Even the way they met sounds like a hit song. It was the late 1960s and Daryl Hall and John Oates were studying at Temple University in Philadelphia. Hall was a sophomore; Oates a freshman. One auspicious night, they were attending a record hop run by local DJ Jimmy Bishop and both were backstage waiting to perform.
“I had a group called the Masters, Daryl had a group called the Temptones, and we were scheduled independently to perform our singles that were being played on Philadelphia R&B radio,” Oates says. “It was in a very rough part of Philadelphia and a giant fight broke out, and [Daryl and I] jumped in the service elevator and rode it down to the street level. And in the course of cramming into the elevator we kind of went, ‘Hey, man, yea, your songs are cool, let’s meet up.’ That’s basically how it started.”
Hall dropped out of college. “He thought it was more important to play with a band than to go to school,” Oates quips. Oates finished with a degree in journalism, intending to pursue that as a trade.
Those plans instead gave way to an over 40-year career that’s yielded 18 studio albums and six No. 1 singles and made Hall & Oates, who will receive a star Sept. 2 on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one of the most successful musical duos of all time.
HITS ON THEIR LIST: One of the best-selling musical duos of all time, Hall & Oates had six consecutive multi-platinum albums in the 1970s and ’80s.
“I don’t think there’s anything in my life that isn’t in a song,” says Hall of his songwriting. “I have a million anecdotes and stories to tell.”
But fame didn’t come instantly for Hall & Oates, who cut their teeth as staff songwriters. In 1972, they signed with Atlantic records. The band’s first three albums, “Whole Oates,” “Abandoned Luncheonette,” and “War Babies,” weren’t initial commercial hits. It would be several years before its signature sound, a confluence of soul, rock and roll, and rhythm and blues, came to permeate much of 1980s American pop culture and establish itself as the de facto collective soundtrack for Reagan-era youth.
“Everyone knows about MTV, everyone knows about the hit records, but very few people know what it took to get there,” says Oates.
To wit, “She’s Gone,” a ubiquitous anthem of love and loss that’s been featured in media ranging from the comedies “Better Off Dead” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” to an episode of “Scrubs,” wasn’t a success straight out of the gate.
“When it was first released as a single it wasn’t what you’d call a big hit,” Oates says. “It was what was known in those days as a turntable hit, meaning that it got a lot of play, people really gravitated toward that song, but it didn’t go up the charts.”
“I don’t think there’s anything in my life that isn’t in a song. I have a million stories to tell.”
In 1974, Lou Rawls recorded his own version of “She’s Gone” and R&B-soul-funk group Tavares scored a No. 1 R&B single with their cover of the song well before Hall & Oates’ original version made any widespread impact. Then in 1976, the duo signed with RCA Records and “Sara Smile” became the band’s first top 10 hit, followed by its first No. 1 track, “Rich Girl.” This prompted Atlantic Records to re-release “She’s Gone,” which soared up the charts. In 2010, indie pop duo Bird and the Bee released “Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall & John Oates,” its homage to eight classic Hall and Oates tracks, including “Private Eyes,” “Kiss on My List,” and “She’s Gone.”
“It shows the quality of the song itself that other people can relate to it, that other people cared about it enough to want to record it,” says Oates of the ballad’s ever-lingering popularity. “The Bird and the Bee — I became friends with them, I got to play with them. What they did with our music was really great. So ‘She’s Gone’ has been proven time and time again over the years. I’m very proud of that song — it sounds new every time we play it.”
Following the duo’s breakthrough splash, critics and marketing folk came out in abundance, attempting to compartmentalize Hall & Oates’ music into neat delineated categories, mostly for the sake of sales. They labeled the duo’s output as everything from “Philadelphia soul” — “even though we’re so well known for being from Philadelphia, we never recorded there,” Oates says — to “blue-eyed soul,” a phrasing openly and equally despised by both artists.
“The connotation is that we’re white people who are trying to sound like black people, and that’s stupid, so I don’t put any stock in it at all,” Oates says. “I like to keep a very open mind when it comes to music, and there’s always two kinds of music — good and bad. And that’s completely subjective. If you like something, it’s good. If you don’t like it, don’t listen to it, and maybe you consider it bad. That’s up to you. It doesn’t matter.”
“You either have soul or you don’t,” Hall says. “I don’t like to separate music into categories. I grew up in Philadelphia in a very racially integrated world. My music has always been gospel music and soul music, and I’ve also lived my life and have had my ears open to different music influences. I lived in England for years and that, too, permeated my brain. Having said that, I am a soul singer from Philadelphia. Those are my real roots and everything stems from that.”
That soul and spirit punctuate the entirety of Hall & Oates’ catalog, from early tracks to 1984’s “Big Bam Boom,” the duo’s 12th studio album that sold over 3 million copies worldwide and produced the chart-topper “Out of Touch” and also “Method of Modern Love,” the video for which features Hall diving into clouds and dancing upon them in that dreamy, ethereal fashion indicative of mid-1980s aesthetics.
Both Hall and Oates have since carved out notable solo careers. Oates has released numerous studio albums, including 2011’s “Mississippi Mile.” His memoir, “Change of Seasons,” is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in April.
“Watching the audience at night as they wait for that one favorite song from back in the day — it’s just all good.”
In 2011, Hall released “Laughing Down Crying,” his first solo album in 15 years, and his acclaimed online and MTV Live series “Live From Daryl’s House” has been going steady since 2007.
In 2014, the duo was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Despite various struggles—Hall suffers from chronic Lyme disease—Hall and Oates continue to tour, most recently with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue.
“Being with them and watching the audience at night as they wait for that one favorite song from back in the day — it’s just all good,” says Jones, whose battle with cancer is chronicled in Barbra Kopple’s “Miss Sharon Jones.” “Opening up for them every night, I get to be on the right side of that stage and watch them do one of those songs and watch the audience react to that. It’s just so good, it’s just so cool.”
Per Hall, he and Oates never get “bored” of singing their greatest hits.
“My band is so tight with each other that there’s a lot of room for improvisation,” says Hall. “We don’t ever play our songs in quite the same way.”
Doing it “their way” has always been Hall & Oates’ trademark. And if the pair never records an original song again — “I feel like the future of Hall & Oates is already in our past,” Oates says — they will continue to entertain audiences.
“We’re kind of in our own world,” Oates says. “We make our own records, we tour the way we want, we play the songs we want to play. People who like us, come to hear us. People who don’t want to hear us, don’t come to hear us. We don’t care, we’re very happy with all that, and we were always like that.We were committed to the music, it always came first. The other stuff could just swirl around on the outside. To this day, that’s the only thing that matters.”
WHAT: DARYL HALL & JOHN OATES RECEIVE A STAR ON THE HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME.
WHEN: 11:30 A.M. SEPT. 2
WHERE: 6752 HOLLYWOOD BLVD.
FILED UNDER: Daryl Hall