[22 October 2009]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
NEW YORK — The booklet that accompanies “Do What You Want, Be Who You Are,” the new four-CD boxed set devoted to the music of Daryl Hall and John Oates, is full of testimonials to the Philadelphia-bred soul-pop tandem, who headline a sold-out triple bill Friday at the Spectrum in Philadelphia with Todd Rundgren and the Hooters.
It’s not so surprising that many of the encomiums come from old-school R&B acts. Both Hall and Oates were soul-fixated teenagers in the 1960s, an affection returned by the likes of the Temptations and Smokey Robinson.
More surprising are the contemporary acts who see the duo, who scored such No. 1 hits as “Rich Girl,” “Kiss On My List” and “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” as a primary influence.
It’s a long list, including Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, and Dave One of Chromeo, who says of H&O: “They must be acknowledged as the only group who managed to fuse styles as diverse as prog, doo-wop, folk, funk, and rock ‘n’ roll into inimitable, intelligent pop.”
Travis McCoy of Gym Class Heroes goes even further: He wears his affection literally on the back of his hands, tattooed with images of H&O.
In the Midtown Manhattan offices of Sony Music, Hall and Oates spoke of their four decades together, their Philly roots, and extremes of adulation such as McCoy’s.
“I e-mailed him,” says Hall, “to tell him to watch what he does with his left hand.”
But seriously, the respect of their fellow musicians is something both Hall, 63, and Oates, 60, greatly appreciate. Hall regularly comes face-to-face with intergenerational admiration on his Internet music series, “Live From Daryl’s House,” in which he has collaborated with artists such as roots songwriter Chuck Prophet and soul-pop ingenue Diane Birch, along with Chromeo, Robinson, and Rundgren.
“Everybody who I ever cared about has told me that they like my music,” says Hall. “Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Al Green, the Spinners, Smokey Robinson. Everybody that matters.”
Hall and Oates met at a record hop in West Philadelphia in 1967. Their bands the Temptones and the Masters (each represented on “Do What You Want”) were playing, along with Howard Tate and the Five Stairsteps. A gang fight broke out, and they fled into a service elevator.
Since then, the blond-tressed (and now bearded) Hall and the bushy-haired (though no longer mustachioed) Oates have been making music together. (They also make it separately: Hall has a solo deal with Verve Records, and Oates is planning a bluegrass-flavored release with a subsidiary of Blue Note.)
As of now, they have scored 28 Top 40 hits. “Sara Smile,” “She’s Gone,” “How Does It Feel To Be Back,” “Private Eyes” — the list goes on. Oates says that although they were MTV staples in the ‘80s, “we never fell into an easy category to pigeonhole us in. We have a wide range of musical tastes and interests.”
“We suffer from what I call the Sly Stallone syndrome,” says Hall, who was born Daryl Hohl. “I don’t think Philadelphia gets respect. I really don’t.”
On “Do What You Want, Hall,” who lives in Dutchess County, N.Y., introduces a supple cover of Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” by calling Philadelphia “the greatest music city in the country.”
“Philadelphia is a unique city in that it’s ethnically diverse,” says Oates, who lives in Aspen, Colo. “And it’s a very sophisticated cultural city. You had the Philadelphia Folk Festival and the Uptown Theater, all in one place.”
Shortly after they were signed to Atlantic Records in the early 1970s, the duo moved to New York to record with Arif Mardin, who produced their folk- and rock-flavored first LPs, “Whole Oates” and “Abandoned Luncheonette.”
Their determination to make it beyond the City of Brotherly Love was captured on “Whole’s” bummed-out “Fall in Philadelphia,” whose title is preceded in the chorus by the words “don’t wanna spend another.” Hall wrote it when the two were living together in Philadelphia, after his bicycle was stolen and Oates got mugged on his way back from a Doc Watson concert.
But before they left, they soaked up influences.
“The people at the Uptown Theater loved them,” says Philadelphia International Records cofounder Kenny Gamble, recalling when both Hall and Oates would play at the North Philadelphia venue before predominantly African-American audiences. “And they were a hard crowd to please.”
When the Sound of Philadelphia, masterminded by Gamble and Leon Huff, was gathering steam in the early 1970s, Gamble offered the duo a deal. “I thought about it,” says Hall, “And I said, ‘Thank you, but we really have our own version we need to explore in our own way.’”
“They’re a product of the R&B era in Philadelphia,” says Gamble, “but when they became Hall & Oates, they evolved into something completely different. ... They’re very unique.”
Hall and Oates have always appealed to both black and white audiences. That’s led them to be dubbed “blue-eyed soul,” a tag Hall finds “very annoying. It’s made up by white people. And I think inadvertently racist.
“The premise is that you are an anomaly or some kind of freak of nature if you are a white person that sings soul music. A soul singer is a soul singer. There is no color involved.”
Oates has a separate pop-cultural life in the animated Web series J-Stache. Or rather, his mustache, which he shaved off 20 years ago, does. In the pilot, comedian Dave Attel voices Oates’ ‘stache.
“It’s a viral disease that’s spreading,” Oates says. “The mustache seems to have a life of its own.”
Hall says playing the Spectrum one last time “is a big deal. They’re tearing the damn place down. It’s the end of an era. It really is.”
Hall and Oates have been collaborators for as long — 42 years — as the Spectrum has existed. How do they keep from hating each other?
“Ever talk to a couple that’s been together for 40 years?” asks Hall, with a laugh. “They go beyond hate. No, the truth is in any successful relationship, you have to have a certain freedom to be the person you are.”
The “Do What You Want” boxed set offered a chance to showcase the duo as they are — or have been — including lesser-known songs such as Hall’s “It’s Uncanny” and Oates’ “Alone Too Long.”
“That’s what I care about on this album,” says Hall. “It’s not the hits. It’s all the other cast of characters. ... To me, that’s the important part of why anybody would want to buy this box set. It’s our edited version of what we think is important, musically.”