If the notoriously nocturnal Peter Wolf ever had a day job it would be ironically appropriate if it was working as a haberdasher because of the many hats he has worn over his long career; including musician, songwriter and commercial radio disc jockey. Peter Walter Blankfield was born on March 7, 1946 in the Bronx, NY and growing up he planned on being an artist. His commitment to music began early in his life after attending an Alan Freed Rock and Roll Revue with live performances by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Frankie Lymon. His talent as a painter won him a grant to study at the Boston Museum School Of Fine Arts and while a student he had a life changing epiphany after jumping onstage to sing along with a blues band at a loft party. The group was The Hallucinations, with Stephen Jo Bladd on drums, and Peter soon talked his way into becoming the front man and lead singer of the unit. Said Wolf: “I like Boston because I came here to study painting at The Museum School Of Fine Arts, and I remained here because I liked the city so much. And I thought it was really conducive for musicians because the club scene, at one time, was so prevalent. You had a lot of coffeehouses,you had a lot of different clubs, far more than you have today unfortunately. And I like Boston, you know, because coming from New York, it wasn’t as competitive. And plus The J.Geils Band and the first band I was in The Hallucinations, started here so I stayed here. I didn’t join a band to meet girls,” he muses, “I joined my first band to meet musicians.”
The Hallucinations performed with The Velvet Underground, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, John Lee Hooker and Sun Ra among others. During this time, the band moved into a house in Cambridge, he started hanging out at Club 47 and got a job as a d.j. on the new FM radio station WBCN. His program played blues and r&b and he adopted the name “Woofa Goofa” on the air. He also started to cross paths with his heroes. Peter remembers “I was Muddy Waters’ official valet,” a role he also undertook with his mentor Howlin’ Wolf who’s name he adopted for his own. He still laughs about a time with that iconic first generation blues man: “After a show, I took him to an all-night diner outside of Harvard Square during Harvard’s final exams. There’s Wolf ordering rashers of bacon and all of these Ivy League students eating breakfast and cramming at the tables.” He became close with Van Morrison too. “Van used to live on Green Street, in Cambridge, and when I was doing the radio show at WBCN he used to come by. As a matter of fact, he used to borrow a lot of The Hallucinations’ equipment.” He also became friends with Gregg and Duane Allman. “They were in Boston for their first time and we were rehearsing and they knocked on our window and came in. Duane and Jay (Geils) became very close too.” At some point during this period he became roommates with future film maker David Lynch (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man) and also Barry Tashian (The Remains). The Remains had just toured with The Beatles and “he was the first guy to tell me that the thumping sound on the record was a bass guitar. You know, THAT was what they called a high hat. Things like that. He was very patient with me,” Wolf says.
After seeing The J.Geils Band in concert, he joined them in 1967 as vocalist and front man and quickly became known for his charismatic stage antics of fast-talking quips and “pole-vaulting” with mic stands. The J.Geils Band was signed by Jerry Wexler for Atlantic Records and between 1970-1983 they released 13 influential albums, and topped the Pop Single Charts with 1981’s “Freeze Frame,” “Love Stinks,” and “Centerfold.” Wolf and keyboardist Seth Justman were responsible for most of the songwriting. The J. Geils Band earned a reputation as one of rock’s most exciting live acts thanks, in large part, to their front man’s flamboyant, hyperactive stage presence. In his private life, Peter was married to actress Faye Dunaway from 1974-79 and they still keep in touch and remain friends. In 1982, The J.Geils Band accompanied The Rolling Stones during their Tattoo You tour promoted by Bill Graham, and later that same year they brought Jon Butcher Axis, an unsigned to a major label act, to open for them on their own Freeze Frame tour. This was unheard of then as it is today. Unsigned acts don’t draw in areas they are not known. Wolf explains: “Well I think we always tried to take a lot of bands out. I mean we had U2 working with us. The first time they ever played in the United States was with The Geils Band. I mean people like The Eagles, Billy Joel used to open for us. Peter Frampton used to open for us too. And when we were going out Jon was getting a nice buzz and he was performing good. We had The Stompers, even The Cars opened for us once. We just felt that he was available and he’d do well. He really had a good band going then.” Have you ever heard of another unknown band being picked by an international group to open their cross-country tour?
Creative differences made Peter leave the band in 1983 and he became a solo artist for the next fifteen years. His first album, Lights Out, was released in 1984 produced by Michael Jonzun of The Jonzun Crew and featured guitar guru Adrian Belew. “Lights Out,” the single, peaked at Number 12 on The Billboard Hot 100. In 1985, Wolf appeared on The Artists United Against Apartheid project’s song “Sun City.” 1987 saw him release his next solo album, Come As You Are, with the title track giving Peter another Top 15 hit on the Pop Chart but also a Number 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart. Later, “Can’t Get Started,” also became huge.
Wolf continued to release solo albums in the following years, briefly re-uniting with The J. Geils Band in 1999 and again in the early 2000’s. They still play occasionally as a group to this very day but his solo career has remained his creative focus. The present version of The J.Geils Band is without the long retired Stephen Jo Bladd and the late J.Geils and includes Duke Levine and Kevin Barry on guitars and Marty Richards on drums. These artists also belong to Wolf’s solo band The Midnight Travelers. His 1996 release, Long Line, was co-produced by Boston’s Johnny A (The Yardbirds) and Stu Kimball (Bob Dylan). His next two releases, Fool’s Parade and 2002’s Sleepless (with guest appearances by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards) sold well and the latter was noted as one of the 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time by Jann Wenner in Rolling Stone #937.
Wolf has appeared onstage with such diverse acts as Bruce Springsteen and Phil Lesh and he has recorded duets with Aretha Franklin, Little Milton, John Lee Hooker, Don Convay, and Wilson Pickett among others. Peter toured in 2008 with Kid Rock and Rev. Run (Run DMC) on the Rock and Roll Revival Tour. He performed “Love Stinks,” “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” “Must Of Got Lost,” “Centerfold,” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” with Kid Rock’s band. On a previous tour, after he finished his performance at the Narrows Center For The Arts in Fall River, MA he went across the street and joined a J.Geils tribute band onstage for “Ain’t Nothin’ But A Party.” Stories like this add to his legend. Wolf: “Well, I enjoy clubbing and I enjoy seeing new bands. It was such a surprise to be walking towards the parking lot and hearing that song. So I figured ‘why not jump in and take it to the bridge and kick it high?'” The J. Geils Band regrouped for a bunch of shows in 2009 including the opening night at The Boston House Of Blues and on August 14, 2010 they opened up for Aerosmith at Fenway Park. Wolf’s 2010 release Midnight Souvenirs won Album Of The Year at the Boston Music Awards. The music includes his duets with Shelby Lynne, Neko Case and Merle Haggard. His eighth solo album, A Cure For Loneliness came out in April, 2016 and he is currently gigging with his band The Midnight Travelers promoting this release. Recently, he was also a guest d.j. on Tom Petty’s Sirius XM Radio Show where he played Petty tunes and music from his own legendarily large record collection.
The legacy of Peter Wolf showcases his vibrant passion for music that has motivated him for most of his life and throughout a career that spans blues, soul, country, folk and jazz.
“Do you ever see you and Seth writing songs together again in the future?”
Peter Wolf: “Never can tell.”
(by A.J. Wachtel)