If you grew up listening to music in the ’70s, you probably associate the name J. Geils with a five-piece band that played raucous rock and roll to hip-shaking partiers. Led by guitarist John “Jay” Geils, the group toured the world and recorded more than a dozen albums, selling millions through the early ’80s. Originally focused on blues, R&B, and soul, The J. Geils Band later adopted a straight-ahead rock sound that helped them score numerous hit singles including the blockbusters “Freeze Frame” and “Centerfold.”
For the last 15 years, Geils has immersed himself in the jazz and swing of the 1940s and ’50s. His new disc, Jay Geils: Toe Tapping Jazz, is a set of jump blues and jazz standards by Count Basie, Benny Goodman and others. Previously, Geils’ tone, choice of notes, and instruments all helped him channel Charlie Christian in his Jay Geils Plays Jazz CD, as well as the New Guitar Summit live DVD with fellow guitar heavyweights Duke Robillard and Gerry Beaudoin. A rich hybrid of jazz and blues, Summit features three-part harmony guitars played at a level few achieve. Along with Beaudoin and Robillard, Geils is releasing another New Guitar Summit CD that includes Randy Bachman as a special guest.
At his studio in northern New England, Geils recently sat to discuss his influences, favorite instruments, and memories while walking through his awe-inspiring collection of instruments, which include vintage D’Angelico, Gibson, Gretsch, Epiphone, Rodier, and Stromberg archtops, and his complete series of Gibson tweed amplifiers. The pièce de résistance, however, is his 1959 Gibson Les Paul, which appeared on every J. Geils Band record and onstage at the band’s early performances.
Other noteworthy guitars in Geils’ collection include a Gibson L-5 previously owned by Howard Alden, a Gibson ES-250 and matching EH-150 and EH-185 amps, a Stromberg Master 400, three D’Angelicos, all three “stairstep peghead” guitars made by Gibson, several ’40s Epiphones, a blond ES-5, a blond ES-350, a Charlie Christian tenor guitar, a blond non-cutaway Super 400, and a cutaway ’59 blond Super 400.
A lot of people are surprised to hear how much your style has changed since your days with the J. Geils Band, when you were playing mostly blues, R&B and rock and roll… Did you always have an interest in the more straightforward jazz and traditional swing stuff?
Yeah, always. My father was a big jazz fan, so that’s all I was exposed to as a kid. I saw Louis Armstrong and the Allstars live when I was 11, and I was a trumpet player before picking up guitar. By the late ’50s, Maynard Ferguson, Louis Armstrong, and Dave Brubeck were playing concerts at high school and college auditoriums. Plus, all the music that was playing in my house when I was a kid was big-band – Basie, Ellington, Goodman. I didn’t start playing guitar until I was a senior in high school.
And what kind of music were you playing when you finally picked up a guitar? Did you get right into the blues?
No, I was a fingerpicker and played only folk, which was a big scene in Boston in the early ’60s, with guys like Tom Rush and Dave Van Ronk. But it was around this same time that we were listening to a jazz station out of New York, WRBR, and every Sunday afternoon they’d have a blues show on which they played music by guys with names like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. I was like, “Wow, what’s that? That’s cool!” And I could actually play it, so that got me into the blues. But there wasn’t a lot of Chicago blues in Boston or Cambridge in ’64 or ’65, it wasn’t until after Dylan went electric at Newport in ’65 that the Club 47 and The Unicorn started happening. And around this time, I met [J. Geils Band member Magic] Dick and Danny [Klein] and we were actually thinking of moving to Chicago because that’s where Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, and Mike Bloomfield were playing all the time. But what happened was all of those Chicago acts started coming to Boston and Cambridge. We used to stand outside the Club 47 and help Muddy Waters unload his station wagon, and we got to know Muddy, Buddy Guy, and Junior Wells.
Was Bloomfield a big influence?
Early on, until I discovered B.B. King. To me, the big three are B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, and Charlie Christian. Christian was the first guy who clearly understood that the electric guitar could be a solo instrument. His style has not a lot to do with T-Bone and B.B., but it certainly laid the foundation. There’s a few bent notes and there’s the passing chords B.B. used here and there. And T-Bone was the guy who put it into the next setting. I mean, the first two choruses of his first recording is him playing solo electric guitar, and that was in 1942! He was bending strings and using ninths, and nobody had heard that before. And then B.B. took it from T-Bone and added the jazz influences. B.B. was the first one to bend up to a pitch and hold it, he invented that, and that’s the hallmark of all blues and rock and roll guitar playing today. I do a lecture on this to demonstrate it, and it’s probably going on in 12,000 garages right now (laughs)! So, those are the big three for me, but obviously, I’ve listened to Albert King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy – anything that makes me go “Oooh, what’s that?” Actually, Bloomfield turned me onto Albert King.
Did you know him well?
I only saw him two days when Electric Flag was in town, but he hung out at our apartment the night before the show and I sat in with The Flag the night of the gig. He was great. At our apartment, we were talking about Albert King – this was right around the time that Albert’s Born Under a Bad Sign came out. Bloomfield kept saying “You’ve got to get this record… Let’s go, you’ve gotta get this right now!” And I said “Mike, this is Boston. There are no records stores open at 12:30 in the morning.” But I got it the next day.
Another big influence on me – because until the last three or four years, I was playing with Dick – was the Chess session guys… Matt Murphy, Louis Myers, Luther Tucker, Robert Junior Lockwood, all the guys on the Little Walter records… Because they were playing all those cool little figures behind the harmonica player, and I learned all of them. So that was a secondary influence only because I was playing with a harp player, but I enjoyed that backup role.
What was your first really good guitar and amp setup?
It was a ’60s Gibson ES-345 and an Ampeg Gemini. I couldn’t afford a Fender. When I first saw B.B. in the spring of ’67, he had a red 355 and a Fender Super Reverb. So that’s what I wanted. But I couldn’t afford either, so I found a used 345, and it was close enough.
So how did you go from that 345 to having such a great collection?
I had heard the first Bluesbreakers album with Clapton, then read an interview in Guitar Player where Bloomfield said he had discovered the Les Paul. So I’d been looking around for one. I went down to New York and picked up a ’56 Les Paul Custom with the alnico and P-90, and it sounded okay, but it wasn’t the sound I was looking for. Anyway, the J. Geils Blues Band was playing a gig in late ’68 or early ‘69, unbelievably enough, at Worcester Tech, the school I attended when we first moved to the area. And as we were packing up, a kid came up with that guitar (points to his ’59 Les Paul Standard). It had a different tailpiece, the pickguard was missing, and it had been varnished with a brush, but I knew what it was. He said, “Do you wanna buy this guitar. I need 600 bucks.” I said, “I don’t have $600, but I have this Les Paul Custom I just paid $600 for… I’ll swap.” And he did. I took the guitar to Eddy Murray and told him to make it look like it was supposed to. He scraped away the varnish and we found the parts it needed. In keeping with the times, I took the covers off the PAFs. That guitar – I call it the “lunch pail Les Paul” – and that amp (points to a tweed Gibson GA-40) were used on almost all the solos on all the J. Geils Band records we ever did, and I toured with it until I got the ’58 Flying V. That was another $600 guitar… actually, I didn’t pay for that either! I traded an ES-350T and a National steel.
What amplifiers were you using live with the Geils band?
In the early days, I was using a hot-rodded Fender Bandmaster Reverb through two EV SROs, and eventually, we moved up to 100-watt Music Man amps. I was still using the ’59, crossing the country, opening for Black Sabbath. I had a couple of others too, including a totally mint ’58 cherry-sunburst Les Paul that I paid $800 for and sold for $2,400 and thought I’d made a killing (laughs)! But there was always something about the ’59.
So is that your “desert island” guitar?
Well, I don’t play it anymore. I have the original case, which has stickers from all over the world… There’s a picture on the back of The Morning After album where we’re sitting in an airport, and there are two brown Les Paul cases. One of them is that guitar and that case.
So you had a couple core guitars, but were on the lookout for others?
During the ’70s and the ’80s – the whole rock and roll period – I had guitars that I needed for the studio; a Tele, a Strat, a Martin D-28, a Dan Armstrong plexiglass I played slide on… But the main gigging guitars were the Les Paul, the V, and later, a couple of Gibson L-6Ss. When the band broke up, I wasn’t that interested in most of them. So from ’84 to ’92, I only had the Les Paul and the 345 because I was deep into the car business (Ed Note: Geils was a founding partner of KTR Motorsports, which specializes in vintage European sports cars). But it wasn’t until the early ’90s that Dick and I got together to form Bluestime that I got more into the swing jazz thing, and that’s when I started buying this stuff. I wanted an ES-150 and an ES-5, and I’ve always been a big fan and student of big-band rhythm guitar, so that led to all the acoustic archtops.
This music you play now requires fairly advanced technique. Were you always interested in learning it?
I had heard jazz guitar players since I was a kid. There’s a pretty famous Columbia album, the first in a series they did called Benny Goodman Combos. It was an early retrospective of all the small Benny Goodman groups, and three or four of the cuts were of the sextet with Charlie Christian and I wasn’t a big electric-guitar fan as a kid. I bought some R&B singles – Little Richard and Fats Domino – but I never bought an Elvis Presley record or rock-and-roll record. Part of that influence was from my father, who was into Basie and Ellington and the black groups. I knew a lot of those tunes, but didn’t know how to play them. So working some with Gerry and getting all the fake books made me realize how it all works. There’s a natural progression from playing blues to the next step, which are rhythm changes, which is the classic American song form. In the A section, it’s like a bunch of blues turnarounds, and then you have to deal with the bridge, which is where Charlie Christian comes in, because he was great at running the chords through the bridge, which is like a cycle of fifths or fourths. And from there, you can apply what you’ve learned previously…
Did you learn by reading music?
I can read music, but I learned everything off records.
Tell us about the new album and the group you’re playing with now.
Well, the group changes nightly (laughs). We do the classic jazz thing; there may be some preferred rhythm-section guys, but everyone knows the tunes, so people come and go based on who’s available. But the Shivers album features John Turner on bass and Les Harris on drums and Gerry Beaudoin, me, and Duke Robillard on guitars. It’s on Stony Plain Records.
I’ve also got another album out on Stony Plain called Jay Geils Plays Jazz, and have a second one in the can where I did one tune from 1940-something where I play electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and vibes, all on period-correct stuff. I played the 1940 ES-250 through the Gibson 185 amp, mic’d it with my ’39 Western Electric microphone. And I played the rhythm on the Howard Alden Gibson L-5, and it’s on a tune that Charlie did with Lionel Hampton called “One Sweet Letter From You.”
How did you and Gerry meet?
We met at the Boston guitar show in 1992 or ’93. I was trying to move beyond blues into rhythm changes and jazz, and Gerry said, “I’ve got a regular gig on Thursday nights. Why don’t you come down?” And that was exactly what I was looking for. We met up a few times and I started going to the gigs. We discovered a lot of mutual friends – like Duke (laughs)! And we started playing together. I didn’t know anyone else that played that swing jazz style.
You came out of the era of the big guitar hero, but you avoided the excessive playing that made many records of the era seem self-indulgent, and ultimately sound very dated.
Ahh, electronic masturbation (laughs)! I tried to be musical. As much as I love John Coltrane and Miles Davis, I love melody. Plus, as the band progressed, there was more and more pressure on us from the labels to produce hit records. So, some of those later solos were constructed as part of the melody.
Like on “One Last Kiss,” where you your lead part is also the melody of the song.
Right. Or the solo to “Just Can’t Wait” – all on that Les Paul!
Obviously, you’ve seen great changes in the music industry. How do you go about publicity, distribution, and booking?
Gerry Beaudoin and I have our own label, Francesca Records, and basically, we get to do what we like. Jay Geils Plays Jazz is an example. I did that totally myself, just the s*** I wanted to do, with the guys I wanted to do it with.
In a lot of ways, you’re keeping this style of music alive.
I look at this like I looked at Bluestime, because we didn’t want to be one of those “rock it up” blues bands. I can appreciate Stevie Ray Vaughan and that he was a great player, but nobody was doing the Chicago stuff the authentic way. So that was our niche with that. We played around the States, went to Europe, went to Japan. We didn’t make a lot of money, but we did okay. We made it as exciting as we could while keeping it reasonably authentic because there is nobody else doing it; you just can’t hear Little Walter anymore. And it’s the same thing here. You just can’t go out and hear the Benny Goodman Sextet anywhere, but you can come hear me and Gerry. It’s not like we’re trying to re-create it, but we’re trying to have the same feel. And the people who come out, they’re all tapping their feet.
I often say at the beginning of the show, “Welcome to our living room, because if we weren’t here, we’d be doing this anyway.”
What do you see as the highlights of your career?
Playing next to B.B. King five years ago. I’ve known him since 1969, and before that had never had a chance to actually play with him. So that was a big deal. We did 17 shows, and he was great. Our paths have crossed numerous times, and we never got to do it toe-to-toe, and he was just terrific. He would finish his show with “The Thrill is Gone,” and the band would go into a little vamp, and he’d say “And now, my special guests tonight, J. Geils and Magic Dick” and his crew guys would put a chair on either side of B.B., and we’d sit on either side of him and just jam. That’s just the latest highlight. Touring with The Stones for two months in Europe (in 1982) wasn’t too hard to take (laughs)!
One of the biggest thrills in the last 10 years was playing with Bucky Pizzarelli, who has played with everybody. You can ask about some obscure jazz guitar player, and he either knows of him and or has played with him.
My best experiences over the years have been playing with the old blues guys, many times with (Magic) Dick – James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Muddy Waters… We sat in with the Muddy Waters band long before Jerry Portnoy was in it! We knew his stuff. One time, I think it was in Paul’s Mall in the late ’60s, and Muddy called us up to play. He called out one of his classics, and Dick just knew the harp part. So Muddy sang the first line, and Dick just nailed the Little Walter harp fill. Muddy looked around like he was seeing a ghost. I was just playing the little rhythm parts, and got off a couple of the right thing, and he gave me a little smile.
To me, those moments when you get to be on the same playing field as your heroes and they actually acknowledge that you know what you’re doing – those are the true highlights.
Tom Guerra plays guitar in Mambo Sons, mambosons.com.
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This article originally appeared in VG December 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.