J. Geils, 71, of Groton; guitarist led iconic band
John Geils Jr. was a Worcester Polytechnic Institute student when he met bassist Danny Klein and harmonica player Richard Salwitz — two friends with whom he would form a trio that grew into one of Boston’s best-known bands.
A guitarist whose early tastes ran more toward jazz and blues than the rock ’n’ roll that would make him famous, Mr. Geils became a founder of the band that used an abbreviated form of his name — J. Geils Band — and gained stardom with the 1981 album “Freeze-Frame,” and its number-one single “Centerfold.”
Mr. Geils, who in recent years had rekindled his lifelong passion for jazz and blues, was found dead late Tuesday afternoon in his Groton home. He was 71.
Groton police found him after responding for a well-being check at his house. Foul play is not suspected, the police department said in a statement, but his death is still being investigated, a standard procedure for unattended deaths.
In a Facebook post, the J. Geils Band’s lead singer, Peter Wolf, wrote: “Thinking of all the times we kicked it high and rocked down the house! RIP Jay Geils.”
Nominated four times for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, most recently last year, the J. Geils Band has yet to be afforded that honor. “Did a single J. Geils record alter the course of popular music? No,” Anthony DeCurtis, a nominating committee member, told the Globe in 2004.
“But they proved that you can go out night after night, set after set, win over audiences, and finally become successful,” added DeCurtis, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine.
Though the J. Geils Band signed a record contract in 1970, widespread fame did not arrive quickly, despite the large following the musicians developed in Greater Boston. “It didn’t happen overnight for us,” Mr. Geils told the Globe in 2004. “It was lots of hard work. Like the saying goes — success is 10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration.”
There was no end to sweaty nights during the band’s early years of touring, opening for bands such as the Allman Brothers and the Byrds, and blues musicians such as B.B. King and Johnny Winter. In the 2004 Globe interview, Mr. Geils estimated that on average, he boarded a plane every third day between 1971 and 1984.
The hard work paid off when the band nudged into the top 40 with “Lookin’ for a Love,” a cover of a 1962 hit by The Valentinos, and entered the charts again with 1973’s “Give it to Me.”
The following year, the band’s single “Must of Got Lost” just missed making it into the top 10, and the J. Geils Band opened for bands such as the Rolling Stones. Released in 1980, the band’s song “Love Stinks” became a cultish favorite and a prelude to the following year’s rise to wider fame.
“Centerfold,” gaining popularity on the nascent MTV, spent six weeks atop Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. “Freeze-Frame,” the album’s title song, peaked at No. 4.
“Like with any band, a lot of positive forces got aligned at the same time, and it just happened for us,” Mr. Wolf recalled in the 2004 interview.
John Warren Geils Jr. was born in New York City in 1946 and grew up in Far Hills, N.J.
His father was an engineer and by all accounts Mr. Geils’s parents, both jazz fans, helped shape his musical tastes.
When Mr. Geils turned 10, his father took him to see Louis Armstrong, and when John Jr. turned 13, he took him to see Miles Davis.
Mr. Geils, who had started out on trumpet, switched to guitar in high school. Though he loved jazz, he didn’t think he had the technical ability to be a good enough player and focused instead on the blues.
He attended Northeastern University before transferring to Worcester Polytech — in part because his studies were lagging. He was spending too much time at clubs seeing singer-songwriters such as Tom Rush and Dave Van Ronk.
“Northeastern and I disagreed on topics such as getting up in the morning,” he said in a 2012 interview posted on autoweek.com.
Even in Worcester, music won out. “Engineering just didn’t work out for us,” Mr. Geils told the Globe in 2004.
Earlier incarnations of the band were called Snoopy and the Sopwith Camels and The Hallucinations. After Mr. Geils, Klein, and Salwitz, who took the stage name Magic Dick, added vocalist Wolf, drummer Stephen Jo Bladd, and keyboardist Seth Justman to the lineup, they were known as the J. Geils Blues Band before dropping the word “Blues.”
In the mid-1980s, the J. Geils Band broke up. The musicians reunited for a 1999 tour, and for a handful of other times over the next several years, mostly for benefits. Memorably, the band opened for Aerosmith in 2010 for a sold-out show at Fenway Park.
Mr. Geils left the band for good in 2012 and filed a lawsuit over the use of his name by the other musicians.
Other music projects, meanwhile, brought him back to the jazz and blues inspirations of his youth. In 1994, Mr. Geils and Magic Dick released “Bluestime,” an album that was “sort of a tribute to our heroes — Little Walter, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Charlie Christian and others,” Mr. Geils told the Globe that August.
“They got us going with all this crazy stuff.”
At that juncture, he billed himself as Jay Geils and said those who planned to see their blues ensemble shouldn’t expect J. Geils hits.
“I don’t think you’ll be hearing ‘Centerfold’ from this band,” he said. “We’d like to write original stuff lyrically and instrumentally, but in the framework of expanding Chicago blues and swing jazz.”
Mr. Geils also was passionate about cars, another pastime he picked up from his father, who took him to see auto races in Pennsylvania.
“My father was an engineer at Bell Labs and taught me mechanics,” Mr. Geils said in the AutoWeek interview. “He was a whiz. There was never a repairman in our house for anything. He fixed the TV, the refrigerator, and, of course, the cars.”
After founding KTR Motorsports in Carlisle, a business that serviced vintage Italian sports cars such as Ferraris and Maseratis, Mr. Geils sold the business in 1996.
Survivors and information about a memorial service were not immediately available. In the 2004 Globe interview, Mr. Geils and Kris Geils said they had split in 1999 after 28 years of marriage but remained friends.
About a dozen years ago, Mr. Geils teamed up with Gerry Beaudoin, a guitarist and arranger, to record tracks for the “The Kings of Strings.” That CD allowed him to revisit the jazz he had loved since boyhood, including work by musicians such as Christian.
“I said, ‘As a musician, I gotta get back,’ ” Mr. Geils told the Globe in 2006.
“The rock thing was a lot of fun, and we had some hit records,” he said, adding that he had long wished to more extensively expand his jazz repertoire. “I’d hear a Charlie Christian record and say, ‘I wanna play like that!’ ”