Guitarist and songwriter, John Oates, one-half of the multi-platinum-selling duo, Daryl Hall & John Oates, has seen almost the entirety of rock and roll history transpire during his lifetime. Oates, who was born in 1951, came of age as Chuck Berry and Big Mama Thornton were changing the way people thought about sound. Over the decades, Oates devoted himself to music, contributing to one of the greatest-selling bands in pop history. But today, Oates, like much of the world, is going through new chapter: life in the era of the Coronavirus.
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Under normal conditions, Oates might be hiking or skiing in the Colorado Mountains at this time. The musician also loves sports cars, racing or meandering through the countryside behind the wheel. It’s therapy. But more recently, Oates has had to stay indoors because of the virus and required “social distancing.” In some ways, this has provided opportunity. Oates recently recorded backing vocals for singer, Rodney Crowell. But as time passes under the growing health scare, Oates has had to disengage from work – something new altogether.
“Self-isolation has, in a way, given me a chance to disconnect from the creative process,” Oates says. “It’s not something I would normally do. All of a sudden, I’m realizing that I never really take a break. But now, there’s this imposed break on me, whether I like it or not.”
Before the international emergency, Hall and Oates were slated for a tour, set in part to promote the vinyl re-release of their 2004 album, Our Kind Of Soul. The 14-track record, which featured the duo interpreting a swath of songs from bands like the Dramatics to the Temptations, was meant to celebrate some of the sounds that inspired them in their formative years. For it was artists on the radio, from childhood through college, that helped shape their musical perspectives.
“The radio in Philadelphia where I grew up played great songs,” says Oates. “I still remember when the first station, WIBG, changed format and went all-in on rock and roll. Prior to that, stations played big band music, standards. But all of a sudden as a kid, I was aware of Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and The Everly Brothers.”
Oates recalls singing often as a little boy. At two-years-old, he would sing nursery rhymes that he’d somehow learned. His mother realized early on that he had natural ability and she enrolled him in singing lessons in first grade. At six, he was taking guitar lessons. And later, a father of a neighborhood friend down the street, a wood worker who made upright bases in his basement, gave Oates his first guitar, a crude handmade thing that started a long journey.
About a year ago, out of the blue, Oates got that guitar back. His childhood friend, whose father had made the instrument, brought it to a concert and gave it to him as a gift. The six-string is one of many markers of a long career that began for both Hall and Oates in college. The two friends, who met at Temple University in Philadelphia, had bands at the time and both were set to play the same teenage dance one night. The event, however, was cancelled after some gang violence. Nevertheless, the two had made each other’s acquaintance.
“My group broke up because two guys got drafted into Vietnam,” Oates says. “Daryl’s group needed a guitar player so he asked me. When that band broke up, Daryl and I kept hanging out. We were hippies in a downtown Philadelphia hippy enclave. We went down to a Temple radio station that had a tape recorder. We taped us playing a song but it sounded awful, just terrible. We looked at each other and said, ‘This is never going to work out.’”
Both, however, continued to play in local clubs and continued to hang out. Later, Oates went abroad for a handful of months after his college graduation. But when he returned, he moved in with Daryl and the songs started to pour out. In the decades since, with Hall as the primary vocalist and Oates as the lead guitarist, the band has sold an estimated 40 million records and written six Billboard chart-topping hits, including “Rich Girl” and “Maneater.”
“We’re both very driven,” says Oates. “We’re both very creative. We both realized a long time ago that we wanted to be in music for the rest of our lives, regardless of how successful we were. So, all of the decisions made along the way were predicated on how we could manage to continue to do what we love. I have a lot of personal thoughts on that. Success, especially monetary success, should be a byproduct. Not the goal of the artist.”
As civilization continues to sort out the in-the-moment ramifications of the Coronavirus, musicians like Hall and Oates will continue to write, record and perform work as best they can – imposed breaks notwithstanding. As a result, their legacies will continue to unfold in new ways. But while legends grow, they must also be rooted in something both unique and significant. Such is the familial kinship between Hall and Oates.
“The older I get, the more I appreciate the fact that he and I have been able to work together,” Oates says. “The body of work we created in the last 50 years is astounding. We have a mutual respect for each other’s artistic skills and I think we compliment each other as people. We know each other like brothers.”