Having a conversation with Peter Wolf is akin to taking a tutorial on the history of rock, blues and country music as told through the reminiscences of a truly well-rounded music fan.
One of the best stories that pops up is Wolf’s rant about how he was seduced by rock ’n’ roll at a very early age thanks to an older sister who was a dancer on Alan Freed’s “The Big Beat” television show. So it’s little surprise that his first concert was a Freed bill that boasted Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dion and the Belmonts, the Everly Brothers, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the Chantels and a host of others. Think about it; this was one wild show.
“I got spoiled early on, and it was life-changing,” affirms Wolf in a phone conversation from his Boston home. “When these artists came out and did what they did, it was mesmerizing. You get an introduction like that and your tastes develop pretty quickly.”
Later at the High School of Music & Art in Harlem, Wolf expanded his musical education at the Apollo Theater, where he saw R&B greats James Brown, Dinah Washington and Jackie Wilson. The lessons continued at jazz clubs where he caught Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. In the Village, he met a newcomer to town — a young folk singer named Bob Dylan.
Wolf, of course, would go on to front the J. Geils Band and such hits as “Centerfold” and “Freeze Frame.” Later he forged a successful solo career, recording seven albums since 1984, the most recent of which, 2010’s critically acclaimed “Midnight Souvenirs,” featured duets with Shelby Lynne, Neko Case and Merle Haggard.
Wolf returns to Chicago this week for three acoustic shows (two at City Winery; one at Space) with his band the Midnight Travelers: Duke Levine (guitar, mandolin), Kevin Barry (guitar, lap steel) and Marty Ballou (bass). It will be an intimate evening filled with storytelling and songs from different chapters of his life and career.
Chicago holds great import for him. He tells of how he left high school and traveled around the country, visiting friends in college and pretending to be an art student (he gave up painting for music). One of his stops was at the University of Chicago: “I got to explore a lot of Chicago clubs and people like Muddy Waters, Junior Wells and Howlin’ Wolf. It was a real treat.”
WXRT-FM (93.1) program director Norm Winer, who has know Wolf since their DJ days at Boston’s WBCN in the late ’60s, confirms that “Peter is one of the leading raconteurs of our time and a fabulous storyteller. And as I’ve found out over the years, the stories are all true.”
One of Wolf’s best stories is about he night in Boston when an 18-year-old Wolf convinced Waters (they would become close friends) and his band, including James Cotton and Otis Spann, to use his apartment for chilling out between shows at a nearby club. “I had all their records including 45s they hadn’t heard since they were recorded,” Wolf recalls. “They thought that was cool.”
Wolf is currently working on a new album but, to the consternation of his impatient fans, he’s taking his time.
“It’s kind of like a painting. You start it and you change it and you go over some of it and you go back to other parts of it,” says Wolf explaining his writing/recording style. “One of the good things is that there’s not a strict deadline. And one of the bad things is that there’s not a strict deadline. (Laughs) That’s the great challenge.”
Now 68, Wolf, who comes across as an intellectual everyman, still talks about music, art and life with undiminished enthusiasm. Even though he’s considered a legendary performer, he mostly stays out of the limelight but has never stopped feeding his eclectic musical vision.
Adds Winer, “Even though Peter often appears to be leading the existence of a recluse, he’s still listening, absorbing, conjuring ideas and concepts. He has always been a fan and student of music, and his connections with music and other musicians are always active and alive.”