It’s hard for musical duos to survive. Garfunkel felt slighted, Cher never needed Sonny and the Captain could never get a word in edgewise with Tennile. When asked last year how Hall & Oates managed to survive the decades, Daryl Hall gave all the credit to John Oates.
The famously mustached half of Hall & Oates laughs when he hears this, before acknowledging Hall’s basically right. In their ’80s music videos they were cast as a R&B buddy act, like Starsky & Hutch or Fred & Barney, but with saxophone. For once there was some honesty in advertising.
“Daryl’s personality is very unique,” Oates says from his Colorado home. “It’s his in-your-face personality combined with my, I guess, having humility, it’s that combination that makes it work.”
Work it has. Of all the big-in-the-’80s bands, none have enjoyed the renaissance experienced by the Philly roots-soul duo. Owners of ginormous hits like “Maneater,” “Rich Girl” and “Kiss on My List,” Hall & Oates’ draw these days exceeds anything they saw during their commercial heyday.
“It’s insane,” Oates says. “I would never in a million years have believed it if someone would’ve told me, ‘30 years from now you’re going to be bigger than you are in the ’80s.’”
They aren’t reliant on nostalgic, middle-aged music lovers either, as the younger generation’s embraced soul in a big way.
“Our audience has completely transformed over the last five years,” he says. “We still have our old guard fans that have supported us over the years, but our audience is predominantly in their 20s and 30s.”
While many have lamented the digital revolution that ushered in filesharing, career acts with broad back catalogs like Hall & Oates have the opportunity to benefit. No longer circumscribed by radio and its definition of what a hit is, Oates reports their fans are gravitating toward deeper cuts. After all, if they’ve never heard it, it’s new to them.
“You have to remember the audiences in the ’70s and into the ’80s were force-fed music by the big labels, radio and music journalists,” Oates says. “Now there’s an entire world of music out there at people’s disposal and people are making their own decisions and they’re not being influenced so much by what the machine tells them is good. They’re being influenced by what their peers are listening to or what they may discover on their own. That’s probably why people are discovering the depth of our catalog.”
Their current rebirth also probably has something to do with their decision to walk away as the ’80s concluded and Nirvana waited just on the other side. After 1990’s largely non-descript Change of Seasons, they went on hiatus. In the next 13 years they’d release but one album together, 1997’s Marigold Sky. By the time they returned for good with 2003’s Do It for Love, the timing was right. It certainly didn’t hurt that it was their best album in at least two decades.
“The late ’80s were a really bad time for me, personally and professionally,” Oates says. “We felt like there was only one way for us to go and that was down. We couldn’t be any more successful than we were. If we released a song and it wasn’t a No. 1 record, we were a failure. We didn’t want to get into that. So, I think we both had enough common sense to know it’s better to step away and see where that takes us.”
During the intervening years Oates left New York and reestablished himself in Colorado. There he fell in love and started a family, providing a firmer foundation for his life and career.
“My life from 1978 to 1988 was based totally on my career—failed marriage, constant touring, constant recording, being a bit of an asshole. You know, traveling around the world being a rock star. I just felt that it was time to do something else,” he says. “It saved my life really, because it showed me I could be a musician but it didn’t have to define me totally.”
Nor has Oates let his musical partnership with Hall define him wholly. Since making his solo debut with 2002’s Phunk Shui, Oates has released four more full-length studio albums, including the forthcoming Good Road to Follow. It’s culled from more than 30 tracks many featuring collaborations (Ryan Tedder, Vince Gill, Jerry Douglas, Hot Chelle Rae), some released last year as digital singles.
“I had gotten to work with various people, really absorbing what it is they do,” Oates says. “I kept releasing [the music as] singles. They were all different and unique and people said, ‘This is really cool, but when are we going to be getting the album?’ I was already past the album in my mind.”
Rather than have the widely varied material bristling up against each other on a single disc, Oates conceived of the album as a three-EP collection. Each five-song side has its own distinct flavor. Much of the album recalls Oates’ long-standing love of roots and Americana, which predates Hall.
“That’s kind of what I brought to the table when I met Daryl. That in combination with R&B is what we created together,” he says. “So I go back to my roots and the traditional acoustic stuff on my own and I think that’s been a trademark of my solo career.”
Oates feels blessed to be able to mount arena tours with Hall and play more intimately on his own. It’s the best of both worlds and he appreciates the variety.
“I am not a person who likes to stay in one place, physically or mentally, for better or worse,” he says. He credits that restlessness with his continued vitality. “Sometimes you have to push yourself. It’s not easy. Certain people have the drive and some people don’t. I still have it and I’m happy to enjoy it. I’m not going to take it for granted.”
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