The good singers keep singing: an interview with John Oates of Hall and Oates

How do you know if you’ve made it? Is success something that can be measured? Does making it mean answering to no one and doing things on your own terms? Or is a life well-lived simply one that is savored and experienced fully?

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, Daryl Hall and John Oates are the top-selling duo in rock history. Over the course of their near 40 year career (their first album for Atlantic was released in 1972), they’ve tried almost every style of music and played with nearly everyone (including Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and Smokey Robinson).

During an interview with Oates, the pride he takes in his art is obvious. The waves of fans may have ebbed and flowed throughout the years, but Hall and Oates kept singing regardless. When all is said and done, Oates hints, maybe that’s the best way to define success.

The duo plays to sold out crowds across the state. I took that as my opportunity to pick the brain of a world-class singer and childhood hero.

Gene: What Hall and Oates songs are you most proud of?

John: I’d say the one that stands out in my mind the most is “She’s Gone” because it really put us on the map. It was the calling card for us as songwriters and as performers. It really got our name out there. I think it has the quintessential elements of what Daryl and I both bring as individuals in a collaboration.

Gene: If you could break that down, what would that be?

John: It’s a blending of traditional American acoustic music with urban R&B. I bring a little bit more of the acoustic, folk side to it and Daryl brought a little bit more of the doo-wop, urban R&B thing to it. We blended those things together. He learned from me and I learned from him. He influenced me with his piano playing and his more sophisticated musical training and I gave to him more of the roots, folk and blues Americana. We both influenced each other and learned from each other.

Gene: Do you have favorite songs in your head that you go back to, as reference points?

John: I go back to the early days of rock and roll, back to Chuck Berry and Little Richard and straight up through the folk revival that was happening in the early 60s, the resurrection and the rediscovery of the Delta blues singers, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson and then on up through the urban folk thing that was going on with Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie, stuff like that, straight up through doo-wop music and urban R&B from Philadelphia. Curtis Mayfield was a big influence on me. So, I reference all that stuff and I’m constantly referencing it. It depends on what I’m doing.

Gene: What do you think is behind your latest wave of success?

John: I think there’s a newfound appreciation for the body of work and the music that we created over the years. There’s a new generation of musicians who were children when our songs were out. They have a great respect for what we were able to accomplish and by the amount of hits and our longevity, and the fact that we’re still out there performing and playing and singing and writing and doing all those things. I think they have a newfound respect for us and they tell their fans and their younger fans have checked us out.

Gene: These days it seems people are reinterpreting Hall and Oates. They are more interested in taking the time to look at the work in its context. Is that because [as independent artists] you’ve taken control of your image and how you’re presented as opposed to having a record company handle marketing?

John: Yes, definitely. We became independent artists in 1996. We left the record companies in the early 90s and then when we started recording again in 1996, we knew that we would never go back to the traditional record company model. That was an old-fashioned concept and it wasn’t valid for us. We were one of the first artists to really strike out on our own and do everything ourselves and we’ve never looked back. It’s been great for us. We have no pressure. There’s no constraints by anyone. No one’s telling us what to do or dealing with us on any level. If we want to make a record, we make a record. If we don’t, we don’t. We do it for all the right reasons. Our last record was a Christmas record and we made a collection of R&B covers, called, “Our Kind of Soul.” If we want to do something that’s interesting and fun, we’ll do it.

Gene: Has your career ended up like you pictured? How much can you plan ahead on the way to being a rock star?

John: You can’t. You just do it. I never wanted to be a rock star. I just wanted to be a musician. The pop star part happened because we had hits. That never occurred to me. I never cared about it. I didn’t care if that ever happened. All I wanted to do was play music. One thing I did want to do was play music for a long time and I was always looking at ways of being able to play music and not have to stop. So, whatever it took was OK with me. The success and hits and the pop star aspect of it were byproducts of hard work.

Gene: Were there things about your career that surprised you — things that you never would have guessed when you were starting out?

John: Yeah, if someone told me when I was 18 years old that I’d be 60 years old and I’d still be recording and people would actually care about anything that I had to say or music that I had to make, I would have been surprised. I would have been really surprised.

Gene: On the recently released boxed set, “Do What You Want, Be What You Are,” one of the first songs features a young, very different sounding Daryl Hall. It’s not the same voice that we know today, with that powerful, expansive sound. His voice sounds smaller and closed up.

John: That’s maturity and experience. It’s like a vintage wine, you know…It gets better with age. I see it in various other singers too. Certain singers, no matter how old they get, they just seem to be good singers. Look at someone like Tony Bennett. How many years has he been singing? But he sings just as well today as he ever did, maybe even better. It depends. Unless you have a physical problem, like some physical limitation to your ability to sing, the good singers just keep singing.

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