Peter Wolf grew up in the Bronx, New York surrounded by soul music, blues, and R&B. He’s best known as the former frontman for the J. Geils Band, but before he toured stadiums alongside the Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers, Wolf had aspirations of becoming a visual artist. He attended fine art school on a scholarship at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts where he studied painting and roomed with the future director of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, David Lynch. Wolf followed his artistic calling in music in 1964 when he and some fellow art students including Stephen Bladd, who would become the drummer for the J. Geils Band, formed a semi-neo-punk soul and blues group called the Hallucinations. After gaining a following performing at nightclubs and small venues in Boston, the band played shows with big names such as the Velvet Underground, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Van Morrison. In the late 1960s, Wolf became WBCN’s first all-night DJ and garnered a reputation for fast-talking and interviewing popular rock, blues, and jazz artists who were on tour in Boston.
Wolf and Bladd joined the J. Geils Band in 1967 after hearing the band play and sparks flew. The band was formerly known as the J. Geils Blues Band, an acoustic blues trio that had also made waves in the Boston scene at the time, and consisted of the band’s namesake John Geils, a Southside of Chicago style slide guitarist, stand-up bassist Danny Klein, and harmonica wizard Richard Salwitz. With the additions of Wolf, Bladd, and keyboardist Seth Justman, the J. Geils Blues Band dropped the “Blues” and picked up an electric sound. Although they were no longer a blues group in name, the bandmates still shared a love and influence of the blues, jazz, and R&B. Wolf and Justman got to work co-writing songs together and the band produced what they would lovingly refer to as “the bathroom tapes,” a name that speaks for itself.
Amid the bell-bottom-wearing flower children and rise of hippie culture in the mid 1960s and early 70s music, the J. Geils Band gave their fans rock n’ roll infused with blues reminiscent of their parent’s old vinyl. The band released covers of songs such as “First I Look At The Purse” by The Contours and The Valentinos’ “Still Looking For Love” and opened for Black Sabbath and the Allman Brothers, but still hardly made a breakthrough on the sales charts. The J. Geils Band found themselves having a difficult time translating the dynamic sound and charisma of their live performances onto vinyl. Studio singles were only producing minor turntable hits, but everything changed for the J. Geils Band when they released their first live record in 1972, “Full House,” which served to name the band as notable in underground radio.
The band continued to tour, garnering fans in the U.S. enamored by their wild stage-antics and energetic sound; their ace was live performance and Wolf took mainstage. Their first commercial success came with the release of their third album “Bloodshot” in 1973 featuring the single “Give It To Me.” The band got a taste of major success in the early 1980s with their ninth studio album “Love Stinks” which yielded the two top 40 hits, “Love Stinks” and “Come Back,” but the J. Geils Band’s claim to fame would prove to be the album that followed, “Freeze Frame.” The band’s tenth studio album featured the tracks “Centerfold,” which hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks, and the title track “Freeze Frame” accompanied by music videos that stayed in heavy rotation during the early days of MTV. Shortly after the J. Geils Band released their new wave pop hits Wolf quit the band, citing creative differences with his co-writer Justman. The band went on to record one more album with Justman as their lead vocalist then disbanded in 1985.
Wolf recorded his first solo album, “Lights Out,” in 1984 and has released six others since, collaborating with Aretha Franklin, Merle Haggard, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Little Milton, Wilson Pickett, Shelby Lynne, and Neko Case. The J. Geils Band reunited in 1999 for a reunion tour that included Wolf, which gave them a chance to bask in their fame together once more. The band played subsequent reunion tours and benefits in the years that followed and were nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame five times.
Written by Kelly Fletcher