Peter Wolf has seemingly had it all. He's topped the charts and headlined arenas as the singer with the J. Geils Band, and is in the midst of a long-running solo career that recently saw the release of his eighth studio album, "A Cure for Loneliness" (Concord).
But he still sees his life as one long apprenticeship. He got into music to hang out with and learn from the musicians and singers he admired, and he's still getting his wish.
"I got to work with Muddy [Waters], John Lee [Hooker], Aretha [Franklin], Merle [Haggard], Neko Case, Shelby Lynne, Little Milton, Van [Morrison], Bruce [Springsteen] on stage — that's the payday," Wolf says.
"A Cure for Loneliness" demonstrates how much he's learned. It fuses Cajun accordion, country pedal steel, doo-wop harmonies, soul grit and rock toughness with the ease of an artist who has been conversing with those idioms for decades. And its title speaks to the role music and art have always played in his life.
Wolf grew up in New York City, the Bronx specifically, in the '50s as a budding visual artist. His father was a classical musician who took him to see Louis Armstrong and many of the jazz greats. Wolf also got a firsthand look at some of rock 'n' roll's founders, from Buddy Holly to Fats Domino, in their prime on stage, and tuned into late-night radio from around the country to hear gospel, doo-wop, bluegrass and blues.
All those strains of music have been part of his vocabulary since boyhood. His transformation from a rock 'n' roll fan into a performer seemed predestined.
"I was going to art school in Boston, and there was a group of art students performing at this loft party," he says. "We had one too many and one of the guys forgot the words to a song they were playing, so I got up and started singing. The response was so immediate.
"Painting was totally solitary — you're losing it because you don't know if you're getting it right or wrong. In music, you don't have to wait around for a reaction. The audience tells you right away. The discipline of doing your part is like being an actor in play, and I found it exciting."
Garage rock ruled in the wake of the British invasion, and everyone seemed to be in a band or knew someone who was. Wolf, whose pals included onetime roommate and future movie director David Lynch, had the gift of gab, honed as a radio DJ who called himself the "the Wolfa Goofa." As a frontman for an aspiring group of rockers, he was a natural.
"We would gather at clubs, the music stores, there was a lot of excitement — 'You guys got a band?' " he says. "It was like putting together gangs. You would rehearse in someone's garage or basement. Gigs gave you the opportunity to play in front of people. When I was with a band called the Hallucinations, I talked our way into backing up John Lee Hooker. We opened for the Shirelles, did 30 dates with Velvets. We made enough to eat tuna fish and peanut butter every day and pay our rent. It was all we could ask for."
The joy ride turned into a lucrative gig. He formed the J. Geils Band in 1967 and served as singer, songwriter, spokesman and sometime manager in a 17-year run. Along the way he was married to actress Faye Dunaway, and sold millions of records, including hits such as "Love Stinks," "Centerfold" and "Freeze-Frame."
But beyond those near-novelty songs, there was a strong layer of blues and roots music influences that never left him.
"People would bring 45s to a party in a box, or we'd be sitting around the house and one of my joys was putting on music that would keep the evening moving," he says. "I'd play Merle Haggard, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, and somehow it worked, the moods blended, even if the genres didn't. I'm always taken aback when somebody who loves blues says they hate country, or vice versa.
"The great stuff in the '50s and '60s shares so much. Blues and country music were made by working-class people to entertain other blue-collar people in juke joints or honky-tonks, and the blues players all were affected by country and vice versa. Muddy used to use my house to hang out in, and he told me he used to play Gene Autry songs, because he listened to the Grand Ole Opry. There was fusion of the music in the '40s, '50s and '60s, and I've always gone back to that as an inspiration."
Some of Wolf's best work has appeared on his most recent string of albums — "Sleepless" (2002), "Midnight Souvenirs" (2010) and "A Cure for Loneliness." They're a testament to an artist who, at age 70, could just as easily be coasting on greatest hits tours or Geils reunions.
"Bands who do greatest hits or reunion tours, I don't see anything wrong with that," he says. "It's just not something I personally choose to do. I admire people like Tom Waits, Loretta Lynn or Van Morrison who continue to put out good work.
"There's a stigma with rock 'n' roll — it was created for young people, the participants were young people, and it was considered a novelty. But rock 'n' roll grew, it became a more complicated art form and it's still defining itself. In painting, nobody says, 'Well, gee, Picasso, you're 79, aren't you a little too old for this?' Or, 'Hey, Duke, Duke Ellington, why are you still out there with the band?' Irving Berlin kept writing until he was 100. There's no reason to stop if you still love what you do and you're still learning."