You know Hall and Oates. In fact, you probably love at least one Hall and Oates recording. In fact, it’s even fair to wager that because the tandem that combined forces in Philadelphia in the early 70s have sold 40 million plus records, and are Billboard Magazine’s number one recording duo of all time, that you love MULTIPLE Hall and Oates songs.
“Private Eyes (clap) / They’re watching you (clap clap) / They see your ev’ry move…”
“Sara Smiiiile / smi-i-i-illlle / Won’t you smile so wide for me…Saraaaaaaaa”
“You got the body now you want my soul / Don’t even think about it, say no go…”
And so on, and so forth, ad infinitum, hang this author out to dry for not mentioning “Maneater,” etc.
How much do you really know about the once-mustachioed member of the tandem, John Oates? With his just-released autobiography Change of Seasons, Oates fixes that issue. In noting that his life both echoes America’s strong ethnocentric rooting as well as mirrors the life cycle of rock and roll, he writes a story that doesn’t just highlight his hit success, but rather also digs deeper and finds a man living as much through America and in America as through and in his European ethnic roots. A likely unexpected as highly entertaining read, to converse with Oates about this book, as well as his career, his inspirations and music in general is well…twice as nice.
Brightest Young Things: Foremost, I know you were a journalism student when you attended Temple University in the late ’60s, and also probably one of the more prolific songwriters of the late half of the 20th century. So I wanted to ask if writing a book was similarly as fulfilling as other writing that you’ve done?
John Oates: I was used to the instant gratification of being a songwriter and having this situation where I could write a song, and then I knew immediately whether it was good. Comparatively, the book was a two-year effort where I didn’t know if I was succeeding, or if it was any good, because you can’t see the forest in spite of the trees. That was frustrating because I was working in a void. Now, the book is out, people are absorbing it, I’m getting a great response, and I’m satisfied and happy about that.
BYT: I always like to ask artists who had the time to see the world either prior to or during their recording career how learning who you were within the larger context of the world at-large affected your creative process. Did your travel, especially your post-collegiate travel, influence you?
JO: Everything that I did, every place that I went and lived affected me as a creative in some way. The dedication for my book is not to a mentor or my family or someone, but rather, it’s to my hometowns. Every place I’ve lived has had an important effect on me as a person, and who I was as a musician. For instance, after I graduated from college, I took a trip to Europe, and it was something that I felt like I needed to do. My family is an immigrant family from Europe, so I needed to see that. My entire childhood was so intertwined with the ethnic American experience that I wanted to experience it firsthand. I had to go to Rome, I had to go to Spain, I had to go to these countries that I had only read about and heard about as a part of my family heritage.
BYT: So, I wanted to ask about the unique space between “pop hit” and “soul classic” that I feel is occupied by Hall and Oates. Like, I came to your work with you being informed to me as being a “soul” artist, while I feel there are those who think differently when it comes to your hits. Your thoughts about navigating that area and finding your material?
JO: Unfortunately, I’m going to severely disagree with you. I really detest definitions of genres like “pop” and “soul.” Those are just categories to me. To a real musician, those categories are a pain in the ass. Creative people want to be free and not see boundaries. “Pop” means “popular,” and could be folk, dance, polkas, I don’t care. Again, these are my own unique definitions. Continuing, let me say that “soul” music is not “black” music, it’s not “rhythm and blues” music, it’s music that comes from the heart, that touches something deep inside of your soul, and moves you emotionally, physically, or spiritually. That’s soul music. There’s Native American soul music, Celtic soul music, there’s soul music all over the world, music that’s real and emotionally moving. These radio-commercialized definitions of genres of music are bullshit.
Basically, the songs that Darryl and I write come from our heart, and we put a lot of effort into the crafting of them. We try to connect to people with them. That’s why we are soulful. We’re popular because we sold a lot of records, radio decided to play our songs, and we’re very good at writing catchy hooks. That’s what it is. When it comes to our music, there’s no line of demarcation between pop and soul. [Darryl and I] have written a lot of great soul music that wasn’t popular. We just set out to make music that’s honest and real to us, and then the world decided that those records would be hits. When people are honest and doing something they believe in, and they put their whole spirit behind it, that’s how you reach people. The best artists, songwriters, and performers are able to conjure that up and translate that into songs that listeners love.
BYT: Terrific answer. Thank you for that! I think that it’s important to be cognizant of all of that. Regarding those aforementioned records, I think that the biggest thing for me that makes your hits in particular so noteworthy is how everything, in especially the huge hits, like a “I Can’t Go For That,” “Rich Girl,” or “Maneater” is a hook. And the choruses too just never ever really leave you head. To what do you attribute your talents in this regard?
JO: We just have a knack for it! It’s not something we set out to do. However, having grown up and lived our lives in the same time frame as the history of rock and roll is important. I was alive and hearing music since before rock and roll existed. Our entire lives have been informed by [rock and roll]. Those early rock and roll records, the ones by the likes of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and the Everly Brothers, those songs all all chock full of amazing hooks and memorable choruses. That’s what inspired me as far as how songs are best written. You capture imaginations and create things [of which]people cannot let go. Writing catchy hooks and choruses just feels like the most natural thing
BYT: So, back to rock and roll, and also getting back to hometowns, I wanted to ask your feelings about the influence of Philadelphia, as one of the truly great music cities, on your career? From rock to disco and more, I’d love your thoughts.
JO: Philadelphia has a rich musical tradition. I was four and a half years old and I saw him play at an amusement park outside of Philadelphia that my parents took me to. I ran down to the front of the stage! It was the first time I heard live music and it was early rock and roll. I didn’t necessarily “say” it, all I knew was that I liked it. When you think even deeper about Philadelphia, there’s roots in the early days of rock with American Bandstand, Chubby Checker, Frankie Avalon, and the teen idol stuff. By the ’70s when Darryl and I had started there was indeed us, and Gamble and Huff (the songwriting and production team behind the legendary and smooth soul and disco innovating label Philadelphia International Records). We knew those guys. Darryl made his first record with Kenny [Gamble] and Leon [Huff], and I made my first record with a guy named Bobby Martin who went on to become one of Gamble and Huff’s greatest arrangers. We had a part to play in a Philadelphia sound that too many people thing was just urban R & B though. It was also folk music, which I was heavily into, going to coffeehouses and hearing people like Mississippi John Hurt. There were so many influences that Philadelphia was known for that were flying around during that era. I couldn’t have asked to have my career influenced by a richer musical environment.
BYT: Of the many legendary people you’ve worked with in your career, the one that stands out to me the most is Atlantic Records’ Arif Mardin. He produced Aretha Franklin records, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, Bette Midler, Hall and Oates, everything. I was wondering what it’s like to have access to those kinds of legends as teachers, and how they impacted you?
JO: It’s incremental. If you’re smart, you’re learning it as you go along. You keep your eyes and ears open during these experiences so that you can eventually expand upon them in your own way. Those experiences were like going to school [again] for me. I wanted to study with and learn from the masters. Then, I wanted that experience and knowledge to translate into something original that I could bring forth. To this day, the way Arif Mardin handled a recording session in the early 1970s at Atlantic Records is how I handle my recording sessions. In specific, he taught me to surround myself with great songs that can be crafted into great records. Make no mistake about it. A song and a record are two distinctly different things. A song is a completely naked thing that lacks shape and color. A record is what happens when you bring that song to a collaboration of minds, be that technical with wires, transistors, and tubes, and reverb units, or with musicians and instrumentalists who add their own unique interpretations. With Arif, I learned how to take a song and make it into a record.
These days, when I have a song I want to record, I look at the song closely and I think of the song like a film script. From there, I cast the “actors,” the exact right “actors” who can bring the song to life. Instead of bringing it to life on screen, we bring it to life on a recording. I live in Nashville right now, so I have an incredible resource of some of the best musicians and creatives on the planet from which to cull.
BYT: As a final question, what, to you, outside of anything from Hall and Oates or anything else that you’ve written, would you classify as one of your favorite songs?
JO: There are so many. I’m reading a biography of George Gershwin right now. I’d have to say that his “American in Paris” was one of the greatest compositions of the 20th century. I’m a huge fan of anything by Cole Porter. As well, I love the song “Blue” by Joni Mitchell. The list goes on and on. Wow. I could sit here all day…