November 15, 2012

Rockin’ Soul

by Jim Newsom

I met Daryl Hall and John Oates backstage at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, in 1980. Their opening act was a band called Black Rose, whose lead singer looked and sounded a lot like a punked-out version of Cher. (She was, in fact, Cher.)

What I most remember about that long ago evening is what a nice guy John Oates was. Listening to a recent radio interview he did with WSM in Nashville, I thought he still sounds like that same nice guy, even after riding the starmaker machinery to pop superstardom.

“I grew up in a little town called North Wales, Pennsylvania,” he said. “When I was four years old, my parents took me to an amusement park in Willow Grove, P-A, and Bill Haley and the Comets were playing in the bandshell. They were playing ‘Rock Around the Clock’ and all that stuff. The thing that stuck out most in my mind was that the bass player rode his upright bass like a horse, and that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.”

Oates met Daryl Hall while both were attending Temple University in Philadelphia. They had their own bands, but they became friends and roommates through their mutual musical interests.

“I grew up playing traditional American music,” Oates said, “a kid in a small town with nobody really around. When I came to Philadelphia and met Daryl, he was more into doowop and streetcorner music. He also had a classical background and a gospel background. Daryl started playing mandolin because he couldn’t sit on the steps and pick with us and play piano. He’s such a good musician that he picked up the mandolin quickly. Through the years, we went to a whole other place in terms of pop music. But I think at the root of our music is this blending of acoustic, traditional American music and urban soul music. Somehow we melded that together.”

When I met them, it looked like Hall & Oates had already had their fifteen minutes of fame and that their short-lived popularity peak was probably behind them. Their second album, the 1973 release Abandoned Luncheonette, was a kind of cult favorite for its unique blend of singer-songwriter folkishness with Philly soul. Everybody who heard the album’s single “She’s Gone” loved it, and we played it to death on college radio, but it was only a hit in its cover version by Tavares that went to number one on the R&B charts.

We also played the duo’s next album, the Todd Rundgren produced War Babies, on WUVT at Virginia Tech, but that record went nowhere. They subsequently switched record labels, donned makeup and blow-dried their hair for the cover of the self-titled silver album, and produced their first Top Ten single, “Sara Smile,” written for Hall’s girlfriend, Sara Allen, who would become one of their songwriting partners.

“We were at a point in our career where, if I was a new artist today, I wouldn’t be around,” Oates opined. “This was our fourth album. We had released two or three singles from that album. We were doing our first tour of Europe; we were in London. We got a call from our manager saying that a small R&B station in Toledo, Ohio, was playing ‘Sara Smile’ as an album cut and getting all these phone requests. So RCA decided to release it as a single. We had no idea; we thought it was pretty much over. But ‘Sara Smile’ took off—it was a hit of the people.

“Interestingly enough, ‘She’s Gone’ from two albums before, was rereleased and became a hit because of ‘Sara Smile.’”

The next album, Bigger Than Both of Us, delivered their first number one hit with “Rich Girl” in 1977. But by the summer of 1980, they’d had a three-year dry spell. Ironically, that was about to change. The album they released that summer, Voices, would yield four huge hits including “You Make My Dreams” and “Kiss on My List.” Their sound had hardened considerably since “She’s Gone” and unbeknownst to me or to them at the time, they were about to embark on a four-year run of hits that would make them “the most successful duo of the rock era” according to Billboard Magazine.

Anyone listening to the radio or watching MTV in the early ‘80s knows the string of hits: “Private Eyes,” “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),” “Man Eater,” “Say It Isn’t So,” “Adult Education,” “Out of Touch.” The title of their original Greatest Hits collection, Rock ‘n Soul Part 1, succinctly sums up the sound of those hitmaking years.

More recently, both have released solo recordings. Daryl Hall has an online TV show called Live from Daryl’s House where he’s "playing with my friends and putting it up on the Internet." Sony Legacy put out a four-disc, 74-track box set called Do What You Want, Be What You Are: The Music of Daryl Hall & John Oates.

The tour of the same name brings them to the Ferguson Center for a hit-filled concert on Wednesday, December 5th, to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of their first album, Whole Oats. The online video of their February concert in Sydney, Australia, shows they’ve still got the goods and promises a night filled with great music, sweet memories and lots of soulful rock.

Daryl Hall & John Oates
December 5th @ 7:30 pm
Ferguson Center for the Arts
Tickets: $62.00 – 112.00
fergusoncenter.cnu.edu; (757) 594-8752

copyright © 2012 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.


PortFolio Weekly
January 24, 2006
A review of Rock ‘n Soul Part 1