richards, Shelby Lynne, Neko Case and Merle Haggard.
But it's as frontman of the J. Geils Band for which he remains most well-known, songs and performances that remain vital to him forty-seven years after the formation of that group.
Amidst the current Geils tour in support of Bob Seger, I spoke with Peter Wolf about radio's role in exposing him to the blues, further exploration of those artists in Chicago and work on an eighth solo album he hopes to release this summer...
Q. Be it solo or with the J. Geils Band, you’ve performed in Chicago an awful lot over the years. Is there a fond memory that sticks out for you or anything in particular that strikes you about the city itself?
Peter Wolf: Well, the first fond memory I have of Chicago is when… I never finished high school. And I was an art student - I just loved art. So I would hitchhike around the United States and I ended up sleeping in the dormitory at the University of Chicago, which was the south side. And I would end up getting to visit the early blues clubs like Pepper’s [43rd and Vincennes] and Theresa’s [48th and Indiana] and seeing some of my idols like Muddy Waters and Junior Wells.
So that was my first great love for Chicago. Plus it had a great museum that I loved to see.
And then, of course, with the Geils Band, as we’d come touring through, there were many towns we played but Chicago, particularly, was such a important city for the music that I loved. You had Sam Cooke and Bobby Womack. You had [Curtis] Mayfield. You had all the Chess and Checker stuff - You had Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry. Jimmy Reed. Jimmy Rogers. The Flamingos and The Dells. And I know I’m leaving out a lot of great rock bands that came out of there but a lot of the music that I grew up with came out of Chicago. And a lot of the jazz that I love so much came out of Chicago.
Q. Well you'll be back [on December 11th] with Bob Seger... How far back does that relationship go?
PW: Well… I haven’t confirmed this. I have to do that with Bob next time I see him. But I remember when the Geils Band – I think it was 1970 or 1971 - We were playing Detroit at this speedway. And on the bill was the J. Geils Band, the MC5, Iggy Pop & the Stooges, Alice Cooper, Catfish Hodge, Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels… and I believe the opening act was a guy by the name of Bob Seger.
Plus, Bob and the Geils Band, we shared the same producer, [Bill Szymczyk] and we have a lot of the same friends: people like Glenn Frey of the Eagles. Eagles used to open up for the Geils Band and Glenn and Bob were very friendly and Bob and the Geils Band, we were on the same label together. So throughout the years we had social interaction. I remember spending some time in Bob’s hotel rooms when we were on the road, stuff like that.
We were planning to do a Geils tour over November with just Geils – and I was planning to be working on my solo record – but I guess the agents and management heard that we were going out and they thought it would be a good combination: Geils and Seger. So they booked it and they just kept adding dates because it was received so well. So everybody’s really happy about that.
Q. I think when it comes to bands from your generation that get lumped in under the "classic rock" tag, there is a certain expectation out there sometimes, especially when it comes to reunions, that those tours are nothing more than a phoned in cash grab. But you guys still deliver a fantastic set. Obviously, with the success of your solo career, you don’t have to be doing something like a J. Geils tour at this point. What is it for you about the J. Geils Band that remains rewarding after more than forty-five years?
PW: Well, I think you hit it on the head – I get an extreme amount of pleasure and creative enjoyment out of doing the solo shows. They’re very important to me. But knowing that there are a group of people that still want to hear songs that you’ve played or composed forty-five years ago is an honor. You feel very privileged by that. People call it "classic" but they're sort of things that in the days of the American singers – Sinatra and people like Dean Martin – they were standards. And people never called them “oldies.” They were just standard songs. Things like, “Fly Me to the Moon” or songs like “Moon River," you don’t think of them as nostalgic. They were just part of the American fabric - songs of the day that remained important songs.
And I think there’s a lot of rock and roll songs, for the people who grew up with rock and roll – I don’t think “Let it Be Me,” by the Everly Brothers is something that I consider nostalgic. I consider it just great. Or “In my Life” – when John Lennon is singing that, I don’t look at is an oldie - I just hear it as something great. Or if I’m listening to Jimi Hendrix doing Axis: Bold as Love, I don’t look at it as an oldie. I just think of it as something great. And if I was a painter going to a museum, I wouldn’t look at the Mona Lisa and say, “Wow,that’s an oldie.” It’s just a great painting.
I think that the work has survived for people and has remained relevant to people for so many years is something that’s very meaningful – to me anyway. And I don’t just say that.
Q. You just hit on something that I wanted to get into - which is the fact that there was a time when music wasn't as categorized as it is now. I read in an interview that you did with No Depression that you grew up listening to people like Jocko Henderson on AM radio. And from there you eventually worked as a disc jockey in Boston at a time when FM was really kind of coming into it’s own as a much more creative, personality driven entity than it is today. What was it at that time that drew you to radio?
PW: Well… That’s a good question. Jim, I grew up learning all about the music that I loved through radio. And it was from the selections that these great [disc jockeys] – be it Jocko Henderson or Alan Freed – would play. And I’d sit up all night writing down the songs on a piece of paper and the next day I’d go out and buy them. And it was through the importance of radio that I think people of my generation got turned onto rock and roll.
And as things developed and people like myself got older and we were looking for deeper music – other than the three minute, bubble gum pop that was being played on AM radio – people started to broadcast on the FM band, what they called “alternative” or “AOR” radio, meaning album oriented radio. And I was one of the first disc jockeys from the first day that Boston had one of those stations. So I became the all night DJ, seven days a week. And I played everything from Muddy Waters to Bob Dylan and Van Morrison to Jimmy Reed to Jimi Hendrix. And I would have people come up on my show and interview people like John Lee Hooker and Van Morrison. And Howlin’ Wolf and Sun Ra. And Yusef Lateef and Roland Kirk.
So it was a pretty amazing period for me to be able to get to meet these great artists and to even interview them. It was pretty incredible.
Q. When you were growing up, "Top 40" radio was obviously a completely different thing than it is today. You kind of just started to hint at it, but it wouldn’t be uncommon to hear things like rock, R&B, the blues, blue-eyed soul, etc. on the radio. It seems like all of those sounds eventually came together in the J. Geils "stew" so to speak. Did radio influence you down the line as you began your career as a musician both musically, sure, but also in terms of becoming a performer looking to connect on a very personal level with an audience? Because, to me - when it's done properly - nothing can connect as personally as radio...
PW: I agree. And the thing about the J. Geils Band is that we were passionate about a lot of the same music. So we would spend a lot of hours just listening to a lot of the same tunes and studying them – not unlike what the Rolling Stones did, not unlike what the Beatles did. Because we were very collective in the roots of the music that we loved. And I think that was one of the main reasons that we stuck together so long – because our musical tastes were pretty similar.
Q. To me, your solo work is a departure in sound from what the casual fan might expect knowing you only from the J. Geils Band. You collaborated with some fantastic artists on your last album Midnight Souvenirs (the track with Neko Case in particular I really enjoyed). How’s the new album shaping up?
PW: Well, it’s good. I was going to be doing a duet with one of my favorite artists, Bobby Womack. But unfortunately, he passed. We were planning to do something on the same album that Neko was on but it didn’t quite happen. So I said, “Bobby, we gotta do it on this next one.” The song was all ready and unfortunately it never came to pass.
But the solo records are really important to me because it does allow me to venture into other areas of music and work with artists that I admire so much – people like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and Neko Case and Shelby Lynne. Sitting next to Merle Haggard in the studio is just… I have such great respect for him as a performer and a writer and as a person. He’s one of the last of these great, real, country rebels that you hear about. He’s it.
So getting the opportunity to work with artists like that is pretty valuable to me as a person. And, artistically, I learn so much from these artists.
Q. When it comes to crafting these songs that wind up on your solo records, what motivates you as a songwriter in that vein? Because it sounds like it's coming from a different place than the J. Geils Band stuff...
PW: Well, the J. Geils Band stuff was written so long ago. As one grows older, and you walk through life, you have different influences. As I was figuring out how to make solo records – it wasn’t an easy thing for me at first – but what I do try to use them for is to reflect what’s going on in my life at the present.
And I think that’s what also makes the Geils thing enjoyable – because all those songs came at a different time and place. And to be able to revisit those songs is something that I enjoy doing. People say, “Do you ever get tired of [it?]?” It’s not like the Geils band is constantly out there on the road. It’s rare that we get together. So I look forward to performing that body of work when we do get together.
- Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
Never miss a story or interview! Simply enter your email address and click the "create subscription" button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.
(Details on Thursday's J. Geils Band/Bob Seger show below)
J. Geils Band
Thursday, December 11, 2014
Also performing: Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band
Click HERE to purchase tickets