My blood runs cold
My memory has just been sold
My angel is the centrefold
Angel is the centrefold
With these evocative words the J. Geils Band – incorporating, in one of their most famous incarnations, guitarist J. Geils, drummer Stephen Bladd, trumpeter Magic Dick, keyboardist Seth Justman, bassist Danny Klein and vocalist Peter Wolf – catapulted themselves into the history books when they released Centrefoldon 13 September 1981.
The simple idea, dreamed up by Justman, was that of a man coming across his school boy crush in the centrefold of, for example, Playboy magazine. On the one hand he recalls their innocence as they passed notes to each other under their school desks; while on the other he is overwhelmed by his current feelings of lust.
The J. Geils Band had a reputation as one of the top live acts of their generation, but this song and MTV’s heavy rotation of its accompanying video - featuring Wolf prancing around in a classroom full of dancing, skimpily-dressed, ‘centrefolds’ - sent them to Number 1 for six weeks on the US Billboard Hot 100, and out on tour with The Rolling Stones.
The band ended up mired in a court dispute over rights to the name, but Geils eventually put all that behind him and remained proud of the band’s legacy. Cheekily, one of his favourite possessions was a personally autographed Playboy centrefold, from a model named Angel. “It was her favorite record,” he said.
John Warren Geils Jr. came into the world on 20 February, 1946 in New York City and grew up in New Jersey. His father was a fan of jazz music, and took his son to a Louis Armstrong concert when he was 11, but music wasn’t Geils only passion, as he was equally interested in maths, motorbikes and cars, particularly Italian racing cars; a hobby that was to play a major role in his life. Amazingly, in a ‘centrefold-type’ story, he dated the glamorous actor Meryl Streep while at school…
Geils’ father’s favourite albums were those by Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington, and so his son was initially drawn towards the trumpet. Miles Davis eclectisism helped diversify his musical interests and soon he was listening to blues legends such as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. “Wow, what’s that? That’s cool!” he recalls thinking to himself at that time.
Geils first picked up a guitar as a high school senior and at first focused on fingerpicking and folk music. Around the time, however, when Bob Dylan famously started playing an electric at Newport in 1965, he also began to be drawn away from acoustic folk. When he met Magic Dick and Danny Klein they considered moving to Chicago together, because that’s where Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Butterfield, and Mike Bloomfield were playing. But instead those artists started gigging more in the Boston area and so the young hopefuls stayed put, and got to befriend Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Muddy Waters himself along the way. These musicians were all very important in Geils’ musical development, but he later emphasised in a number of interviews that his biggest influences were “B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, and Charlie Christian.”
In the mid-1960s Geils, Klein and Magic Dick definitively transformed themselves from an acoustic blues trio - with the unlikely name of Snoopy and the Sopwith Camels - to a much bigger band that included saxophonist Peter Kraemer, drummer Stephen Bladd, bassist Martin Beard, vocalist Peter Wolf and, just before the J. Geils Blues Band’s first release in 1970, Seth Justman.
Thereafter the band released an album amost every year until their 1980’s hit, Love Stinks; with 1972’s under-rated Live Full House, 1973’s excellent Bloodshot (containing Give It To Me) and 1974’s single Must Of Got Lost only really making serious waves during that decade. As the band pivoted from R&B and soul to a more commercial sound, it was 1981’s Freeze Frame that contained the title track and Centrefold, which together cemented their legacy.
Geils was a collector of vintage guitars, and his beloved 1959 Gibson Les Paul was a particular favourite; but he eventually let it go. “I’ve sold a lot of guitars, including my ’59 Les Paul from the J. Geils Band records and when we played Fenway Park with Aerosmith in 2010,” he said. “It still screams, and I got six figures for it. When I got back into playing trumpet, I realized that I’ve never owned a professional horn! I had upward of 60 guitars, now I am down to 20 or 30, but I have 50 trumpets,” he laughed.
When the J. Geils band broke up in 1985, the man whose name it carried gave less stress to music, to focus on his lifelong passion for auto-racing and restoration; even establishing his own repair shop for vintage sports cars, such as Ferrari and Maserati. Geils occasionally played in reunion concerts and with other formations, but was more energized by his own jazz formation that played on the East Coast, describing it as “straight-ahead jazz; a lot of fun.”
Presumably motivated by a concerned friend or relative, on 11 April, 2017, the Massachusetts’ Groton police force travelled to Geils’ home to check up on him, but found him unresponsive; he was pronounced ‘dead from natural causes’ at 71.
The J. Geils Band that he helped found left a bunch of great songs and memories, particularly in their live performances, which will never be forgotten. Geils’ himself led a full and varied life, left with no apparent bitterness, and achieved one of his dreams of going to number 1 with Centrefold. One of its lines, perhaps, might provide a fitting epitaph to his legacy: “It's okay, I understand, This ain't no never-never land…”