As Peter Wolf crouched over the microphone at the front of the stage, guitarist J. Geils stood next to him, eyes closed, playing the frantic refrain of “Lookin’ for a Love” to a delirious Fenway Park crowd.
The sold-out concert in 2010 was a triumph for the J. Geils Band, the venerable Boston rockers who had broken up years before but now, older and wiser and motivated by a desire to make some money, were setting aside their differences to put on a show.
At least that is what everyone thought. But like some other well-known local bands — Boston, The Cars, and the famously fractious Aerosmith, to name a few — the J. Geils Band couldn’t keep it together. Even as they played their exuberant set at Fenway that night before Aerosmith took the stage, there was a split in the offing. John Geils Jr., who cofounded the group more than 40 years ago, had, without telling his bandmates, quietly trademarked the name “J. Geils Band” in 2009, potentially giving him sole control over its use.
The bold move, revealed to Wolf and three other band members last November in a matter-of-fact e-mail from Geils’s business partner, has touched off a bitter legal battle to determine who has the right to perform as the J. Geils Band. It has also bewildered fans on the eve of the group’s “Houseparty” tour, due to begin Aug. 25 in Syracuse, N.Y.
Representatives for Wolf, keyboardist Seth Justman, blues harpist Magic Dick, and bassist Danny Klein, insist the tour is still on, and the group will continue to bill itself as the J. Geils Band, even though Geils will not be with them. Geils, meanwhile, has filed a lawsuit in US District Court in Boston alleging trademark infringement, claiming the other members of the band are trying to “misappropriate and steal” the J. Geils Band name by touring without him.
“Bands not getting along is nothing new. It’s always a challenge,” said John Baruck, the band’s longtime manager. “But this is a unique situation and what J.’s done here has certainly destroyed the relationship.”
Agreement signed in 1982
It is a relationship that dates to 1969, when Wolf, Justman, and drummer Stephen Jo Bladd joined Geils, who already had established an act with Klein and Magic Dick, in the J. Geils Blues Band. Playing R&B-infused rock, the combo, calling themselves the J. Geils Band, quickly developed a reputation for ecstatic live shows. Wolf, with his beard, bell-bottoms, and beret, was the band’s antic frontman. Geils, by contrast, was a more discreet stage presence, content to play out of the spotlight.
Between 1970 and 1985 (when Wolf left the group to embark on a solo career), the J. Geils Band released 15 albums, the most commercially successful being 1981’s “Freeze Frame,” which included the No. 1 hit “Centerfold” and made them an early darling of MTV. The wave of success earned the band an opening slot on the Rolling Stones’ 1982 European tour.
But just as they were about to become an enormous pop act, the band unraveled.
While the 1985 breakup of the J. Geils Band was generally attributed to disagreements between principal songwriters Wolf and Justman, Geils, in his lawsuit, reveals that he had long been unhappy in the group and twice tried to quit.
In 1982, according to the suit, the band’s complicated dynamics led the members to sign a document that will figure prominently in the current court proceeding.
Called a “shareholder agreement” in court papers, the document, which Geils now contends he signed “under tremendous duress and pressure,” stipulated that if the guitarist stopped performing with the band, he could not use the name “J. Geils” or “Geils” in connection with any commercial venture. He could, however, play as “John Geils” or “John Geils Jr.”
“J. Geils was beside himself,” the lawsuit states, referring to the shareholder document. “Despite the fact that Peter Wolf and Seth Justman would have been nowhere without J. Geils, they were now seeking to take his entire life away.” (Geils would not be interviewed for this story.)
Nevertheless, Geils signed the agreement. After the band broke up, Geils played with a variety of blues and pop acts, and in every case he was identified as “J. Geils” or “Jay Geils.” No one objected.
Reluctant about reunions
The J. Geils Band reunited for the first time in 1999, and has played together periodically since. (Bladd, the drummer, did not return to the band as a full-time member.) People close to the group say the relationship between Wolf and Justman is cordial, but Geils has been a reluctant participant in the reunions. Sometimes the issues that have divided them seem small: For the concert at Fenway, they say, Geils, who is 66, wanted to sit on a stool during the show, a request that was vetoed by the band.
“To quote Pete Townshend, a band is an extreme form of codependency, like a marriage but without the sex, the ceremony, the love, or the children,” said author Stephen Davis, who has written several biographies of dysfunctional bands, including the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, and Guns N’ Roses. “Playing the same thing every night, you begin to hate each other and to hate yourself. It’s soul-destroying, but it’s also lucrative, so you do it.”
Or you don’t. In November 2011, Gerry Beaudoin, Geils’s business partner and sometimes playing partner on jazz guitar, sent an e-mail to Klein and Magic Dick informing them that Geils had trademarked “J. Geils Band” with the US Patent and Trademark Office. The trademark, which he applied for in 2008, covers merchandise, production of sound recordings, video games, movie soundtracks, and live performances.
“This e-mail is to inform you that the trademark for the J. Geils Band is owned by Francesca Records,” read the e-mail. “Please cease and desist in using our trademark without requesting a valid license from our company.”
Signed “Best regards, Gerry,” the e-mail claimed that Geils had told Baruck, the band’s manager, of his intention to get the trademark. But Baruck says he assumed Geils would consult with his bandmates before doing so.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think he was going to demand that we license the name from him,” Baruck said.
Boston dates scheduled
The band has since taken several steps. Through its attorney, James Weinberger, it petitioned the Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the trademark, citing the 1982 shareholder agreement, and attempted to obtain a trademark for “The J. Geils Band” itself. But the application was denied because of the likelihood of confusion with the already-trademarked “J. Geils Band.” The band also began to closely monitor Geils’s use of “J. Geils” in promoting his shows with Beaudoin. (According to court documents, Showcase Live in Foxborough canceled a concert by the duo last December after receiving a cease and desist letter from Weinberger.)
Edward Colbert, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who specializes in licensing issues related to intellectual property cases, said there is a central question in the case that needs to be answered. “The tricky part here is this,” said Colbert, whose brother is Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, “does J. Geils own his name or is it someone else’s?”
Wolf declined to be interviewed for this story, but Justman did talk briefly. Reached on the set of an Adam Sandler movie shooting in Swampscott — the J. Geils Band (minus J. Geils) performs at a pool party in the film — Justman said he is stunned.
“J. and I have been friends for so long, I consider him a very good friend,” Justman said. “It’s shocking, upsetting, that in a relationship of that length and magnitude, something like this could happen. I can’t predict the future. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But we’re going to play and we’re going to play at our usual level of hysteria and ferociousness.”
The recently announced J. Geils Band tour, if not blocked by court action, totals 13 shows, including two at Boston’s House of Blues Sept. 7 and 8, with tickets priced at $75 and $125, and a Dec. 7 date at the Fillmore in Detroit, a J. Geils Band stronghold where two of the band’s three live albums were recorded.
Geils and Beaudoin are being represented by attorney Chuck Grimes, who is surprised that Wolf and Justman think they can tour as the J. Geils Band without the band’s namesake.
“If they want to go out as the P. Wolf Band or the S. Justman Band, go for it, but they can’t be the J. Geils Band,” said Grimes. “Because that guy over there, he’s J. Geils.”
That is unlikely to satisfy longtime fans who are baffled by the bickering and wondering why a group whose members are all in their sixties can’t get along well enough to play onstage together.
“The J. Geils Band is one of the greatest live bands ever, but J. is definitely not the main element. It’s the whole band working together,” said 59-year-old Bruce Gaylord of Lakeville, a longtime fan who has seen the band eight times. “I thought all those hard feelings were behind them, but I guess not.”