Note: The article includes many full color photos spanning John Oates' career. Purchase a copy of the Summer 2016 issue at Shop PA Heritage.
By Chris Epting
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XLII, Number 3 - Summer 2016
John Oates is one half of the best-selling rock duo Hall & Oates, as well as an accomplished solo artist. Singing from the time he could talk and playing the guitar since the age of 5, John Oates was destined to be a musician. He was born in 1948 in New York City, but his family relocated to North Wales, Montgomery County, in the early 1950s, a move that would change the course of
Soaking up the sounds of the 1960s, John was influenced by the nascent folk music scene and bluegrass, Delta blues and ragtime guitar styles, while also immersing himself in rhythm & blues legends such as Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, the Temptations, Curtis Mayfield, and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. One of his biggest mentors was his guitar teacher Jerry Ricks, who had spent time on the road with Mississippi John Hurt and Son House, introducing John to the music of Doc Watson and Reverend Gary Davis, passing down their signature finger and flat–picking styles.
The year 2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of when John Oates met Daryl Hall while attending Temple University in Philadelphia. The two began collaborating and playing music together, marking the beginning of a historic partnership.
Since the beginning of their recording career in the early 1970s, Hall & Oates have gone on to release 21 albums, several compilation sets and numerous singles, many achieving Recording Industry Association of America gold (500,000 units) and platinum (1 million units) certification. They have scored six Billboard number one singles—“Rich Girl,” “Kiss on My List,” “Private Eyes,” “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” “Maneater” and “Out of Touch”—and 29 Top 40 hits. They have toured the world for decades, and their involvement in the original Live Aid concert and the groundbreaking “We Are the World” charity recording have further established them as legendary artists who have personally, and through their music, stood the test of time.
In 2005 Hall & Oates were inducted into the American Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in May 2008 they were presented with the prestigious BMI Icon Award for their outstanding career achievement in songwriting. In April 2014 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Since embarking on a long-awaited solo career in 1999 John has recorded five albums including Phunk Shui, 1,000 Miles of Life, Mississippi Mile, a live album called The Bluesville Sessions, and most recently Good Road to Follow, which features collaborations with Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, Vince Gill, Nathan Chapman, Jim Lauderdale and others.
When not touring with his solo show or with Daryl Hall, John, his wife Aimee and their son Tanner divide their time between Nashville and their rescue ranch in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, along with dogs, emus, peacocks, llamas and alpacas. But his parents still live within just a few miles of where he grew up in North Wales.
John, what do you remember about Pennsylvania in the early 1950s?
Pretty much my first memories growing up take place in Pennsylvania. I was just about 4 years old when my dad’s company transferred him to North Wales and that’s when I think you really begin forming memories that stay with you. It was such a huge change for us moving to such a small town from New York City. All of a sudden there were fields to roam and there were “cricks” and butterflies and woods. It was a totally different experience. And that move was really one of the greatest things in my life, when I think about how different things would have been had we not moved to Pennsylvania. But we would still drive back and forth to New York City almost every single weekend to see my relatives. To them, it was as if we had moved to Mars. But for a kid, it was really the perfect balance. Beautiful country during the week, New York City on the weekends.
So all your schooling was in North Wales?
Yeah, I started out going to North Wales Elementary. Formerly it had been the high school but they had converted it and I can still picture the building today, looking very much like a big old WPA building, solid and sturdy. I could walk to school, which I really enjoyed. Then I started at Pennbrook Junior High School and eventually North Penn High School, where I played football and was cocaptain on the wrestling team. Going to high school at that time in the mid-1960s was really nice. It was like the last age of innocence before things started to turn with Vietnam and all the other tensions of the ’60s. By this time my parents had moved across town over to 10th Street, which was the last street in North Wales. It backed right up into a sheep farm, an even more bucolic setting.
You sang and performed as a child at talent shows and other events. Is there one musical moment from back then that sticks with you?
In 1955 I attended my very first concert when my folks took us to the nearby Willow Grove amusement park, a circa-1890s midway between North Wales and Philadelphia. On an old stage where John Philip Sousa had long ago regularly performed for more than 20 years, my life changed on a magical summer night when I saw Bill Haley and the Comets. The moon-faced Haley, with that famous spit curl, in his black pants and ivory-colored dinner jacket, was backed by five guys all dressed exactly the same. The lights went down, and with the distant roar and screams courtesy of the Thunderbolt roller coaster in the background, I heard the now-famous opening, “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock.” The song kicked in. And that was all it took. My clock got rocked.
When did you discover Philadelphia?
In high school I had a friend who lived in Germantown. He was a little bit older than me and he had a car, which meant that now I could go to Philly. This guy was really great, showing me the ropes, where he bought all of his clothes and where to hear all the best music.
You also joined your first serious band in high school, too, right?
Right, the Avalons. Who would then become the Masters. We focused on playing lots of Motown, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Temptations—pretty much all black music. Unlike a lot of other kids in the early ’60s, I can’t say that the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show had any great effect on me. Unlike them, my band had a horn section, and we were way into playing music the kids could dance to. That was the thing about Philadelphia. It was all about dance music—on the radio, at teen hops, dance halls—everyplace. What’s funny is, one of the reasons it took the Beatles a couple of years to gain traction in Philly was that nobody thought you could dance to their music. I was actually into their biggest competitors—the Rolling Stones—and the blues that they had brilliantly repackaged back to us Americans.
Philly was a unique musical hotbed in the ’60s ...
There was everything. I started going to the Uptown Theater to see such great soul and R&B acts like the Temptations, James Brown, Otis Redding, the Coasters, Wilson Pickett, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and others. The audiences there were almost as entertaining as the performers—and you could learn about performing by watching how the people reacted to the sleek, polished music. I was interested in folk music as well, and so I also started frequenting the Philadelphia Folk Festival, held on Wilson Farm out near Schwenksville, just outside of Philly, where I saw everyone from Pete Seeger to the Weavers. I was all over the musical map, processing and synthesizing all sorts of homegrown American genres and loving every moment of the immersion. The timing and movements of my life placed me in the perfect eras and situations.
And then there was the radio ...
My young ears were constantly glued to the radio, too, especially Jerry Blavat. He was the first DJ in the early 1960s to spin records from the ’50s, taking risks by playing obscure doo-wop songs, B-sides and other sides nobody else would play. He was the self-proclaimed “Big Boss with the Big Hot Sauce!” and he was bringing the music to a whole new audience. After I got my driver’s license, I could head into Philadelphia and really start to absorb what was happening in that incredibly musical town. I’d go to funky and fashionable South Street [the inspirational setting for the big hit by the Orlons] where our band would pick out cheap new clothes, like used houndstooth suits, and hang out at places like Wagner’s Ballroom and the Chez-Vous Roller Rink.
It’s the stuff of legend, but could you recount once more the night you met your soon-to-be musical partner?
One night in 1967, my band the Masters got a big break. We got booked to play a record hop at the Adelphi Ballroom, which was located on North 52nd Street in a rough section of West Philadelphia. We’d just released our first single, “I Need Your Love.” I had written it, I played guitar on it and I was also the lead singer. Not bad for an 18-year-old journalism student at Temple University.
We had been invited that night to lip-synch our record at a popular dance event being put on by Jerry Bishop, who was the program director and influential disc jockey at WDAS, the number one black radio station in Philadelphia. When Jerry Bishop contacted you, you had to go. If you didn’t, your record wouldn’t get played on the radio.
Three other acts would be performing, which gave the night a competitive vibe. And the only other white group that night, the Temptones, were there to do “Girl, I Love You.” I was familiar with the Temptones. They also hailed from Philly, and they were making a real name for themselves after having aced a talent competition at the Uptown Theater and winning a contract with Arctic Records. They had impressed me. They were really soulful, especially the tall, blonde-haired lead singer. Sitting across from us backstage, they intimidated my bandmates a little bit. We sat there in these crappy black-and-white houndstooth suits that we had gotten on the cheap down on South Street, but the Temptones looked slick and polished in their shiny sharkskin.
But then something went wrong ...
It sure did. We were all getting ready for the show to start when we heard screams—and then gunshots. It seemed a full-scale riot had erupted out in the theater, not a shocker given the times. Like a lot of other cities around the country, Philly was a city where racial tensions had begun to boil over. Our now wild-eyed publicity guy from the record company screamed at us as he rushed back from the stage, “We’re out of here! Let’s go! Go!”
So what did you do?
As everybody started to scramble, my group and the guys from the Temptones wound up getting hustled into this huge, old-fashioned service elevator near the back of the building. Squeezed in tight with those guys, I was pushed up against the Temptones lead singer. As the elevator slowly creaked down to the bottom floor, he just looked at me. “This is really bad,” he said. I nodded in agreement. We hit the ground, and all of us raced outside into the bitter cold and away from the Adelphi, the echo of the riot fading behind us in the night. The Temptones went one way, the Masters went another, and that was that.
That was that?
Well, a few weeks later I was back at Temple University. I wandered into the student union and across the room I was surprised to see the lead singer from the Temptones. He was also a student at Temple. We started talking, joking about our brush with death, and I told him my band had broken up, which it just had. He told me that the Temptones were now looking for a new guitar player to help flesh out their rhythm section for a showcase audition coming up in New York City. He asked if I wanted to play with them. And so that is how I first got to know Daryl Hall.
After a few rehearsals, it was clear Daryl and I were coming from the same places musically. He liked my guitar playing a lot and thought I could really help the Temptones evolve from basically a group of street-corner singers into a real band. We went up to New York shortly after that and did the Temptones audition at the Village Gate down in Greenwich Village. Later that night, Daryl took me up to the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The Temptations were playing and even though I’d seen them plenty of times in Philly, nothing was like seeing them at the church of soul music. What I didn’t realize was that Daryl actually knew these guys.
How did the duo come to be?
We played together on and off, and in 1969 Daryl had dropped out of Temple University with only a few months left to go, but I stayed on and got my diploma. After college I decided to go to Europe in summer of 1970 for a couple months, bumming around and backpacking with my guitar. Before I left, I sublet my apartment to Daryl’s sister and her boyfriend. At the end of summer when I arrived back in Philly, I found a padlock on the apartment. They hadn’t paid their rent and had gotten themselves evicted. Now I had no place to stay. I went over to Daryl’s apartment, explained what happened, and he invited me to move in. This was our true birth as a duo.
But you were immersed in other musical endeavors while in Philly, right?
I was. I started getting deeper into the blues and roots music when I began taking guitar lessons from a Philly guy named Jerry Ricks. He was an inspiring blues player and teacher who really helped me develop styles that connected me to roots music, while personally introducing me to legends like one of my heroes, the blind, bluegrass picking wizard Doc Watson, who had helped spark the American folk music revival in 1960.
Do you recall your first official show with Daryl?
On December 5, 1970, we played our first official show together at a club called Hecate’s Circle in Germantown, an area in northwest Philly, and then started booking more shows around Philly. Almost a year later, after having auditioned at countless record companies to no avail, we found ourselves at Atlantic Records in New York, home to many of our favorite artists. Despite Daryl’s cold and an out-of-tune piano, they liked us enough to sign us.
Your debut album, Whole Oates, came out in 1972 and then you hit the road.
We sure did, racking up thousands of miles driving through the night, cramped into my dad’s old yellow GTO with our band, enjoying the wild early adventures of being professional musicians on the road, exploring the country. Those early days back in the 1970s are ones I think I cherish most. Everything was just so new and exciting, opening for everyone from Cheech & Chong, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed and the Bee Gees.
You also opened for David Bowie at his second-ever American show.
Yes, and it had a huge impact on us. It was in Memphis, and after finishing our set, we wandered out into the theater to watch the much-talked-about androgynous British performer who had adopted “Ziggy Stardust” as his alter ego. To the strains of 2001: A Space Odyssey, he emerged from the red fog in his flamboyant, glam-rock regalia and put on a dazzling show. He blew us away. Daryl and I both agreed afterwards that was what we needed—more of a show. Soon we ditched the folky presentation and incorporated some flashy production and cooler clothes. We also started writing music that was meatier, more complex, and even a bit heavier.
Your roots in Metro Philly also played a part in the creation of the cover for your classic 1973 album Abandoned Luncheonette.
As a kid, Daryl used to eat at a place on High Street in Pottstown called the Rosedale Diner. After it closed down in the mid-1960s the owner moved the diner a few miles outside of town on Route 724, dumping it on some property he owned. Daryl was aware of the place and thought it would be the perfect shot to represent the feeling and mood of the album. On a hot and muggy day in early June, we drove up there [with] my friend Barbara Wilson, who was an amazing photographer and fine artist, so that she could shoot the cover. We’d gotten permission to shoot the outside of the dilapidated structure, but once we wandered around a bit and Barbara photographed the exterior, it only made sense to go inside and get some shots as well. The owner was more than a little bit cranky and didn’t want us to go inside, but it was too good . . . we crashed it anyway. The interior was a mess, broken glass and smashed tile everyplace. Daryl and I sat in a dusty booth—that image eventually became the back cover of the album—Barbara grabbed the shots, and we hightailed it out of there.
It took four albums until you had your first big hit.
We never cared too much about hits, we just liked making music. But of course the record labels were always concerned. In 1975 a DJ at WJMO, a soul station in Cleveland, played “Sara Smile.” It was rare for a DJ to play an album cut versus the single from the “Silver Album,” which had been a song I wrote called “Camellia.” But good thing he did. The song, which Daryl wrote for his girlfriend Sara Allen, really was beautiful. And it took off from there. Soon after having a hit with “Sara Smile,” we released the song “Rich Girl” from our next album, Bigger Than Both of Us. It went to number one. By that time, curious radio programmers started going back a little bit and rediscovered a 1973 song of ours, “She’s Gone.” Another top ten hit. All of a sudden, after years of hard work, we were bona fide international pop stars.
How did that success affect you?
Daryl and I spent a lot of time on the West Coast during this period, working on our next several albums. We rented the coolest houses, entertained the prettiest women and somehow managed to avoid the wild and crazy mid-70s West Coast drug scene. Of the many traits Daryl and I shared, discipline was one of them. We had our fun, but we always focused on what supported our fun—the music. We liked L.A. a lot in the mid-70s. One thing we didn’t like, or didn’t do, was to hang out with the music press or others in the industry, and that really seemed to cost us. Critics just seemed to hate us no matter what we did, and we had no interest in schmoozing. It just wasn’t us.
And then music started to change?
It did and things like punk, disco and new wave affected us. Musically, Daryl and I still produced records we were very proud of. But then it seemed that as quickly as the world (minus critics) embraced our music, everybody seemed to have moved on from us. We were going to need to reinvent ourselves. But we didn’t panic. We came from very blue-collar upbringings and so our attitude was, “Let’s just figure out how to keep doing what we do.” For us, the answer was about control. For the very first time, we would be producing our record ourselves, back in New York City where we were always most comfortable recording. We also put together a new band and came up with a set of songs that tapped into all the styles we’d embraced since the early days back in Philly, while also incorporating a modern edge that was emerging in pop music. That album, Voices, was released in July 1980 and stayed on the charts for 100 weeks. “Kiss on My List” became a number one hit, our first since “Rich Girl,” and “You Make My Dreams” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” were also huge hits. The album did more than just put us back on top. It introduced us to an entirely new audience of kids coming of age in the early ’80s. And it also paved the way for the nearly unfathomable success we were about to experience.
Very few acts touched what you did in the ’80s.
We followed up with the album Private Eyes and, just like Voices, we did it in New York with full creative control. The album was another monster, producing two number one hits. And things were about to get even crazier thanks to something called MTV.
Daryl and I had experimented with videos before, and we had done tons of TV shows over the years, everything from American Bandstand to The Midnight Special and even Soul Train. So we were comfortable in front of the camera. But we had no idea back then just how influential and impactful videos would become. Then came the H2O album and Big Bam Boom. It just got bigger and bigger.
How did you cope with that sort of success you were experiencing?
To get away from some of the endless career demands, I became more of an adrenaline junkie. I had taken up racecar driving by now; I had been a gear head since I was a kid, and so now I could afford to attend the elite U.K. driver’s school at Brands. But after almost getting killed in a crash on a Wisconsin track, I gave that up and channeled my adrenaline rushes into becoming a pilot. When I wanted my own plane, no problem. Tommy cut the check for my spiffy new Beechcraft Bonanza, which allowed us to find some much needed peace in the midst of the madness of sold-out stadiums and arenas. I would even fly Daryl and myself from show to show during some of those tours in the 1980s, just the two of us, talking over old times in the space of my small cockpit as we cruised over the nighttime landscape.
In 1985, after headlining the Apollo Theater with the Temptations and Live Aid in Philadelphia, you guys made the big decision to take some time off.
We had completed everything full circle. It was time. And I’m glad we did. In the few years we took off, it gave us time to find ourselves, rebuild ourselves and make sense of what had happened to us. Ultimately I found my way to Colorado where I started a new life with my wife and son. And when Daryl and I got back together several years later it was on our own terms. Just like it is today.
You’ve also crafted a rich solo career that allows you to tap into all of the influences you had growing up.
Living part of the time in Nashville has really opened me up to embrace music in a new way with new players and influences. Folk, blues, soul—I incorporate everything into my solo work and it feels great. The music I’ve made with Daryl is special, and I know Daryl feels this, too. It’s also very rewarding for us to work on our own projects. I really think what makes our partnership special is the fact that we always remained distinct individuals over the years. And we are very fortunate. All we ever wanted to be able to do was make music, be working musicians. And so here we are.
John, having had the opportunity of working on your memoir with you, it’s become pretty clear to me why you decided to tell your story now. But how do you describe the motivation to people?
I guess you just get to a point in life where you look back and realize that you are really fortunate to have grown up during a certain era when lots of American music came of age. I grew up with rock ‘n’ roll and rock ‘n’ roll grew up with me. And then there was the folk movement and the R&B and the doo-wop. I was in the thick of it all. I really feel that my life paralleled so many of these American musical movements and so this really felt like my chance to document not just what I’ve done, but what others did around me.
John Oates’ memoir Change of Seasons, written in collaboration with Chris Epting, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in early 2017. The book will follow the course of John’s life and career from growing up in Pennsylvania to becoming one of the foremost songwriters and performers of his generation.
Chris Epting is a veteran music journalist who in addition to coauthoring John Oates’ Change of Seasons recently worked with Def Leppard’s Phil Collen on his memoir Adrenalized. Epting, who lives in Huntington Beach, California, is also an award-winning travel writer.