Interview with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Daryl Hall

The first record I bought was a Daryl Hall and John Oates record. The first concert I went to was a Hall and Oates concert.  They are getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this week, so for this week's column I'd like to share a career highlight, my conversation with Daryl Hall. I have done a few stories with Daryl and John over the years. This is the most personal one. 

I was 8 years old and glued to MTV when the video for the Hall and Oates hit “Kiss On My List” came on.

Hall was jumping to the beat, playing his signature eighth note piano rhythm, then came the guitar solo.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Hall topped off the solo with forceful high notes. In an interview, Hall divided singers into two classes: shouters, like David Ruffin or sweet falsetto singers, like his other favorite Temptation, Eddie Kendricks. Hall had both.

The soulful croon of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” or the in-your-face attack of The Four Tops’ “Standing in the Shadows of Love” were both within Hall’s reach, as he illustrated on the Hall and Oates album, “Our Kind of Soul.”

But his singing was more than vocal prowess. I always had the impression that he sang from a place so deep within him that there was no separation between the man and his art. His singing was a kind of roadmap to the soul.

To my teenage ears it was proof that magic existed on earth—not in a sentimental way, but in the most practical sense. Hall showed me how to follow my passion.

“A belief in the power in yourself, that is how I would describe what I see on stage when you’re performing,” I said to him during a recent phone interview.

“Wow, that’s certainly what I think is a big part of life, you’re right. If I impart that feeling, then I’m happy to have done that. As you very well know, there’s a lot of power within people. There’s power to do good and power to do bad. There’s power to hurt yourself and power to help yourself. It’s all in how you harness it.”

Harnessing the power within was Hall’s forte. Each time he came around, I bought tickets. He had a way of navigating within the songs. He knew how to expand them and exist within them. He could walk their edges like he was balancing on a high wire. Then with a jump, or a nod to the band, he could collapse his creations instantly. All the while, he was the conduit for the audience. Anyone who wanted to go deeper could follow him.

Upping the ante, that was his role within his band. He was a master at always finding that next step, the step that would take you to the next level. It was the kind of step you couldn’t see until you were out there looking for it, about to put your foot down.

When I booked an interview with Hall, I got to cross an item off of my bucket list. In the following interview, I let the teenager in me come out and ask his boyhood hero anything he wanted. Hall also reflected on his teenage years, and he also had a chance to interact with his hero, Smokey Robinson, recently on his web and TV show, “Live From Daryl’s House.”

Gene: The song “Dreamer” from your box set, “Do What You Want, Be What You Are,” sounds like such a sad song about the life of an artist. How sad it is to get cast aside…one moment your dreams are so important to others that you are filling stadiums and then the next minute, you’re out of the spotlight.

Daryl: I wrote that song, God, I can’t even remember, 1970, 71 something like that. I was only about 21 years old. I didn’t know anything about life. I was projecting. I just saw myself in the future. That’s the reason that I ended the box set with that, that sort of futuristic mindset that I was in, when I was still a little kid. It sort of bore itself out throughout my life. It proves there’s a lot of truth to it. The fact is, it pretty much is true.

Gene: In that song you sing, “You live alone and you die alone.” That reminds me of another song, “Babs and Babs” from your album “Sacred Songs” where you sing, “You live alone and you die alone when your dreams all fade away.”

Daryl: I always liked that phrase, “when you live alone, you die alone.” I used it in “Babs and Babs” with the knowledge that I had not ever released that other song. So I was aware that I had reused the phrase. My feelings about all that have changed slightly, because I used to look at that as a bad thing. Now I look at it as just what it is. We live alone and we all die alone.

Gene: Can you talk about your evolution as a singer?

Daryl: As I got older, my voice got better. I always wanted to have more timbre in my voice, which only comes from drinking a lot of scotch, or living a lot of life. I drank some scotch, but I’ve mostly lived life. It’s opening my throat up in a different way. I like my voice better now. I sound now the way I wanted it to sound when I was 19.

Gene: What makes for a good singer?

Daryl: The ability to express yourself the way you want to. I don’t think it’s necessarily the quality of your voice.

Gene: I just saw Smokey Robinson on “Live From Daryl’s House,” the episode where he came over. That was an incredible episode.

Daryl: It was the most incredible episode really, because I think that some serious magic happened that day that the world usually doesn’t see. He’s an exceptional human being.

Gene: On a show called “Musician” you said if you had any regrets, it was that you didn’t worry about your image. You thought that would take care of itself. Did you eventually take your image into your own hands?

Daryl: Yeah, I did. I was referring to my early days. When I was first entering the world and people’s perceptions, I regret that I didn’t know or care, or was na├»ve about how much impact and reverberation that my initial image was going to have and how much you’re stuck with whatever that is. How hard it is to control it once it’s out there. So that’s what I was referring to. But, I’m so far past that, we’re talking 30 some years. My image, and I think that “Live from Daryl’s House” has solidified it, my image is exactly what you see. If you see me walking down the street, you’re gonna see the same guy as you do on stage, dressed the same, looking the same, and nothing changes. I’m just one person.

Gene: Because the music and your art is your life and it’s all mixed together?

Daryl: Finally! I always wanted to get to that place. I always wanted to focus more and more on getting to the place where it was all one. There’s no separation of persona, perception and reality.

Gene: When you’re jamming with bands, are you getting ideas and going, “Oh, I’d like to do that in my next song?”

Daryl: I never thought about it. There’s probably little things that go into my head, and I say, “Yeah I really like this.” OK, for example, there is something, like when I had my new soul bands on, like Eli Reed, Sharon Jones, Fitz and the Tantrums, people like that – I go, “You know, maybe I should go back into my own roots, go back to that Philly thing, the 60s Philly thing and try and write a song the way I wrote when I was a teenager.” In that respect, it gives me ideas.

Gene: Is there an overarching message that you hope that your career leaves for people?

Daryl: Mistrust hubris and empathize. Try to live your life in the world, and have a happy life in a very screwed up situation. Make the most of what you have. Reject what you don’t want. Get rid of dead wood.

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