How urban audiences beat the rock cognoscenti in giving Philly soul-pop princes Hall and Oates their long-overdue props.
Decades later, in 1985, Hall and Oates performed with Kendricks and David Ruffin in Harlem, recording the concert for their Live at the Apollo album. “The Apollo Theater had just been renovated, and we were invited to play,” Hall recalls. “We thought we would do something special, so we invited Eddie and David to create a special moment and do a medley of those great records that shaped us.”
Laughing at the memories, Oates adds, “That’s the way pop music evolves: with younger artists learning from the masters and taking it somewhere new. To this day, the Temptations are the touchstone for me and Daryl. They were amazing individually, but together their blend of vocal harmonies set the course for Daryl and I, and how we approached our music, including the harmonies, the arrangements and the background vocals.”
In the same way that Motown and Philadelphia International crossed-over into white homes, the sound of Hall and Oates became a staple on black radio. Befriending legendary Philly radio don Joe “Butterball” Tamburro—who played the both the Temptones and the Masters on WDAS in the late ‘60s—they later joined the pantheon of respected, bankable white soul acts that included Average White Band, Elton John, Wild Cherry and Teena Marie.
“When I was a kid, my father owned a barbershop on 40th and Market, and [Hall and Oates’] music was all over the black stations,” famed Philly producer King Britt remembers. “Whenever one of their records came on the radio, ‘Adult Education’ or ‘Method of Modern Love,’ the guys in the shop would say, ‘Those white boys are bad.’” (Meaning really good.) DJ Cash Money recalls hearing “Sara Smile” when he was a kid, but, according to him, “after ‘Sara Smile,’ ‘Rich Girl’ and ‘She’s Gone,” in the ‘70s, they disappeared for awhile. But, when they finally came back with ‘I Can’t Go for That,’ it was on. To this day if I’m playing a party, I’ll throw that on, and people will run to the dance floor.”
Elevated by non-stop, listener-requested black radio spins, “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” eventually hit the top of Billboard’s R&B charts, an uncommon circumstance for non-black artists at the time. The hypnotic second single from 1981’s Private Eyes has been covered by artists as diverse as Donny Osmond and Brian McKnight, plus most recently—and most impressively—by Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers for their Van Sessions video series, her kazoo the perfect stand-in for Charlie DeChant’s killer sax solo. And it’s been sampled by a slew of hip-hop producers, rappers and R&B acts, most notably Prince Paul for “Say No Go,” the 1989 De La Soul hip-hop classic, and on “V.S.O.P.,” a 1992 thumper by West Coast O.G.s Above the Law. “Those records that Hall and Oates made in the ‘80s—‘Maneater,’ ‘Kiss On My List’ or ‘Say It Isn’t So”—sounded like nobody else,” says Cash. Chester-raised new jack soul singer Avery Sunshine cites “Private Eyes” as her favorite song. “There was something very honest in their music that came from a very real place,” she says. “Hall and Oates were proof that making real soul is more about heart than race.”
Of course, Oates couldn’t agree more. “It’s always been a proud accomplishment that Daryl and I were able to cross over to black radio, because those are our roots,” he says. “The reason ‘Sara Smile’ became such a big hit was because an R&B station in Ohio decided to start spinning it as an album cut, and all these people called in about it. Our (then-new) label RCA decided then to release it as a single.” That move also gave Atlantic, their former label, the impetus to re-release the stirring, Philly soul-saturated track popularized by another outfit two years prior.
“We had finally cracked the pop charts with ‘Sara Smile,’ but ‘She’s Gone’ had been played a lot on FM radio as an album cut,” Hall says. “It never charted until Tavares had a big hit with it. When we originally recorded it, we were trying to figure out a way of getting it out to the world, but nothing happened. After Tavares and Lou [Rawls, who remade the record for his 1975 She’s Gone LP], Atlantic put it back out, and it finally hit the pop charts.” (See sidebar.)
Fortunately, Hall and Oates made their musical impact during a time in the record industry when good acts were allowed a few chances—not just one—to prove themselves in the marketplace. Their first label, Atlantic, dropped them after the tanking of their third album, 1974’s Todd Rundgren-produced/Bowie-inspired War Babies.
“I always considered myself an employee of the artist, not the label,” says Rundgren, from his Hawaii home, of working on War Babies, which, 40 years later, has come to be known as a masterpiece. “Labels being what they are, the expectation was that Hall and Oates would exploit the success of ‘She’s Gone’ and produce an album of the same. But that conversation never came up during recording. There were R&B influenced moments, but there was never an effort to stylize everything. We approached each song on its own merits and recorded it the way we thought it should sound. I think we recognized that there were common influences [between us], and at the time, we were both interested in taking advantage of the musical freedom that was part of the esthetic of the early 70’s. R&B was a big part of it, but we were also drawing influences from other contemporaries that might have ranged from art rock to progressive.”
“John and I were friends before we started working together,” Hall says. “For us being included in the Hall of Fame is an honor because we’re being enshrined next to our major influences: Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations.” In fact, Oates and Hall, the longtime host of the popular Live from Daryl’s House series, now on Palladia, inducted both Robinson in 1987 and the Temps in 1989.
Nearly 30 years later—alongside Kiss, Nirvana, Linda Ronstadt, the E Street Band and Cat Stevens, and before a roaring audience—Hall and Oates accepted their long-overdue honors from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They ambled across the massive Barclays Center stage to their instruments and launched into a searing version of “She’s Gone,” followed by the bouncy, doo-wop-dripping “You Make My Dreams.” As Oates said from the podium minutes beforehand, “We’ve been doing this together for 40 years, so why should we stop now?”
Instead of harping on the years the RRHOF resisted giving he and his brother-in-arms their props, Hall used much of his speech to lambast the voting committee for its lack of Philadelphia-based inductees, including Chubby Checker and his friend Rundgren, going on the record—as he had with PW—that he’s pained by it. “As far as I can see, me and John are the only artists in there,” he said before the ceremony. “Gamble and Huff are in there, but they’re producers. The O’Jays (who recorded for Philadelphia International Records) are in there, but they’re from Cleveland. These people don’t realize how much influence Philly music has had on the world. You can go to England, Japan, anywhere, the music is still relevant because the sound of Philly rules, and it still rules. It’s some of the most powerful music ever made in the late 20th century.”
Rundgren, for his part, says he’s “never taken the Rock Hall seriously. If the process was really true to the roots of the music, they would have stopped giving out awards years ago. But if you are going to continue to induct relevant artists, to have overlooked Philly for so long only emphasizes the lack of sincerity in the vetting process.”
“I think the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an elite, bullshit white-men’s club, but I’m glad they inducted Hall and Oates,” says former music producer Arthur Baker via Skype from his home in England. Baker—who puts Hall, he says, “in my top-10 of lead singers”—has worked with Afrika Bambaataa and Bruce Springsteen, co-produced Big Bam Boom’s opener, “Dance on Your Knees,” remixed four songs on the album and co-produced “Swept Away,” the title track from Diana Ross’ 1984 album, with Hall. He was a Hall and Oates fan “before I started working with them.”
“Hall and Oates have always made great Philly soul records,” says the music vet. “With their music, they took soul and pop and made their own sound.”
The 29th Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony airs at 9pm, Sat., May 31, on HBO.
Under the Spotlight: “She’s Gone”
Although Hall & Oates’ 1972 debut Whole Oats was disposable, their follow-up a year later, the impassioned Abandoned Luncheonette, was the first indication, at least to a public unfamiliar with their Philly lineage, that they had real soul—and that was thanks to one five-minute track.
Produced by genius studio wiz Arif Mardin (the Bee Gees, Bette Midler, Chaka Khan), the exquisite “She’s Gone,” which would become a big hit for Hall and Oates upon Atlantic Records’ re-release of the single in 1976, is perhaps one of the most beautiful tracks the duo has penned together. It was inspired by Daryl’s ex-wife, Bryna Lublin, and a New Year’s date that stood Oates up.
“One thing I learned about songwriting is, you have to tell a story,” says Oates. “and you have to tell it precisely and artfully while also being honest and real.” Hall adds: “I’ve always tried to write from an honest place about what actually happened. Sometimes it’s based on personal experiences, sometimes it’s from people I’ve observed. But it’s that honesty that gives our best songs their emotional credibility.”