How did rock and roll survivor Peter Wolf mold himself into one of rock’s great front men? By watching and learning from music’s best. a
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 ’70s/’80s 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 catch his solo show, but he’s cut tunes with Richards and Mick Jagger, plus 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 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. Those who follow Wolf or just want to enjoy a truly special evening of kick-ass rock-and-roll are lucky: he comes to The Birchmere in Alexandria on October 28. “I find The Birchmere to be a very special room, it’s a great atmosphere for artists that are doing what I’m doing,” he says. “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.”
Wolf’s early years in New York were not without some amazing education in the college of musical knowledge. “When I was going to high school, man, it was 10 blocks away from the Apollo Theater,” Wolf remembers. “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.”
As it has been the case with many great rockers, 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 future superstar from another genre: film.
“Painting was my first love. I was really a very dedicated artist and took many lessons,” Wolf says. “I moved up to Boston when I got a scholarship to the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, I was hangin’ around, actually livin’ on the streets for a while, and I needed a roommate and it turned out to be (famed director) 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 got a jock job at WBCN, which would become one of the top FM stations in the country. But it was an unexpected moment at a college party that turned Wolf from music fan to rock star almost overnight.
“The party was basically made up of art students, sort of not unlike David Byrne and the Talking Heads at [Rhode Island School of Design],” Wolf recounts. “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. Soon after we started what became my first band which was called The Hallucinations, and the drummer and myself later went on to put together the J Geils Band.”
The Hallucinations became a late ’60s Boston club staple and things began 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 where they all played. He invited them to go back to his place given the club’s tiny dressing room. Surely one way to ingrain yourself into the business.
The J Geils Band recorded their first album in 1970 after Wolf and drummer Stephen Jo Bladd joined forces with guitarist J Geils, and their musical imprint took form 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,” he says.
J Geils and Wolf would find big-time fame from the mid ’70s to the early ’80s (he even briefly married actress Faye Dunaway) and grew to play arenas and warm up the Stones, becoming a major U.S. act. But like many of its kind, the band’s staying power fell victim to the many claws that pull down even the great bands of the moment.
“As Bruce Springsteen said at U2’s Hall of Fame induction, it’s easy to start a band, but real hard to keep a band,” Wolf says. “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 reluctantly left 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.
“The Geils band was exciting and great for what it was. It’s a different kind of movie and something I got a lot of artistic pleasure from,” he says. “But I really enjoy the solo groupings and the solo performances. They’re more intimate and I 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.
Peter Wolf has appreciated the innate magic of music for a long long time, and his lifelong encounters with music royalty, as well as his own illustrious 50-plus year music career, has all been something that just seemed meant to be. 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?
“If I was to answer that question, I think we’d be talking for three and half more hours. 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.”
Peter Wolf plays October 28 at the Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA 22305, 703-549-7500. For tickets, click here.
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for vps3.washingtonlife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for classic rock cover band Second Wind.