The blues guitarist who became an ’80s hitmaker
John Geils 1946–2017
John Geils was anything but an overnight sensation. The guitarist founded the J. Geils Blues Band as a Massachusetts college student in 1967, and—after dropping “Blues” from its name—the group released its debut album in 1970. It would be another 11 years before the J. Geils Band found fame with its 12th LP, Freeze-Frame, and the incessantly catchy single “Centerfold,” which spent six weeks at No. 1. Over new wave organs and solid rock riffs, swaggering lead singer Peter Wolf sang about a man who opens a girly magazine and is stunned to find that his sweet highschool crush “is the centerfold.” Yet after finally achieving success, the band quickly fell apart. Fed up with being mistaken for Geils, Wolf left in 1983; the group split up two years later. “It got to be a grind,” said Geils. “It was like any other job; it starts to wear on you.”
Born in New York City and raised in Far Hills, N.J., Geils inherited a love of music from his engineer father, said The Boston Globe. “When Geils turned 10, his father took him to see Louis Armstrong”; when he turned 13, the pair went to a Miles Davis concert. The young Geils started to learn trumpet, but then, thinking he didn’t have the technical proficiency to play jazz, switched to guitar in high school and focused on the blues. After moving to Boston for college, he formed the J. Geils Band. The group became one of the most popular live acts of the 1970s, “with its rowdy, blues-based, good-time rock ’n’ roll,” said The Guardian (U.K.). But it was only when the band added snappy synthesized pop to its blues roots that it found major commercial success. Love Stinks (1980) was a Top 20 album, and “its slow-chugging title song became a Top 40 hit.” The following year’s Freeze-Frame pushed the band further up the charts.
After the group’s collapse, “Geils turned down his amplifiers and all but abandoned rock ’n’ roll,” said The Washington Post. He occasionally reunited with the J. Geils Band, but seemed far happier in jazz settings, and released several swing albums. “Throw all that weird stuff away,” he said in 2011. “Listen to the old masters. The old ones know. And now I’m one of ’em.” ■