Before Aerosmith’s Joey Kramer, before Billy Gibbons, and before Jay Leno, J. Geils, the namesake lead guitar player of the J. Geils Band was so into cars that he built a Massachusetts-based business around Ferrari restoration that still exists today. John Warren Geils — and his band — were steeped in car culture long before the hits ever came, when their biggest success was on a few radio stations in his home city of Boston, and his most welcoming city outside of home, Detroit.
J. Geils was found dead yesterday in his home in Groton, Massachusetts, an affluent, leafy community 40 minutes west of Boston on Route 2.
Every single major media outlet covering Geils’s passing can’t help but mention the three major hits that eventually led to the band’s ultimate demise: 1980’s “Love Stinks” off the album of the same name, and “Centerfold” and “Freeze Frame” off 1981’s Freeze Frame, the band’s only No. 1 charting record.
By that point, though, the J. Geils Band had released eight studio albums and two raucous live records. Those live albums — 1972’s Full House and 1976’s Blow Your Face Out — are a much more accurate record of the the band’s true power than any studio album it ever recorded. Geils and his band — like the early Rolling Stones — were at their best tearing a hole in covers of 1950s an 1960s blues and soul classics, evidenced by this incredible cover of the 1967 hit from the Showstoppers, “(Ain’t Nothin’ But A) House Party.”
That cover was recorded both at home at the Boston Garden, and at Cobo Hall in Detroit, the city that most fervently adopted the Boston rockers.
The band’s breakout record was 1973’s Bloodshot. Reaching No. 10 on Billboard’s charts, it would be the band’s biggest album until it hit No. 1 with Freeze Frame in 1981. These days, the music industry hardly pays anyone, but in 1973, being in a band that cracked the Top 10 on Billboard meant — for most of the band — financial independence.
Geils’s father was an engineer at Bell Labs and a legitimate car enthusiast. Growing up in New Jersey, Geils accompanied his father to Classic Car Club of America events in his father’s 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K and 1937 Lincoln LeBaron Roadster.
In Tom Cotter and Ken Gross’s great book Rockin’ Garages, Geils explained that his love for sports cars came because he attended those shows and SCCA events with his father. “For one reason or another, I was always drawn to the European stuff,” he said. “My father would be looking at the Packards and Lincolns, and I was over looking at the Alfas and Bugattis and Talbot Lagos.”
He ended up at Boston’s Northeastern University because the city satisfied his two interests: Engineering and live music. He quit playing horns in favor of the guitar because — as he told Cotter and Gross — “Chicks don’t dig trumpet players.”
His engineering pursuits waned as he began to play more and more live music, and he eventually dropped out of Northeastern altogether, intending to move to Chicago to play with still-living blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, but his parents gave him an ultimatum: Get back in school or join the Army. He enrolled in Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) where he met up with Danny “Dr. Funk” Klein and Richard “Magic Dick” Salwitz, and the three formed the nucleus of the J. Geils Band.
By this point in the early 1970s, the band started getting regular gigs opening for major acts like Black Sabbath, and Geils started earning a respectable living as a musician. Geils had given up his Austin-Healeys for a Volkswagen Squareback, but quickly, the drudgery of driving a family car wore thin. “So I’m starting to think that I can get a ten- or twelve-year-old Ferrari for $3,000, $4,000 or $5,000,” he told Cotter and Gross. In the classified ads in the New York Times, he found the car he was looking for: a Pininfarina-bodied 1960 Ferrari 250 GT SII Cabriolet for $5,000.
To provide an example of how prescient Geils was about Ferrari collecting, another example of that Ferrari sold in February of 2016 had an auction estimate of 1.4 million to 1.8 million Euro (about the same in current US Dollars).
As the band’s success grew, so did Geils’s skill as a Ferrari technician. While the band wasn’t touring, he began rebuilding complex Ferrari V-12 engines, and his home workshop in Carlisle, Massachusetts started to attract the attention of other well-heeled Ferrari enthusiasts in the Boston area. He launched a business — KTR Motorsports — in nearby Ayer, Massachusetts to service the enthusiasts that became his customers.
While the band was successful, Geils poured most of his attention into music, but creative differences led frontman Peter Wolf to quit the band in 1983, and the band officially broke up in 1985. At that point, Geils focused all of his attention on his love for Italian cars. “I don’t think I touched a guitar for six years,” he told Cotter and Gross.
In 1992, Geils sold KTR Motorsports to a group of his customers, and eventually reformed a band with Magic Dick called J. Geils Bluestime.
Boston PBS affiliate WGBH profiled J. Geils an his car collection in this video from 2013:
J. Geils’s influence as a musician is evident in a tweetfollowing the news of his passing yesterday, from E Street Band guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt:
All our love and sympathy to the family and friends of John Warren Geils Jr. The J. Geils Band remain one of greatest bands of all time.
— Stevie Van Zandt (@StevieVanZandt) April 12, 2017
His automotive history is a little less obvious, but the legacy he left on Italian cars in the Boston area is still reverberating. The shop he founded is still actively in business in Ayer, Massachusetts, servicing the Ferraris and Alfas he loved, and providing vintage racing services for customers.