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Magic Dick Interview (2009)

Former J. Geils Band harpist talks to About.com Blues


Blues harpist Magic Dick

Blues harpist Magic Dick

Photo courtesy Blind Raccoon

Richard Salwitz, better known as Magic Dick, was the harp-wielding madman adding a bluesy vibe to such early J. Geils Band songs as "Looking For A Love," "Give It To Me," and the explosive harmonica showcase "Whammer Jammer." Constant touring and a blow-the-roof-off-the-mutha live show won the J. Geils Band a loyal following, which set the stage for the band's later commercial success.

Thanks to MTV and imaginative videos for the band's more pop-oriented material like "Love Stinks," "Centerfold," and "Freeze Frame," the J. Geils Band enjoyed a Top 20 album with 1980's Love Stinks, and topped the charts with the following year's Freeze Frame album. Magic Dick was with the band from its earliest days through its break-up in 1985.

Falling In Love With Music

Magic Dick was drawn to music when he was barely out of the cradle. "I was aware of it at a very early age," he says. "When I was three years old, I had a pretty bad case of the flu. My mother bought me a Marine Band harmonica, which is the very same harp that I play today."

"The experience of having that harp in my hand...I couldn't play music on it," he remembers, "I didn't know anything about it...I'd blow into it and the sound that came out, and how it felt in your hand, it made a real big impression on me. There's something magical about it."

Music stayed on his mind well into college. "I fell in love it so deeply that once I got started on it in earnest, which I was 21 at the time that I really took it up, once I started on it, I had a single-minded purpose and I couldn't keep my mind on anything else. My school studies...I was in college at the time...they went right down the drain, which I don't regret."

The J. Geils Band

The J. Geils Band was originally formed as an acoustic blues trio during the mid-60s with guitarist John "J" Geils and bassist Danny Klein. "The three of us were studying to be engineers and scientists at Worchester Polytechnic Institute, which was a small college," says Magic Dick. "I loved the subject matter of all that stuff, and to this day I use a lot of what I learned, but in a way that was different than what I was planning when I went to school."

"The J. Geils Band got its start by virtue of the fact that we serendipitously met at college," he says. "We got so into the music thing that we neglected our studies, and after a year and a half we split school and moved to Boston. After about a year in Boston doing our own thing, we met up with Peter Wolf and Stephen Jo Bladd. They were in a different band that was breaking up, so they joined forces with us."

The J. Geils Band developed a substantial following in the Boston area with their dynamic mix of blues-rock, R&B, and soul music. When keyboardist/songwriter Seth Justman joined the band in 1967, he brought elements of rock and pop to the J. Geils sound, and the band would later be signed to Atlantic Records for a series of critically-acclaimed albums like 1971's The Morning After, 1972's "Live" Full House and 1973's Bloodshot.

Muddy, Junior, Buddy & John Lee

During the early days of the J. Geils Band, they played behind such blues music legends as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. "We used to jam with them when they came to town, during the late-1960s," remembers Magic Dick. "A lot of great Chicago players, due to the efforts of a gentleman named Dick Waterman, he brought a lot of the Chicago blues greats to Boston and to Cambridge, and we had the opportunity to meet these guys and play with them."

"We were really just getting started, but they were wonderful people. They could tell how much we loved music, how dedicated we were to what we were doing, and they helped us out," says Magic Dick. The band even recorded with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells on the pair's 1972 album Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play The Blues. "We recorded a couple of tunes for an album on Atco in the early-70s."

The New Wave '80s

During the early-1980s, the J. Geils Band lightened up its sound, eschewing its muscular, blues-based rock 'n' roll for hooky, pop-laden songwriting. "As the years went by, there were more pop elements in the writing," says Magic Dick. "Seth Justman had a lot to do with that, and Peter...."

Magic Dick explains the evolution in the band's sound. "A band's typical first album is stuff they've been playing on the road for some time, and it's very well rehearsed. Two, three days at the most and you're done. Eventually, the kind of records we were making...other bands as well...it became a process, it was more like making movies, with layers of recording. A record would be fabricated, and that approach allowed pop music to develop in the way that it did. You had vast technical control over anything that you wanted to try with multi-track recording."

"We eventually recorded "Love Stinks" and "Centerfold," those kind of hits that we had," he says. "Some people don't realize that it's not that easy to craft a number one record, and you can start out with all the intentions in the world. Sometimes you think you have one, and nothing happens, other times you don't realize you have one, and it does happen." Still, the band's sound had noticeably changed with the new decade. "You take a tune like "Centerfold," that was...I can't speak for Seth and Peter...I think that it was specifically composed to have an impact," he says.

Magic Dick Goes To Holland

During the 1990s, Magic Dick launched his own blues-based band, appropriately named Bluestime. "That was another one of those serendipitous things that came about," he says. "The J. Geils Band disbanded in 1984, and I took a long time period off. I wasn't doing anything in terms of playing out...it was kind of a depressing period with the band disbanding. Not much was happening, musically, and I did a lot of personal photography stuff."

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