How urban audiences beat the rock cognoscenti in giving Philly soul-pop princes Hall and Oates their long-overdue props.
For Daryl Hall and John Oates, it was a long road from Broad Street to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where another native Philly stalwart, The Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, inducted the soul/pop twosome into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame six weeks ago. Sporting a dark suit and t-shirt bearing the Hall and Oates name, the bespectacled drummer stood in front of a vintage black-and-white photo of the celebrated artists, playfully recounting his Philly-boy memories of them: hearing their songs on the radio in the 1980s, how the opening of “She’s Gone” frightened him when he was four, ridiculing the duo’s oft-mocked cover picture on its eponymous “silver album.” (“Those two guys made good looking women.”) Quest reminded the 19,000-plus crowd that in becoming a best-selling musical duo, “Hall and Oates stayed true to their soul roots.”
Minutes later, the rock-star dapper duo sauntered onstage together to heavy applause and a standing ovation, happily, proudly accepting their honor from what Quest referred to in jest as “the Hall and Oates of Fame”—an especially wry quip, given their decades-long snub by Rock Hall hierarchy. Although they’ve been eligible for entry since 1997, it’s no secret that, despite their global success, gaining the acceptance of its voting committee was a struggle for Hall and Oates.
Indeed, since the beginning of their long careers, critics have bashed these Philly fellas for being too soft, too pop and not serious enough to be considered contenders in the exclusive club of rock/pop gods. Back in the day, while mining the same soul influences that would garner their Brit contemporaries David Bowie, ABC, Soft Cell, Spandau Ballet and George Michael respectful critical recognition, Hall and Oates didn’t get the same kind of positive reception from the pop press corps. Citing their wacky-slick 1980s videos and supposed lack of edge and irony, critic Rob Horning spoke for a legion of rock purists when he wrote on PopMatters.com that Hall and Oates “are tainted with too close an association with the decade’s zeitgeist, making it nearly impossible to hear anything but nostalgia or camp humor in them.” While Rolling Stone, the main sponsors behind the RRHOF, admired some of Hall and Oates’ earlier works, their more groove-beat based sound, which began with the 1980 LP Voices, got them labeled pop-rock posers. A 1985 piece in the magazine was jokingly titled Hall and Oates: The Self-Righteous Brothers.
Yet, while the critical canon gatekeepers kept their noses in the air and them at a distance, Hall and Oates was being embraced by a black audience that didn’t see them as pop posers or culture vultures. Urban music aficionados admired the pair’s obvious reverence for traditional soul, expressed so skillfully in their distinctly infectious songs, and that sentiment stuck. From the group Tavares covering “She’s Gone” when it was still just an undiscovered LP cut to the R&B station instrumental in breaking their first big hit, Hall and Oates found discerning black listeners early, then consistently proved themselves to be the quintessential blue-eyed soulsters who, as Questlove noted, “stayed true to their roots,” even if it meant being dissed by rockhead detractors who didn’t care to understand the significance of their varied musical styles.
Haters—then and now—be damned: Their special hybrid of Hall’s gospel and soul background with Oates’ bluegrass and mountain music has made them world renowned ambassadors of the Philly sound.
The very mission of Detroit’s storied Motown Records upon its founding in 1959 was to destroy the idea of race music by creating a new sound that captured the perfect hybrid of pop and soul. As a force that brought blacks and whites together in ways that were unthinkable a few years before integration, Motown became the soundtrack for a new generation of soul kids, young Philly fans among them. In the City of Brotherly Love, the sound of Philadelphia was in its infancy back then, as songwriters, producers and talent streamed through the Schubert Building working on various sessions.
“That was our Brill Building,” Hall, 67, tells PW from his New York City apartment a week before the RRHOF induction ceremony. “Gamble, Huff and Tommy Bell were working on one floor, and I was two floors up. I wasn’t involved in Philly International, but I was involved with those guys, and we did a lot of sessions with the Philly International people.”
Back then, Oates spent hours in his room practicing his guitar and writing songs. “The people I grew up listening to were Chuck Berry, Curtis Mayfield, Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt,” says the 65-year-old Oates from his home in Nashville, fresh off the release of his fourth solo album, Good Road to Follow. “If you put them all together, that’s how I played. I wasn’t as good as any of them, but that is the blend I’ve always used on our records.”
For many coming of age during that turbulent ’60s era—one that included the brutal killings of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights movement, budding women’s liberation, war in the jungles of Vietnam and the boiling-over streets of America—music became a salve, always there to sooth their battered psyches. Hall found solace in soul music, co-founding the Temptones with fellow Temple University students Paul Fogel, Brian Utain, Ken Halpern and Barry Glazer. Playing talent shows throughout the city, they were often heckled by black audiences.
“The black kids would boo at the very beginning, because they didn’t believe that a white group could be that good,” journalist Dave Brown wrote in 1995. “But, the Temptones were. The crowd would scream and shout by the time they finished.” The Temptones made their debut single, “Girl I Love You,” for Arctic Records in 1966. Produced by then-local broadcaster Jimmy Bishop, they recorded it at Virtue Studios on North Broad Street.
Meanwhile, Oates often came down from North Wales to see folk music acts at the Second Fret or to dance the night away at one of Jerry Blavat’s hops over at the Wagner Ballroom. He couldn’t get enough of that sweet soul music, and it was seemingly everywhere—from the radio to the popular TV dance show American Bandstand (taped at the now-defunct WFIL-TV at 46th and Market streets until 1964) to many acts that performed at local “chitlin’ circuit” theaters.
“I went to all the teen dances to listen to doo-wop and whatever oldies music Blavat was spinning,” says Oates. “I used to go to the Uptown Theater to see all the R&B legends. I saw a 12-year-old Stevie Wonder doing ‘Fingertips.’ I also saw James Brown, Otis Redding and the Miracles. But, the next week I might go listen to bluegrass music or go see Joni Mitchell.”
Although Hall and Oates’ career was shaky in the beginning, by the late ‘80s, the duo had grown to become as much a part of the branded “sound of Philadelphia”—in their own unique way—as their old friends Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell. “They were a little bit older than us, but we were friends with them and had worked together,” says Oates. “When we were getting started, we had to make an important decision: whether we were going to stay in Philly, and be part of the Gamble and Huff team, or were we going to do something different. We felt like we wanted to make our own mark, so that was why we moved to New York City.”
They signed a management contract with future Sony Records mogul Tommy Mottola, the same person who later lived on the road with Dr. Buzzard, married Mariah Carey and became the president of Sony Music in the ‘90s. He inked a deal for Hall and Oates to join the Atlantic Records roster, one that included Led Zeppelin, Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.
While the late Philly disc jockey Georgie Woods coined the “blue-eyed soul” moniker in 1964 to describe the Righteous Brothers’ popular tune “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” which Hall and Oates covered in 1980, the term fit this particular pair perfectly. Creating signature songs ranging from the melodic brilliance of “She’s Gone,” the heartfelt ballad from their 1973 sophomore disc Abandoned Luncheonette, to the synth heavy “Out of Touch,” their last number-one single from the double-platinum 1984 aural celebration Big Bam Boom, they rarely strayed far from their wide-ranging rhythmic roots.
Although both gents moved away from Philly years ago, the city remains on their minds and in their music. “I grew up in Pottstown, but when I was 17, I came into Philly and just hooked into the whole street-corner-singing stuff,” says Hall, whose correct last-name spelling was Hohl until he officially changed it in 1972. “Groups like the Delfonics and the Intruders were who I was listening to.” Like Oates, he says, “I went to all the shows at the Uptown Theater.”
In an oft-told tale about the guys’ introduction, they met in 1967 when a WDAS-sponsored “Battle of the Bands” at the now-demolished Adelphi Ballroom went array after a gang fight broke out. The talent scattered, dodging bullets as they ducked into the same service elevator. Caught up in the chaos, it didn’t matter that they were in rival crews, with Hall from the Temptones and Oates down with another harmonizing vocal group calling itself the Masters.
That night, over the escalating screams and tension, the two scrambled away and soon became friends, roommates, writing partners and, eventually, one of the biggest selling duos in the history of pop. Hall and Oates would go on to chart six number-one singles, including “Kiss On My List” and “Out of Touch,” while selling more than 60 million records worldwide. Their black vinyl portfolios contain more than a few iconic cuts, including “Rich Girl,” “One on One” and “Maneater.” With seven platinum albums, six gold discs and an induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Billboard voted them number-15 on their list of the 100 greatest artists of all time and, in 2003, officially sanctioned them the most successful duo of the rock era—surpassing the Everly Brothers, Sam & Dave, Simon & Garfunkel, et al. They were top-of-the-class students of Bob Dylan’s acoustic-guitar strumming, the British-invasion vim of the Beatles, the white doo-wop of the Four Seasons and the three-minute symphonies of the Motown sound—especially, the Temptations.
“They had the best vocal style out of all the groups of that period,” Hall says. “They looked good, they sang well, and everything was working.” He even became cool with the real Temps when they played in town. “The Temptones never opened for them, but I used to hang out a lot with Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams. We never shared a bill, but we sang in their hotel rooms.”