Peter Wolf Looks Back on Tom Petty, Ahead to Possible HOF Entry
Peter Wolf has been spending a lot of time lately looking both forward and backward. The J. Geils Band singer was heartbroken at the death of his old tourmate Tom Petty, but is looking forward to another shot at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction since the band was recently nominated for a fifth time.
While out on a run of shows in New England to support his 2016 album, A Cure for Loneliness, Wolf took some time to reflect on his past and future. He took our conversation all the way back to the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll (which he witnessed) and chatted about how, even at 71 years old, he had no plans of giving up his microphone.
You spent some time with Tom Petty both in the early days, when he opened up for the J. Geils Band in the late ’70s, and just this past summer, when you opened for him on the Heartbreakers' 40th anniversary tour. Had you kept in touch all that time?
Yes, they were out with us for a bit, and they were a great band even then, he was a great songwriter even then. I had a chance to get to know the band and Tom, and yes, we did stay in contact throughout the years, even if we didn’t see each other often.
Back in the ’70s, there were these bands like Geils or the Heartbreakers, the E Street Band or the Silver Bullet Band, that could turn on a dime. You and your peers could play rock or soul, blues or Americana. What gave you and these other bands the ability to do that?
You have to look back at the founding of rock ‘n’ roll, someone like Elvis was doing country and gospel ballads and R&B songs and straight-ahead Carl Perkins rockin’ stuff. Then you have to look at who was listening to Elvis and the first generation of rock ‘n’ roll. Those first generation influences really had a profound effect on people like myself getting into rock ‘n’ roll. Tom Petty had those influences too. He saw Elvis down in Florida on a movie set, then he saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, then when the Stones finally got on TV and he saw them that got him into the idea of putting together a band. But it’s all about who you listened to. Look a band like the Pixies and you see other influences, Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols and things like that.
You mention those first events that hooked Petty. Was there one moment that made you stand up and proclaim your undying devotion to rock?
My lightning bolt, my first encounter with live rock ‘n’ roll, besides seeing Elvis on TV, was my first concert at the age of 10. Even as I think about it I can’t quite believe it. It was Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Chantels, the Everly Brothers, Joanne Campbell and Blonde Bombshells, and, well, I know I’m forgetting a few.
What? How is that even possible? That’s like the Woodstock of the '50s.
Well, I’ll tell you how. It was the Alan Freed Cavalcade of Stars. My older sister was a dancer on the Alan Freed TV show and she got passes to this concert. I went with her, and man, I couldn’t believe it. Little Richard, I couldn’t believe it. Jerry Lee Lewis kicking the piano stool across the stage and jumping on the piano, I couldn’t believe it. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins coming out of a coffin with a big stick with a skull on it singing “I Put a Spell on You,” I couldn’t believe it.
I can see how that show could change the course of a life.
I know, I know. Oh, wait -- Dion and Belmonts was also on there. I saw several of those cavalcades at the age of 10 and 11. So, other than Elvis, I got to see the many of the founders of rock ‘n’ roll in concert. I saw Bo Diddley at a very young age. I saw Roy Orbison at a young age. And it hit me like a born again religious moment. It just did something to me and I’d play the records from those artists over and over and over in my bedroom. We lived in a little apartment and I must have drove everybody crazy. But it’s funny, I still have those 45s and I still listen to them.
Sounds like listening to as many different artists as possible was key to developing that talent to do rock, soul, blues and everything else. As a kid, was your mission to absorb it all?
When I was trying to learn about music, it was all about hunting down your favorite records at record stores all over town, and that wasn’t easy. I remember when the Jeff Beck band came to town and I took Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood record shopping and they were hunting for early Sam Cooke records and things they couldn’t find in England. They had to go hunting or they would miss things. But today, it’s all available on YouTube, for better or worse. If somebody is 15 years old and reads a bio of someone he likes or hears Tom Petty talk about his influences, this kid can just get right on YouTube and check it out. That’s an advantage that people like the Beatles, Stones, Geils Band and Petty didn’t have.
I know it must be hard because you have lost a lot of friends lately. Tom Petty, singer and songwriter Don Covay, whom you worked with, and Bobby Womack. On A Cure for Loneliness, you do a tribute track to Womack, “It’s Raining,” that you wrote with Covay. Can you talk a little bit about how that track came to be?
Bobby is somebody that is underappreciated by most of the public. The two of us had planned to do something for several albums. At one point he was sick, so it didn’t work out. But it was so strange because Kenny White, a singer and songwriter in his own right, got a blast on his cellphone when we were together and told me Bobby Womack had just passed. It was kind of eerie because we were about to send him the track to check out and then I was going to make plans to go out to Los Angeles to record with him. He was somebody I’d known for many, many years. I first met Bobby back when he was working with Sly Stone, but I’d been a huge fan since the early days when he was working with his brothers in the Valentinos. As the years passed, he only kept writing, kept being an outstanding writer and singer and guitar player. You could hear him on Wilson Pickett records and Aretha Franklin records, but never got the recognition he still deserves.
Talking about getting recognition, the J. Geils Band are up for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame again. What are your thoughts on that? Do you feel like it’s long overdue to make the cut or do you not pay attention to that kind of stuff anymore?
I’ve been at almost every induction ceremony. I have missed a few but not many. I inducted Jackie Wilson, who is still one of my all-time favorite artists. I got to induct Paul Butterfield. I gave a tribute and performed for Otis Blackwell, a songwriter who wrote a lot of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis songs. I also performed with Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke and Elvis Costello at a Sam Cooke tribute at the Hall in Cleveland. Man, that was something. So I have been involved with the Hall for a long time.
So it sounds like you’d be pretty thrilled to finally make the cut?
I know the award is an honor. It’s something we hope to get because of the recognition it brings. But this is our fifth time up and many people thought we’d get it the first time, or definitely the second time, or definitely the third time, so who knows? We can’t control that. But for me, I’ve enjoyed seeing many of the artists that I idolized get inducted.
It seems like so many from your generation, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Petty keep writing, recording and touring as long as they can, but do you ever think about retiring?
Back in the 1800s, you’d see a classical composer doing some of their finest work in their later years. The same thing is true of painters -- people like Matisse and Picasso, they kept painting until the day they died and nobody would say to them, “Do you ever think about stopping?” Painting is what they did and this is what I do.
Difference is that onstage you have to have a ton of energy. I’ve seen you live a few times and you need to be in great shape and voice to do what you do.
There are definitely physical demands to what we do, but we know that going in. A lot of these times you just get in front of the audience and you have an uncontrollable reaction. It’s not anything I think about, I’m not thinking, “Okay, on this number I’ll do this and then later I’ll go over to this side of the stage and do that.” I just let loose and find myself just lost in the music.
Tom Petty Through the Years: 1976-2017 Photos