One of music’s most successful duos in history, and superstar singer-songwriters, Hall & Oates created impossibly hook-laden blue-eyed soul throughout the 70s and a hurricane of hits in the 80s. All the while, they inadvertently broke barriers by transcending eras and genres.
Besides making you feel something, music that hits all those high notes is truly the definition of greatness. Live, Hall & Oates boast soaring six-part harmonies, a ferociously tight band, and a full-bodied old-school sound. On record, simple yet lush arrangements, emotive chord changes and a supreme level of musicianship all coalesce to serve those unforgettable songs.
Although a mutual love of soul may have fuelled their initial creative alchemy, to endure more than 40 years as a duo, their secret lies in their songs: many global hits on a massive scale including ‘Rich Girl’, ‘KissOn My List’, ‘Maneater’, ‘Sara Smile’, ‘She’s Gone’, ‘Private Eyes’, ‘One On One’, ‘Out Of Touch’ and ‘You Make My Dreams Come True’ among them.
On the eve of their summer UK tour, Acoustic spoke with Hall & Oates: Oates from his Nashville digs having just just wound up a solo tour in support of his glorious new release Good Road to Follow.
We caught Hall between takes, shooting one of his televisual pursuits, multi-tasking like a madman – he hosts Live From Daryl’s House (which began as an internet-only broadcast featuring Daryl hosting a visiting muso at his spacious upstate New York farmhouse).
The show, part musical collaboration, part chat show, is a hybrid and universally popular. Now LFDH has moved over to US TV, but you can still catch the show online anywhere and Daryl recently got a home renovation spinoff show as he is an impassioned house restorer… So, his downtime is practically non-existent these days and he kindly did our interview on what was intended to be a rare day off at his South Carolina home.
John’s sole focus is making music, and so he spent a little more time with us. John Oates was born in New York City in 1949 and attended Temple University in Philadelphia during the 60s, where he met fellow student Daryl Hall, eventually sparking a collaboration that would last more than 40 years, selling more than 60 million albums.
You are a truly underrated guitarist. Your sublime singing and songwriting tends to overshadow the guitar playing. The same thing as with Prince and Stephen Stills…
John Oates: [Laughing] Well that’s a great way to start my morning. And thank you very much for that because I admire them both and that’s good company to be in!
You’re in the UK to play live for the first time in several years.
John Oates: We are, and I’m really excited about it.
Isn’t your father originally from England?
John Oates: Not exactly. I’m a real mutt; a mixed breed. My mother’s side is totally of southern Italian heritage from Sorrento. My grandfather on my dad’s side was the Englishman, which explains my last name. He was a policeman who worked on the Rock of Gibraltar and he married a Moorish woman – my grandmother, who he met there. So, yes, there is English blood in me.
Your tour is a new lease on life for you with Daryl, as you both carry solo careers and you don’t tour much as a duo…
John Oates: It is, I’m happy to say. We’ve got an incredible new band and we’ve been so blessed over the years to have had such amazing players in our band (inclusive of session guitar giants such as G.E. Smith and the late T-Bone Wolk). But this new one, well, they’re taking things to another level. They are just kick-ass, plus we’re adding deeper album tracks in our shows so its been a lot of fun and I’ve got a renewed interest playing with Darryl and the Hall & Oates band. So, we’re just really digging it; it’s a renewed sense of music.
You’ve been touring on your own in support of your solo album Good Road To Follow, comprised of genre-defying songs which you cut as a bunch of singles before turning it into a collection. How did you put this out, and how does it compare now to the early days when you guys dominated radio?
John Oates: Well, obviously there’s been a whole paradigm shift in the music industry, including that of radio. Fortunately, my album is being played on some US radio stations. As far as getting a record deal goes, I’m very lucky because I have my own label (PS Records) that is distributed by Warner/Elektra Nashville. I’m in charge of my own labeI, I spend my own money, but at the same time I have the support of a major label to help me with various things. It’s really a unique deal.
Is your guitar your main songwriting instrument?
John Oates: I only really write on guitar, but I dabble on keyboards.
You certainly don’t do your solo projects for finance or fame as neither of you need the money nor the acclaim…
John Oates: It’s about challenging myself creatively and having these tremendous opportunities coming my way and making new friends here in Nashville [a former New Yorker, John moved to Nashville five years ago]. So I just immersed myself in music and the result is this album. I really re-dedicated myself to music, and a lot of it has to do with Nashville being on a different level. I began to be a part of the music community here and started to do recording sessions; I started to tour with people like Jerry Douglas and got to know Vince Gill [who plays on Good Road To Follow].
So is Nashville is the place to be for music these days?
John Oates: Living in Nashville these last several years has meant that I’ve really had to up my game, because the excellence in musicianship here is so high. It’s been great for my guitar playing! We love it, and not only for the music scene, but it’s a lot different to our home in Colorado. My wife and I split our time about 50/50 between the homes, and our son lives in Colorado. In Nashville we have this cool little city pad in a neighborhood with great little coffee shops and restaurants, and in Colorado we love the mountains and that our house is in the middle of nowhere. I love the outdoors, and we love being there with our animals around us. I hike, cycle, and ride my tractor – we live next to a National Park.
Thinking about your guitars, you don’t seem to favour just one…
John Oates: Let’s put it this way: I don’t use a hammer to put in a screw, so it’s the same for guitars, which are like tools. I play Gibsons, Fenders, Martins: you name it! I don’t have an allegiance to a particular brand, so it’s all about the right tool and the right guitar. If you put the right guitar in my hands, then I’m good to go. I have no endorsements. I do have a bunch of old vintage guitars from the 1940s. So if I’m going into a session I’ll bring a few in and see what works. Of course, it’s really cool to have options, although every guitarist has their go-to guitars, myself included – a custom Martin 000-18. When you get a new guitar and it has certain way it speaks to you, and you start to play it and it changes your playing to a degree – that’s what’s so exciting about the instrument.
How many guitars do you have and where do you store them?
John Oates: I’m not a crazy collector like so many of my contemporaries. I’m in my living room and I’m going to count them for you [he starts “one, two, three”]. There are 16 here in this closet and probably a locker with five or six stored because I don’t play them as often; then, in Colorado, maybe 11 or 12. If I don’t play them, I get rid of them. I don’t just collect for the sake of collecting.
Are there any unusual tunings for any of your own, or Hall & Oates, songs that spring to mind?
John Oates: I don’t do a lot of exotic tunings, and I mostly use standard tunings to do a number of things. I use G tuning, and drop D, too. I use a five string capo where I will only capo the first five strings and I’ll leave the low E open and play in the key of E. It’s an unusual sound but I use that a lot. My guitar focus is more on unique chord sounds.
Who are your guitar heroes?
John Oates: There are a lot! If I had to narrow them down, I’d say Chuck Berry, Curtis Mayfield, Mississippi John Hurt, and Doc Watson. If you put them all together, that’s my style.
Speaking of both the brilliant Doc and the seminal Hurt, most people know about your vast soul and R&B background, yet you also have a rootsy/folk proclivity evidenced on your solo album Mississippi Mile (2011).
John Oates: When I first met Daryl back in the 60s, I was playing a lot of Appalachian folk and blues and we combined that with traditional American R&B and doo-wop. Philly in the 60s was a very unique place to be because we not only had Gamble and Huff, we also had the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which was the first music festival next to Newport, and I got to see the R&B greats there and hang out with them – that had an impact on our songwriting.
On the topic of your songwriting, is there anything you’ve written in one genre which then morphed into another in the studio?
John Oates: Off the top of my head, that’s tough. I don’t want to skirt the question but, with a song, you create something from nothing and then there’s engineers, other players, technology and, of course, all those elements transform it into something else compared to the original song. There are instances where you go in with an idea and you retain exactly the same vibe and intention to the end, but when you’re making pop records with other players and producers, you bring those people in because you want the song to be something great and to become better than the sum of its parts. What’s really great about what we do is that every day it’s new, and in Nashville what I learned is that everyone is unbelievably talented – it’s not about finding the best player for a session here. Nashville is about casting the right players for the right feel. It’s the great trick of this town because there are so many incredible players, and such a wealth of musical resources. It’s a great problem to have. There are just so many phenomenal players, and whenever you play with good musicians – especially a good accompanist that is underappreciated – there’s a real skill and art to that, believe me. Our UK tour is going to be surprising our fans with what we’re playing live!
Is it surreal that you’ve been teaming up with Daryl for 40 years now and that, not only do you still tour as a duo, but that you are still in the game itself?
John Oates: Totally. My overwhelming lifelong passion remains music, and I still love what I do. I don’t want to get too deep but as you get older you appreciate every second. As you age, the more people you know pass on, things change and I just want to squeeze every drop out of each moment and not waste any of it.
Daryl Hall was born in 1946 in Philadelphia into a family of builders and carpenters. He attended Temple University in Philly as a teenager, and his local neighborhood in the city happened to be the hub of the soul scene. Drawn to the talented street corner singers, Hall was soon welcomed to enter the inner-circle of the Philly soul masters and sang with the Delfonics and the Stylistics. The rest, as they say, is rock history…
I think Americans, more than Europeans, are unaware of the legacy of the Philly sound. Wasn’t there a music building there that was tantamount to New York’s Brill Building?
Daryl Hall: Yes, it was on South Broad Street, called the Schubert Building. There were staff songwriters, and they were working out of the old Cameo Parkway days, which was Chubby Checker’s ‘The Twist’ and all that stuff, and Lenny Barry, who I became friends with. At 18, I was writing songs with Chubby and working loosely with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and hanging out with Tommy Bell, who would just sit at his piano and write songs. I would sit there with him taking it all in… At the same time I had my band [Gulliver], and we used to sing and hang out at the Uptown Theater, when I became good friends with the Temptations and Smokey Robinson. Smokey tried to get me on Motown, but it was a little too early, and that didn’t work out. So I stayed in Philadelphia, met John Oates, worked with him off and on. After college, we decided to do it full-time, and that became what is now Hall & Oates.
So after such incredible success as a recording artist, you turned your attentions to creating your own show…
Daryl Hall: Although I came up in the world of Philly soul, I’m fluent in several musical languages and I’m comfortable working with different people from different generations. I wanted to put something together that would let people see those other aspects of me, and this allowed me to do it.
Reflecting back, how have you summoned your songwriting muse?
Daryl Hall: I look at the world through songwriter’s eyes, so everything I hear it filters back to me musically. It’s all about music and songs 24/7.
You have been a celebrated house restorer with historic homes in upstate New York, Maine, and London here in the UK. Does your love of old beautiful buildings also extend to that of vintage guitars?
Daryl Hall: Yes it does. I like handcrafted things, whether it is old houses, articles of clothing, or guitars. I own a lot of vintage guitars, yes. So many that I sometimes have a hard time deciding which guitar to play! I’ve really lost count of how many – I sell some, buy some. I don’t keep track. I have a Gibson Hummingbird that my guitarist and best friend, T-Bone Wolk, left to me after his death. That guitar not only means a lot to me because it belonged to him, it’s also an amazing sounding guitar – it’s got a really huge sound.
I discovered your ties to England go back to the late 70s, and your friendship with guitarist Robert Fripp via your solo album Sacred Songs (1980). How did you meet Fripp?
Daryl Hall: I met Robert through a friend in 1974, and we became friends instantly. We have a lot of the same interests, and we just got along. I was first starting to spend a lot of time in England then, so I would stay at his house, and he used to stay at my house over here.
On Live From Daryl’s House, you’ve collaborated with many friends and mentors including Todd Rundgren, Smokey Robinson, plus some upcoming artists. What is the inherent challenge in making the show?
Daryl Hall: Every show is surprising, even if it’s with people I know because you never know what’s going happen – just like a blind date. I never know what’s going to move me, where we’re going to go musically. The hardest thing is working with other people’s schedules, because mine is a nightmare.
As you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April , you said: “We’re the only homegrown Philly band in the Hall of Fame. I’m not saying that because I’m proud, I’m saying that’s screwed up.” Despite now being deemed “worthy” after decades of critical derision, it’s telling just how political that whole thing is. But the award comes as your music is really resonating with the youngsters and you guys are not a nostalgic act…
Daryl Hall: I agree, and having kids get into our music is a nice thing. A new generation of people are looking at me and John in a different way, but the validation by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I guess is just about time passing. I’m not into that so much, but I do support the Hall of Fame Museum.
Your wife is English. Is your impending UK tour going to be a homecoming of sorts?
Daryl Hall: I have a lot of family in the UK, and I usually visit every summer as we own a home in London and it’s been a while since we toured there. It’s really special playing there again. It’s been too long.