WHY HALL & OATES MATTER
Updated: Apr 5, 2020
Rooted in Philly soul, the duo blended folk, rock, country, and new wave into their own irresistible sound.
Daryl Hall and John Oates met backstage at Philadelphia’s Adelphi Ballroom club, where they waited with other musicians to appear on a local showcase. A gang fight broke out, so all of the night’s performers packed themselves into a freight elevator to escape the fray.
Hall, whose given name was actually Hohl, was the unlikely, skinny, strawberry-blonde lead singer of The Temptones, an all-white doo-wop and R&B group who scored a local hit with the song, “Girl I Love You.”
Oates kept running into Hall at Temple University, where they were both students, and eventually became a Temptone himself.
“I was doing folk music in a coffee house… and then I’d play in an R&B band in a sharkskin suit,” Oates said in the VH1 Classic mini-documentary Daryl Hall: Soul Man.
Hall says it was Oates’ interested in bluegrass, folk and blues music that turned him on to more acoustic, singer-songwriter influences. He realized those styles could be soulful, as well. That’s when “I really got it,” he said. “That’s mountain soul… I was trying to mix all that up.”
For his own part, Hall had become friends with The Temptations as they rose to stardom from the streets of Philadelphia. “They were an outrageous influence on me,” Hall said. He joined them on the road some, “trying to be their assistant,” picking up their suits at the cleaners and grabbing their coffee.
“After the show, they would just go and sing gospel sings and stuff,” Hall said. “I felt that was something I belonged doing.”
“It was really a lot of interracial interaction, and it’s why I sing the kind of music that I sing,” he continued. “There’s been a lot of misunderstanding over the years by people who can’t even imagine that.”
At their best (especially during their early-to-mid 1970s work and the early 1980s), Hall & Oates reflect what America's popular music should be about: Rooted in tradition, finding your modern voice, and blending these styles into something your own. Hall and Oates come by their music honestly, for the most part, because of their adoration and respect for Philadelphia soul.
Hall’s vocals and creative ad libs make him among the most compelling voices in rock ‘n roll, or rock 'n soul, drawing from Philly Soul singers of the 1970s such as The O’Jays’ Eddie Levert, The Spinners’ Bobby Smith and Phillipe’ Wynne, and of course The Temptations’ bluesy David Ruffin and soaring falsetto Eddie Kendricks.
This is apparent even on some of Hall and Oates’ biggest hits, such as “Kiss On My List” and “You Make My Dreams,” which bounces with unforgettable hooks, driven especially by guitarist G.E. Smith (later the longtime leader of the Saturday Night Live house band).
In an old TV clip shown during the documentary, a host asked Hall whether there’s a difference in white and black music.
“In Philadelphia, very little difference,” Hall replied. “All the music in Philadelphia is black music, really is made by black and white together, a very integrated thing.”
“I don’t see any distinction between black and white music. I grew up in a very mixed-race environment,” he continued. “My singing style came from that. Like (with) most soul singers, that’s where it comes from--church, really.”
In his 2018 autobiography, Change of Seasons, Oates also cites folksters the Rev. Gary Davis, Bill Monroe, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, Elizabeth Cotten, and of course Bob Dylan, as key influences:
“I practiced hard and little by little, the threads of connection stemming from bluegrass and primitive Appalachian folk ballads, to country and Delta blues, blossomed to become part of my musical DNA. So, in a very profound way, later in life, when I made the move to Nashville and started to feel accepted into the city’s musical community, it felt very much like coming home.”
Hall & Oates remain a favorite live act, and their legacy has carried heavily into hip-hop and rap, sampled by the likes of Kanye West, Wu-Tang Clan, Heavy D, and Method Man.
I liked Hall and Oates’ album with The Temptation’s Ruffin and Kendricks in 1985, Live at the Apollo, which introduced this small-town Southern youngster to two of the best soul singers who ever lived, the classics “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (I already knew “My Girl,” which they also performed on the record), and Sam and Dave’s Stax Records classic “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby” by David Porter and Isaac Hayes.
Charlie DeChant’s saxophone work has been a highlight of the group’s work since the 1970s. His playing still stood out at a Hall and Oates show several years ago at Madison Square Garden, a show opened by Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings from Brooklyn (via Jones’ hometown of Augusta, GA. Tragically, Jones died of cancer in 2016.).
Also opening that show in New York: The wonderful new-soul artist Mayer Hawthorne (born Andrew Mayer Cohen), whose horn-rimmed glasses and pale skin bely his soulfulness and showmanship. Hawthorne is heavily influenced by Hall & Oates—see the irresistible song “Love Like That” and his ode to Detroit, “It’s Gonna Take a Long Time." I'll write more about Hawthorne, who’s from Ann Arbor, MI, and his incredible 2011 album How Do You Do, among other gems.
Back to Hall and Oates: They got cheesy sometimes, too, of course, but here's my look at some of their well-known—and overlooked—highlights of their music:
“She’s Gone” is certainly their best song. The single from 1973’s Abandoned Luncheonette was only a minor pop hit at first, but after the group left Atlantic for RCA and had their first top 10 hit, the short but perfect soulful lament, “Sara Smile,” in 1976, Atlantic re-released “She’s Gone” and it hit No. 1. (See videos below.)
“It had a classical, timeless quality even from the day we wrote it,” Oates wrote of “She’s Gone.”
In his book, Oates reflected on the entire Abandoned Luncheonette album: “The collection that still resonates through every bone of my body. A musical moment that became such a personal benchmark, that to this day I measure everything against it.”
Master producer Arif Mardin was at the controls for the album, mentoring Hall and Oates in the process. Even today, the album’s sonics sparkle: the saxophone solo on “She’s Gone” and the oboe (!) on Hall’s bluesy, mandolin-driven “When the Morning Comes” were both synthesized using early technology and sound as good today as they did then. (The infusion of traditional rock instruments such as electric guitar with synthesizers later would drive other Hall and Oates hits, including the catchy keyboard-guitar base to “You Make My Dreams.”)
“Sara Smile” is so restrained that at times it resembles Willie Mitchell’s productions of Al Green’s brilliant songs for Hi Records in Memphis. Lyrically, it's not much more than an emotional thought or two, perfectly expressed with love and soul. It’s “one of the more pure soul songs I’ve ever written,” Hall said in an interview for the liner notes of the group’s 2009 box set, Do What You Want, Be What You Are.
“The chords in Sara Smile are very Philadelphia kind of chords; they’re very typical of Philadelphia kind of chords from Philly like Thommy Bell and Leon Huff would use. That influence comes from gospel, jazz and even classical music. It’s a very interesting racial and geographic mix that makes Philly music what it is," Hall said.
The 1975 single hit No. 4 on the pop charts and No. 23 R&B. “Daryl did all the vocal parts in a half hour. He wanted it to sound like the doo-wop group The Dells,” said Barry Rudolph in the same box set liner notes. Added Philly great Kenny Gamble: “Sara Smile is my favorite Hall & Oates song. It’s a classic.”
“Everytime I Look at You” is one of my least favorite among the excellent and diverse Luncheonette album, but upon re-listening recently, I discovered blazing country fiddle and Earl Scruggs-style banjo solos toward the end of the song.
“We all felt like we needed a final statement that would conceptually tie the album together,” Oates wrote of the song. “Here again, Arif had a personal vision for the production of this final track, saying, ‘I see a train speeding through the countryside, and the music of America is like a movie passing by the windows.’ So we set out to re-create his vision with fiddles and banjos panning and swirling about as the song fades out.”
“Rich Girl,” the group’s first pop No. 1, also hit No. 64 on the R&B charts. It’s short like “Sara Smile” and seems effortless, with Philly soul strings, a slightly off-color lyric, a disco groove, and Hall’s ad libs all over the damn place. It’s pretty perfect.
“You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” seemed an offbeat choice for the 1980 album Voices, which sent the group on the way to superstardom. But with a deeper listen, Hall and Oates’ handling of the track links their evolving new wave-influenced sound to 1960s soul and pop. Oates writes that someone played the old song on a jukebox during a break in the Voices sessions; he and Hall caught each other’s eyes, and immediately decided to record it. (See videos below.)
“I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)”: Another of their very best, with maybe the best groove Hall and Oates ever set down, hitting No. 1 on both the pop and soul charts in 1982, from the 1981 album Private Eyes.
“Maneater,” a pop No. 1 from 1982 that hit No. 78 R&B, it starts with a Motown bass line not unlike The Supreme’s “You Can’t Hurry Love,” then explodes with a pounding rock beat, DeChant’s superb sax solo, and a simmering feel that boils over with Hall’s vocals and Oates’ doo-wop style backing. Unlike some of the group’s other hits, it’s clean and uncluttered, allowing Hall and DeChant to shine.
“Out of Touch”: Less important than the aforementioned big hits but with a striking melody, it somehow mixes elements of 1970s soul, roots-rock, 1980s dance-club music, and the duo’s singer-songwriter backgrounds. Oates originally started writing the song for Philly legends The Stylistics (famous for the soul classics “You Are Everything,” which Hall and Oates later covered, “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” “Betcha, By Golly Wow,' and for working with Thom Bell). It would be Hall and Oates’ last huge hit. (See the ridiculous music video below. Just listen to the music.)
Now, some of Hall and Oates better, but lesser-known tunes:
“Crazy Eyes”: The opening track on one of my favorite Hall and Oates albums, 1976’s Bigger Than Both of Us, features Oates on lead vocals and sets the group’s soulfulness into a squarely rock groove.
“Back Together Again”: Written by Oates, about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ reunion. Also from Bigger Than Both of Us, with Oates on lead vocals, this is right out of the Philly soul songbook.
“Everytime You Go Away” from 1980's Voices is a tasteful, organ-laden gospel-soul romp with Stax-style horns. Hall’s vocal is far superior to British singer Paul Young’s performance on his version in 1985, which nonetheless became a worldwide smash. Hall’s original should have been a hit on its own, and is another highlight from Voices. Another track from that album, “Diddy Doo Wop (I Hear the Voices)” shows Hall both lyrically and musically, less obsessed with his own “Rich Girl” than Gene Chandler’s 1961 doo-wop classic, “Duke of Earl.”
“Do What You Want, Be What You Are”: Another slow, soulful Hall and Oates classic from Bigger Than Both of Us, with some of the group’s most compelling lyrics, about finding your own way.
“I Don’t Wanna Lose You”: One of my all-time favorites from the group and among the most blatant examples of Hall and Oates’ Philly soul roots, this forgotten, minor hit from 1978’s Along the Red Ledge (produced with up-and-comer David Foster) is soulful, danceable disco, with a bridge driven by orchestral strings that sound just like MFSB (which stood for Mother Fuckin’ Soul Band), Philly soul’s house band at Sigma Sound Studios. “To me, it’s a Thom Bell, Spinners kind of song,” Hall said in the box set interview.
“Looking for a Good Sign,” an unheralded track lost among the hits on 1981’s Private Eyes, it has a thumping Motown bass line and call-and-response chorus, another bridge between the group’s past alongside more new wave and rock-and-pop cuts on this album.
“Starting All Over Again”: A mostly faithful remake of the 1972 Stax soul classic by Stax’s Mel & Tim, natives of Mississippi who had moved to Chicago and were discovered by Gene Chandler. Originally written and sung by Muscle Shoals songwriter Phillip Mitchell, and released with the B-side of Arthur Alexander’s wonderful “It Hurts to Want It So Bad,” Hall and Oates’ version works well, sitar and all (influenced by The Chi-Lites), saluting Memphis soul with a nearly perfect duplication of the original, but with Hall & Oates’ signature vocal touches. From 1990’s album, Change of Season.
“Time Won’t Pass Me By” and “The Sky Is Falling”: From the group’s mostly ignored and uneven independent-label release Marigold Sky in 1997, these two cuts fit with some of the group’s best work. “Time” is a true Hall and Oates duet, with some of the two singers’ best harmonies on the chorus. “Falling” is another of Hall’s gospel-influenced, soul ballad; his vocal is understated, which only heightens the song’s power.
“Backstabbers,” from Live at Daryl’s House: This is a highlight from Hall’s TV program, in which he’d invite favorite new or influential artists to his home studio in upstate New York for conversation and jams. This one features Oates as the guest, and their performance of this classic is sublime. The O’Jays’ 1972 original helped establish the group as Philly soul masters. There’s also a great Daryl’s House episode featuring The O’Jays themselves, in which they share a full hour of conversation and song with Hall and his group.
“I Want Someone”: Also from Daryl’s House, Hall and Oates cover this Memphis classic by Stax’s Mad Lads (and plaintive lead singer John Gary Williams), included on their box set, Do What You Want, Be What You Are. “It’s folk music, man,” Hall says after the performance.
“Me and Mrs. Jones,” a live remake of Billy Paul’s 1972 Philly Soul hit, Hall’s vocal is one of his best—impassioned and pleading, aching with pain and pleasure. It captures the song’s sexy, slightly tongue-in-cheek storyline perfectly.
“All the Way from Philadelphia”: This previously unreleased track from the group’s box set is a more recent recording, but it sums up their roots, history, and legacy:
“I hear the song and it brings me back to you
Taking me home taking me home
Memphis next to the Motor City now
Sweet soul music’s deep within with me
Taking me home, taking me home…
Why don’t we go home
Where we come from?”