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Somewhere down the line: A chat with Boston-based rocker Peter Wolf

Peter Wolf & The Midnight Travelers are playing this Saturday at Tupelo's in Derry, N.H.
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Peter Wolf & The Midnight Travelers are playing this Saturday at Tupelo's in Derry, N.H.

Peter Wolf became famous in the 1970s and '80s as the stage prowling, rhyming front-man for the Boston-based J. Geils Band.

Musician Peter Wolf made his name and fame in the 1970s and 80s as the stage prowling, rhyming front-man for the Boston-based J. Geils Band.

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That band became a staple of rock radio around the country, with a record contract demanding two albums a year, and constant touring. The hard work paid off, and the J. Geils Band's Freeze Frame album, hit No. 1 on the charts in 1982.

Wolf left the band after that record, and today at age 75, he's still making music and touring.

NHPR's Rick Ganley talked with him ahead of a show here in New Hampshire. The conversation started with his early days growing up in New York.

Peter Wolf: My dad was a musician. He started as a young fella, worked with the Shubert Theater, and he traveled around the United States… and he actually played Boston and parts of New Hampshire in the 1930s. He was part of the production of the Merry Widow, and he was a lover of classical music and jazz.

And so music was around my life at an early age. I remember being taken to a place called the Little Red Schoolhouse, where I heard this fellow sing children's songs. It became one of my first records and the gentleman singing...he sang a song Put Your Finger in the Air. I played that record nonstop, and it was Woody Guthrie.

Rick Ganley: Oh, no kidding!

Wolf: You know, he was one of my first concerts. I always loved music and records. And one day …a sort of decisive moment; a born again experience: hearing Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally. And it shook me, and it has been shaken me ever since.

Ganley: It sounds like you're in New York at the cusp of this kind of folk movement, and the beginning of early first-generation rock and roll kind of intermixing.

Wolf: Yeah, I went to a high school called the High School of Music and Art. I don't know how I got in because I was dyslexic and not a very good student, but I was accepted.

But through my friends who are in the music department, I got to learn about people like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

And so we would walk 10 blocks down to the Apollo. And every Wednesday, there I got to see James Brown—and the Motown Revue, and Jackie Wilson, and just every soul artist there was.

By the time I finished high school, I not only got to see the great jazz players like Charlie Mingus, but I got to see all the great R&B artists. So music always stayed with me when I came to Boston.

Ganley: What's interesting to me is you ended up coming to Boston on a painting scholarship.

Wolf: Yeah, I had a scholarship at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, and I've always painted.

Ganley: Is there something similar about sketching and painting, and lyric writing? Is there some way that those two art forms meld together for you?

Wolf: No.

It all happened by buying a big jug of cheap Cucamonga wine, and every weekend there was a loft party. I got up and sang: There might be a man down there. It might be your man. I don't know.

And it was another revelation. Being a painter, it was so solitary, and all of a sudden I was, you know… there was the collaboration of doing something with other people, and being in a group was really thrilling.

Peter Wolf parlayed that performance into a gig. He joined up with a band known as The Hallucinations. They built the fan base with shows around New England. At the same time, another brief side career presented itself.

Wolf: There was a radio show station that started.

Ganley: BCN, right?

Wolf: Yes, WBCN in Boston, and the fellow that started the station was an eccentric character, and he would drink at these bars until closing time. Come to my apartment to kind of pass out on my couch. He said, ‘Well, why don't you get all these records, all these 45s why don’t you maybe help me out?’

So I became the all-night DJ: The Woofa Goofa….two for half a loaf of show making your knees freeze, your bladder splatter. If it's in you, it's got to come out because that's rock and roll…it’s all about doing the tuning and getting right through ‘em… and welcome the little late at night kid from Alabama doing it all head getting ready and do it to it. Give us a call. We're going to have some fun until the Midnight Sun.

And I did that every night.

That's nonstop for about a year and a half or so. By then, the Geils Band formed and I just couldn't do both.

By the time [the J. Geils Band] got to New York, Bill Graham invited us down, he heard about us, but never saw us. And so he was on the side of the stage, and he watched us perform, and ran into the dressing room and he came up to me and he said, 'Jay, you were amazing!'

And I said, "No, I'm not Jay." I said, "No, no, Jay's the guitar player."

He said, 'Well...that ain't right.'

And I said, "Well, that's just the way it is."

Ganley: You eventually reached, I mean, you had a number one record with Freeze Frame. You guys were big-time rock artists… and then you left J. Geils and started a solo career.

Wolf: There was just some division in taste in the band.

And so they decided maybe it's best if I just went my way, and they went theirs. And so I didn't really leave. I was sort of politely asked to kind of not be part of the group anymore.

Ganley: So what was the dynamic like when you decided, ‘OK, I'm doing my own stuff now, I'm going to put together my own band.’

Wolf: Well, it was very frightening. And it took me a long while to kind of find my own footing. I had to just kept going and didn't look back, and I guess I'm still doing that today.

Ganley: And of course, now you've got the Midnight Travelers — you've been with these guys now for a number of years. Tell me about them.

Wolf: Well, the Midnight Travelers, is a group of musicians that I call “The A-Team.” There might be some as good, but there's none better. And it's a collaboration between the band and myself. We formed a sort of unique family.

You know, we go out there and every night it's, you know, 'let's get out there and blaze,' and that was the sort of objective of the Geils Band— which was every night.

You got to give it everything. And I just kept that credo right through the solo stuff and especially with the Midnight Travelers.

Ganley: Peter Wolf, I can't thank you enough for the time.

Wolf: Well, thank you, Rick.


The Peter Wolf and the Midnight Travelers are playing the Tupelo Music Hall in Derry. Find more information here.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
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