That soap-box derby race driver is a young boy named Jay Geils, as he looked in the 1950s, when we became neighbors and friends. A few years later, Jay became a famous musician, leader of the J. Geils Band. Yesterday, my old friend passed away at the age of 71. In his memory (and his father’s), I am reprinting here a chapter titled “Rock Star and His Dad” from my 2013 book, Name-droppings: Close Encounters with the Famous and Near-Famous:
We moved into our house at 47 Mill Road in Morris Plains, New Jersey, in 1950. Two houses away, in #43, lived the Geils family—Jack and Lynne, along with their four-year-old son, Jay. It did not take long for my parents and our new neighbors to become friends, despite the disparity in our families’ economic circumstances. At the beginning of our second year in America, my father was still near the bottom rung of the ladder at McGregor Sportswear, while Mother was toiling as a beginner seamstress at Maidenform Brassiere Company. Jack Geils, an electrical engineering graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was a rising young star at AT&T’s fabled research arm, Bell Telephone Laboratories, and Lynne led the leisurely life of a suburban housewife. Yet, something clicked between the two couples.
Jack had a passion for beautiful automobiles. He owned a classic Chrysler Town and Country, distinguished by spectacular doors made of mahogany, framed in white oak. Every T&C was handmade by master craftsmen, in the manner of motor coaches of the 1930s. Because Jack exhibited his rare model at Classic Car Club of America shows throughout the eastern United States, the car had to be in immaculate condition at all times. This involved frequent washing and waxing, and occasionally varnishing the gleaming wooden sides. Jack had no time to do the work himself, Jay was too young to help, and Jack would not trust his baby to one of the local service stations. Amazingly, he trusted a fourteen-year-old kid—me. He paid me handsomely, sometimes as much as five dollars!
As his everyday transportation, Jack drove a Volkswagen. His long-time friend, Lou Aricson, was one of America’s first VW dealers, and he introduced Jack to the rear-engined, air-cooled, bug.
Jack Geils’ other love was music, particularly jazz. He exposed his son to it at an early age. Jay heard records of big bands at home nearly every day, saw Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars live, and met Count Basie at a New York club. Jay began playing the trumpet and soon was accompanying Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, as their music flowed from his parents’ hi-fi.
When she noted that I had begun to acquire a local reputation as a pretty good high-school athlete, Lynne asked me to take Jay under my wing and to tutor him in sports. Jay, ten years my junior, and I would carry our gloves, a ball, and a bat down the street to Alfred Vail School, where I would teach him the intricacies of fielding ground balls and hitting my underhand tosses. At other times, we would dribble basketballs the length of Mill Road until we reached Vail’s outdoor court, where I would give Jay shooting lessons.
In the meantime, Jack continued his ascent through the ranks of Bell Labs. As Vice President, he arranged for me to work there as a junior draftsman in the summer prior to my senior year of high school. In September 1954, I left for college, and the Geils family moved away. Along with my parents and my girlfriend, Sue, I visited them during my Christmas vacation in nearby Bedminster. We were met at the door by an excited, nine-year-old Jay.
“Wait till you see what I got for Christmas,” he said, as he pulled me into the living room. There, in the corner, stood a drum set—several drums of various sizes, all with the initials “JG,” and gleaming, golden cymbals. When he played a riff for us, it was obvious that the boy had talent.
Eventually, Jack, Lynne, and Jay moved to a large house in Far Hills, New Jersey. From there, Jack commuted by train to New York City and his new job as Vice President of AT&T, the parent company of Bell Labs. When his parents brought him to our wedding in 1959, thirteen-year-old Jay told me that he was starting to play the guitar. Later, when Sue and I visited from California, he was proud to show me that he could pick a couple of popular folk songs.
After graduating from Bernards High School, Jay went off to college in Massachusetts. He was fulfilling his father’s dream for Jay to become an electrical engineer. In the meantime, Sue and I had decided that California was too distant from our parents, and I began to look for an East-coast job. Once again, the Geils connection came to the rescue. Jack arranged for me to enter a Bell Labs program whereby I would be allowed to take time off from work to pursue a doctorate. We moved to Baltimore, where I went to work at a field lab, and I began my studies at the University of Maryland.
Jack and Lynne sold their house and moved to an apartment in Manhattan. One day, Jack called to invite us for a visit.
“While you’re here, I need to get your advice about something very important,” he said.
Me? Giving advice to the man who had been my mentor and benefactor for so long? What’s this all about? I wondered.
As soon as Lynne, Jack, Sue, and I sat down in a Greenwich Village restaurant and ordered drinks, I found out.
“We have a problem with Jay,” Jack said quietly. I waited for him to elaborate.
“He has dropped out of school, and I don’t think he has any intention of going back.”
“Do you know why?” I asked.
“Yes. He says he doesn’t want to be an engineer. He says that what he really wants is to be a professional musician.”
Jack took a sip of his Scotch before continuing.
“He doesn’t have any money of his own and he won’t make much playing music. We could cut him off, and this would force him to go back to school.”
After another sip of his drink and a long pause, Jack looked at me.
“What do you think we should do?” he asked.
So, this was the “advice” Jack wanted from me. I knew how dedicated he was to his profession and how much he wanted his only child and namesake to follow in his footsteps. He had spoken of it many times over the years. Now, I knew that he wanted me to take his side in a family crisis. I looked at Lynne, hoping to be able to read where she stood. But, she was staring impassively into her drink. I glanced at Sue, but she was looking at me, waiting to hear what I had to say. Finally, I had to speak up.
“Jack,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “Do you remember my leaving OSU and transferring to Rutgers without telling my parents?”
“Of course,” Jack answered, probably wondering why I was recounting this.
“I caused them a lot of pain, especially when I rebelled against my father after he wouldn’t let me change my major from engineering to journalism. To spite him, I didn’t buy any books and eventually flunked out. That mistake turned out to be a turning point in my life.”
Jack looked at me dolefully, perhaps anticipating what I would say next.
“I think you need to let Jay do his thing,” I continued. “It might take six months, maybe even a year or two, but he’ll come to his senses, just like I did.”
I was happy that the waiter arrived at that point to take our dinner orders. After his departure, no one spoke for some time.
“You may be right,” Jack said, finally. “But I want to ask you a favor.”
“Of course. Anything,” I replied.
“Before we give up, will you speak with Jay and try to convince him that he’s making a mistake and that he should go back to school?”
“I’ll be glad to talk to him, Jack,” I lied. “I’ll call him on Monday.”
Although I had fibbed about being “glad,” I did call Jay. The outcome of our conversation was no surprise.
“Jack, I spoke with Jay,” I reported. “He is very passionate about his music. I don’t think there’s any way he can be talked out of going after it full-bore. My guess is that it won’t take more than a year for him to find out that he can’t make a living as a musician, that he’ll go back to school, and that he’ll become an engineer who plays music as a hobby.”
I have made hundreds of lousy predictions in my life, but this had to be one of the worst. Jay, along with guys named Danny Klein (“Dr. Funk”) and Richard Salwitz (“Magic Dick”) formed an acoustic blues trio. Before long, they were the hottest nightclub act in the Boston area. In 1967, they switched genres to rock. As the J. Geils Band, they added several new members, most notably singer Peter Wolf.
In 1970, they signed with Atlantic Records and soon produced hit songs, “First, I Look at the Purse,” “Looking for a Love,” and “Give It to Me.” Just like that, the J. Geils Band was one of the most popular rock groups in the world. My young friend, who could by now have been designing printed circuits at Bell Labs, was instead an international rock star. Jack was a proud father, as well as a jazz aficionado who came to love hard rock.
Jay married his childhood friend, Kristine Aricson, daughter of Jack’s old comrade, the Volkswagen dealer. They bought a home in the Boston suburbs, although they spent little time there. Jay traveled the world with the band, while Kris hit the horse-show circuit with her mounts.
The J. Geils Band had a life much longer than that of most rock groups. But ultimately, age caught up with it. Teenagers could not identify with forty-plus-year-olds pretending to be twenty-somethings. In 1985, the band broke up, and Jay turned from music to his second favorite pastime—cars. He opened a shop outside of Boston, restoring Ferraris. The J. Geils Band reunited a number of times after that, and
went on tours. The last time I saw them was as an opening act for B. B. King’s birthday tour, when it stopped at the Naval Academy.
Jack and Lynne Geils divorced after many years. Eventually, Jack remarried and he and his new wife, Ruthie, traveled the country in an RV, in search of a place to retire. They selected Charlottesville, Virginia, for its combination of rural setting and rich cultural activities associated with Thomas Jefferson’s university. Two weeks after moving into their new home, doctors at the University of Virginia hospital diagnosed Jack with inoperable cancer. My friend and mentor died in March 1988, almost exactly two months after the death of my father.
Jay and Kris, too, divorced. Kris married a successful entrepreneur and accomplished sailor named Bill Knuff. Jay lives alone, but he and Kris remain close friends. He is playing music again—this time it is jazz, the same music he heard every day at home as a boy.
When I received his CD called “Jay Geils Plays Jazz!” in the mail, I smiled my approval when I read the dedication on the back cover: “This recording is dedicated to the memory of my father, who took me to see Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars when I was 12 years old, for which I am eternally grateful. Jay Geils.”