With his last CD, Sleepless, which happens to be one of the 500 greatest albums of all time according to Rolling Stone’s 2004 survey, Peter Wolf set out to emulate the process and techniques of some records that had the greatest influence on him.
“We just tried to make a total CD that had a vibe,” Wolf said. “If you listen to [The Rolling Stones’] Exile On Main Street, it has a vibe. If you listen to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, it has a vibe. If you listen to [Bob Dylan’s] Nashville Skyline, it has a particular vibe. Nashville Skyline is different from Highway 61. With this we tried to establish a consistency so certain songs that might be good, we only used if it enhanced the vibe.”
Wolf, of course, was the manic lead singer of that gang of R&B/rock ’n’ roll crazies, The J. Geils Band — a group celebrated for their finely crafted radio singles (“Give It To Me,” “Centerfold,” “Love Stinks”) and legendary, heart-stopping live shows. Since the band’s demise in the early ’80s Wolf has been riding solo, yet the loss of Geils still seems to sting. He seeks solace in his deep record collection, which he’s been amassing since he could reach the counter at his local record shop.
Goldmine: Do you consider yourself a record collector?
Peter Wolf: No. I got lots of records. I’m not a collector-collector.
So you’re not a hard-core collector?
Well, you know, certain collectors, if they have Coral 201 and 202 and 204 they have to have Coral 203. I just like to have records that I love, and I happen to love a lot of records. I love a lot of music so I have a lot of records.
How many do you have?
Let me put it this way, I remember I first got [Elvis Presley’s] “Heartbreak Hotel,” Little Richard, and Frankie Lymon, and I still got ’em and I’ve been buyin’ records since I was about 8.
Wow! You still have the original ones that you bought?
So Mom and Dad didn’t throw them out when you went away somewhere?No. Mom and Dad wouldn’t be so crazy. You know, I went through different periods, and I became a big rock ’n’ roller — first generation of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers. Then I moved into doo-wop big time — groups like The Four Fellows, The G-Clefs, The Cadillacs, The Paragons, Dion And The Belmonts. And I got into jazz very heavily and Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers, and Horace Silver and [Thelonius] Monk and Roy Eldridge and back into some of the Big Bands and then into the folk movement really big and people like Blind Reverend Gary Davis and The Almanac Singers and The Weavers and then slowly got into bluegrass and Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. That led me into Hank Williams and Ray Price and Carl Smith and a host of others. And it just kinda kept circlin’ around there.
What about Lawrence Welk?
Lawrence Welk? You know, I like Larry’s middle period the best, when Larry was wearing suspenders and the belt. You know, the interesting thing about Lawrence Welk is, it was the end of a kind of… that sort of end of vaudevillian aspect that rock ’n’ roll kind of helped erase. I think some of those shows… it’s kind of like a time capsule of a certain period. It definitely is the antithesis of rock ’n’ roll. But it definitely was an interesting genre into itself.
Do you find as you get older that you realize what was good about that stuff?
Well, I don’t mean the Lawrence Welk Show, per se. But I mean, what that era represented was a kind of brilliant era of Big Bands, great musicians, you know — that tradition that Tommy Dorsey came out of, and… Bob Wills And The Texas Playboys and Louis Jordan and his Big Band and that whole tradition of Cab Calloway and the whole aspect of the orchestra and entertainment.
What kind of equipment do you listen to music on?
I have a lot of the early equipment because the sound of the stuff I like. I have an old Seeburg jukebox from 1956. I have a couple of old RCA 45 turntables.
Those old bakelite ones? And they work?
Yeah! And they never got really broke. I have a bunch of Technics turntables. I’m not a great audiophile, but I just have different speakers and different kinds of equipment. I got a lot of old mag amps [magnetic amps] that I can listen to for that nice warm sound, when I want to pull out a nice Blue Note record of Art Blakey Live At Birdland or something like what I was listening to earlier: The Diablos — Nolan Strong And The Diablos.
Do you have any 78s?
I do have 78s and I have a 78 player, but when I started buying records I first started buying 78s. But when 45s came out they just seemed more practical, and actually, the aspect that they didn’t break was pretty good.
They are virtually indestructible.
And they were lighter, and you can carry them around. You know, you had the record boxes to go to parties, so I found that 45s made a lot more sense.
If you’re traveling do you still check out a local flea market and sniff around for 45s?
Oh yeah. But not like I used to. I used to love to go to the Mom-and-Pop stores and go down the basements or look in the back, and now, you know, with the Internet, people sort of, I don’t know, it feels like a business or something. There are certain stores you can tell have the Zen thing to it, and certain stores that you can tell are just a waste of time. And most cities have a Zen-store hidden around somewhere.
You’ve been a solo artist for quite some time. I would think the upside is people now know that your name is Peter Wolf, and before people would go, “Hey! There’s J. Geils!”
Oh I still get it — in the street. As I was comin’ out of this bar, somebody comes over and says, “Hey J! Can we buy ya a drink?”
And what do you say?
I say, “Well, what kind of drink? [laughs] How big a drink?”
Do you politely tell them, “I’m Peter Wolf. I’m the guy who sang with them, but I’m not J. Geils.” or is that after the drink?
After several drinks.
I’ll bet you and Ian Anderson get together and trade horror stories.
Um… Who’s Ian Anderson?
Ian Anderson, the leader of Jethro Tull.
I know. I’m jokin’ with ya.
Your humor is too dry for me, Peter.
Well, it’s early yet. I don’t drink until the sun goes down. Now I can see this in Goldmine: “Peter Wolf says, ‘Who Is Ian Anderson?’”
Yeah, I’m gonna print it like that, totally out of context. That will be the lead line.
“He’s been living in a cave for 20 years, with nothing but his Jimmy Reed records and saltines.”