John Oates: The Stories Behind Hall And Oates’ Classics
The 100 Years of Radio – 100 Years of Hit Makers limited series podcast gives music fans a front-row seat for conversations with songwriters behind some of the biggest hits of yesterday and today. You’ll learn the stories behind the songs from the people who wrote them. Each episode will focus on one writer: sometimes, they’ll just talk about one song, other times, they’ll talk about a number of hits.
New episodes will be released each Monday through November of 2020.
100 Years of Radio – 100 Years of Hit Makers special podcast series is produced in partnership with Beasley Media Group, XPERI (HD Radio), and BMI in celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the first commercial radio broadcast.
“If someone would’ve told me back in ’72 that we would be selling out giant arenas and things like that in 2020, I really wouldn’t have believed it,” John Oates told us. “And there were moments throughout the ’90s and early 2000s where I certainly wouldn’t have believed it either.” After racking up hit after hit after hit in the ’70s and ’80s, Daryl Hall and John Oates didn’t know where they fit in, in the alternative-rock dominated early ’90s. But, of course, good songs never go out of style, and the duo, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, have recently headlined arenas. If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, they would have played ampitheaters across this country in the summer of 2020. John Oates spoke to us about a lot of the hits that got them to this point.
Let’s start by talking about “She’s Gone” from 1973.
Well, that song came about in a very unusual way. I had met a gal. We had an encounter at about 3:00 a.m. in a 24 hour soul food restaurant in Greenwich Village. She was a very interesting girl and it was the middle of winter. And she was wearing a tutu and cowboy boots. And it was kind of fun, let’s just put it that way. I asked her out on New Year’s Eve. This was probably December when I first met her and I thought maybe we’d get together on New Year’s Eve. I was sitting in the apartment in New York and she never showed up. And so there I was: sitting by myself and I picked up my guitar and I wrote, “She’s gone. Oh, she’s gone.” Kind of this folky little lament. And I didn’t really think much of it, to be honest with you.
And a few days later, Daryl came back to the apartment. I played it for him and he said, “Hey, that’s cool.” He sat down at the piano and began to play the riff that you hear in the beginning of the song as the intro and the piano riff. And we literally wrote that song in about an hour and a half. We just blew blew through it, just kind of using everyday images and things that are very, very mundane, but kind of represented loss in a way. And then, of course, when it got into the hands of Arif Mardin, our producer at Atlantic Records, and with the amazing studio musicians and the arrangement that he created, the song really became… I called it “my perfect storm of creativity.” We had the raw material in the actual song itself. But the way it was produced and the players and the way they played it, and everything about it just really took it to another level.
Everybody knows that you and Daryl both love R&B. What did you think when you heard Tavares’ version?
Well, our song had been released prior to Tavares’ version. And it wasn’t a big hit. Our version did reasonably well, but it didn’t set the world on fire. And then Tavares did their version. And it became a number one R&B song. Considering Daryl and my roots and our Philadelphia upbringing and the kind of music that we listened to as kids, it didn’t surprise us at all that it became an R&B hit. Then, of course, Atlantic re-released it, and then years later they re-released it yet a third time, after we had success with “Sara Smile.”
They finally made it happen. That was back in the Ahmet Ertegun era; if a record label was really behind something, they would make it happen. I don’t think songs or artists get that many opportunities like that these days.
I think it would be very unusual for a song to be released [as a single] three times in a space of about five years [today].
So talk about “Sara Smile,” because that was another one of your huge hits from that era.
I have to give full credit to Darryl on that. It’s really kind of his song. He and I co-wrote the lyrics, but honestly, he was driving the bus on that one. It’s kind of a postcard to his girlfriend, Sara [Allen], who was a co-writer on a lot of our songs. The unique thing about “Sara Smile” was that it was never considered by either us, or the record company, to be a hit record. It was just an album track to us. And I believe we had released two or three singles from the “Silver Album” [1975’s Daryl Hall & John Oates] prior to “Sara Smile,” and they all went into the top 30 or top 20. But we didn’t really have a big hit. And then we were on tour in Europe and a DJ in Ohio at an R&B station began to play “Sara Smile,” just purely as an album track. And, as they used to say in the old days, the phones lit up. There was an amazing response. “Who’s that?” “Who’s singing?” “Where’d you get that song?” And the report made it’s way back to RCA Records. That was our new label at the time. And they said, “Hey, well, let’s give it a shot.” And they released it as a single and you know the rest.
Sara co-wrote “You Make My Dreams” with you guys. Tell me about that one.
That was a Darryl piano groove. Just a cool, simple piano groove. And I think it was kind of funny about that one, too… the story with that is: after we we wrote it, we played it for our manager at the time, and he kind of dismissed it, I remember, because of the lyrics and the verse. For some reason, he thought it was too “poetic.” I don’t think he quite got it.
That song has an interesting history, because when it was released it went into the top five. But it wasn’t considered a huge smash. It wasn’t setting the world on fire. People weren’t gravitating to that song. And now, 30 years, 40 years later, that song is the gift that keeps giving. I mean, people just can’t get enough of it. It’s being used in movies, television commercials. People are dancing to it on the Internet. It’s just taken on a life of its own.
I feel like a lot of your songs are like that. I know a lot of people got into “I Can’t Go For That” because De La Soul sampled it in their 1989 song “Say No Go.” Talk about writing that song.
That song was really not not a planned thing at all. We were in the studio recording at the end of a recording day. The band went home and it was just Daryl, myself and the engineer. We were probably doing some kind of work on the tracks or whatever. Quiet evening. And Daryl just went out to kill some time and sat at the keyboard. And he turned on the little drum machine that we used to use. And he hit the first preset, which was “Rock 1.” And he began to play the bass line with his left hand. It was like magic.
And then he said, “Hey, John, grab your guitar.” And he had an idea for this guitar part, which is the the plucky kind of syncopated guitar part that I play. And that was it. The only things on that song are me, Daryl and Charlie DeChant. Daryl put some little synths on it. It’s got my guitar part. We did the background vocals. Charlie played the sax solo. And we and we sang it. That was it.
When De La Soul incorporated it into their song. hip-hop was not brand new; it had been around maybe 10 years. But clearly, they didn’t have people checking for samples and maybe getting permission for stuff the way they have to do today. How did you first hear that they were using it? When did you first hear their song?
We had done a project with Nile Rogers for a movie called Earth Girls Are Easy [they covered the O’Jays’ “Love Train”]. Pretty silly movie. And we were doing a music video out in Long Island in a park. We had a bunch of kids in the audience of the music video. And during one of the breaks in the video, there was a girl in the front row and she came up, and she goes, “Have you heard this yet?” And she handed me a cassette. Handwritten on it, it said, “‘Say No Go,’ De La Soul.”
And we went back and listened to it and we were like, “Wow, what is this?” As you said, it was the early days of sampling. I wasn’t as aware of what was happening in the hip-hop world. And we thought it was really cool. There’s nothing wrong with sampling as long as the original composers get credit and get their due. I love when people sample and take things to another level. You know, we made our own song the way we wanted to make it. And they took a tour to a whole other place. And I think that’s really cool.
I just think back then, there weren’t even rules about sampling in hip-hop records.
It was the Wild West. You know, you just took whatever you wanted. And to be honest with you, it’s really the same today. It’s not much different. The only difference is there are more people being a little more attentive to making sure that the writers get credited.
If someone asks to sample one of your songs, you could say, “I don’t like that. You can’t do it.”
Well, we can. If there’s a major sample going on, BMI will contact us and say, “Hey, listen, these guys want to do this. What do you think?” And for the most part, I think we pretty much greenlight most of the things unless it’s really offensive or something like that.
So for me and a lot of my generation, “Maneater” was a big deal: we’d heard your music on the radio all the time. But “Maneater” was the first time we really saw you; MTV played that video a lot. So talk about writing that song.
I was in a restaurant in Greenwich Village where we used to go for late-night hangouts, and it was a very hip ’80s place to gather with musicians and actors, models and the groovy ’80s Wall Street tycoons. Just watch Wolf of Wall Street and you can kind of imagine what it was like. I’ll leave it at that. But anyway, I was sitting at a table with some friends and this gal came into the room and she was just breathtakingly gorgeous. And she sat down at our table and began to tell these dirty jokes. She had this incredible, beautiful, beautiful, incredibly beautiful face, an incredibly foul mouth, which I thought was really kind of cool. And I thought to myself, “Man, she’d chew you up and spit you out.” That was my first thought.
And as I was walking home that night, because I lived nearby in the Village in New York, I just started singing. “She’ll chew you up and spit you out. She’s a maneater.” And I just thought, “Oh, wait a minute, I think I’ve got something here.” And I went back to the house and I wrote a reggae chorus because I had just recently come back from Jamaica and I was into reggae at the time and I played it over and over again. And it was just very simple and with a reggae style. And I got with Daryl and he really dug it. He said, “Man, that’s really cool. But I don’t know about the reggae feel. Let’s try some different feels.” And he came up with the Motown feel, which is the one you hear on the record. It’s funny because today when I play it solo, I go back and play it in the reggae style, which is always a lot of fun. But that’s how that song happened.
Tell me about “Out Of Touch.”
Well, “Out Of Touch” came about in a very unusual way as well. And these songs all have interesting anecdotes. It was around the time in the mid-’80s when digital technology was just coming available to the public. And we had been experimenting with some very sophisticated early digital sampling keyboards and things like that. And I had purchased this small little cassette deck that allowed you to overdub. You could do four tracks on a cassette and you could bounce tracks and, you could do things that were totally not available at home prior to that. And so I had that at the house. I had a new synthesizer, which I didn’t really play, I didn’t know what it was capable of.
And one night I was just messing around and I hit the synthesizer button that said “arpeggiated.” And I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. And so when I hit the keys, you know, it went, “donk donk donk donk donk.” And so I started playing a melody based on that. That’s that sound. And I just went [sings], “Donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk donk.”
And I thought, “Hey, that’s cool.” I put some bells on it. And then I did this whole background vocal part. Once I created this chorus, I didn’t have a verse and it was super late at night and I just recorded the chorus that I had and I went into the studio the following day. We were working with a guy named Arthur Baker at the time. And Arthur was producing the Stylistics. And I came in and I said, “Hey, Arthur, I think I might have a cool song for the Stylistics. Kind of sounds like a Philly chorus.”
I played it for him and he said, “Are you nuts? That’s a smash for you and Daryl, you’ve got to record it!” I played it for Darryl, of course. And he and I wrote the verse and and we cut it.
You sang Hall & Oates’ cover of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” As a singer and as a songwriter, how do you approach singing such an iconic song?
With a with no limitations. That’s how you approach it. That song was an afterthought, a total afterthought. We had recorded the  Voices album and we thought we were finished. And in those days, we would have what we called a “listening party” because we never allowed the record company, or any of the “suits,” so to speak, into the studio while we were recording. That’s something that is completely impossible to do nowadays. But in those days, that’s how we did it.
So we had this great listening party. Everybody’s in the studio grooving to the stuff that we had recorded and everybody was very high and and just saying, “Oh, this is great. Sounds great. Sounds great.” And right after the listening party, Darryl and I, with some friends, walked out. We were recording at Electric Lady down in the Village. And we walked out onto the street and we said, “Let’s get a get a slice of pizza.” So we went to the local pizza place, which was half a block away. We sat down and we’re talking and we’re waiting for our food. And on the jukebox came, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”
And both Daryl and I kind of just knew that there was something missing from the album. We didn’t know what it was. And we just looked at each other and said, “Hey, let’s record that.” And so the next day we called the band, went into the studio and we cut it live. We just played it and we came up with that middle section, which is different, with very ’80s sounds. We sang it and we did the whole song in a few hours. And, of course, it became a hit for us.
This wasn’t a single, but I wanted to ask you about the title track to [1990’s] Change of Season.
Well, the Change Of Season album was made at an unusual time in my life. We had been with Atlantic initially then RCA for many years through all the big ’80s hits. And then, you know, we kind of backed off in the late ’80s but we still had a commitment to our contract, which was transferred to Arista Records. We still had a commitment to them to deliver an album. I was going through a divorce. Our manager had left. There was a lot of, you know, upheaval… in at least in my life. I’m not going to speak for Darryl. And I just I wrote that song. I came up with the idea that I needed a new way forward, a new breath of life. And I didn’t know what it was. And the idea of changing seasons just seemed to to epitomize the way I was feeling. I wanted to have a cool R&B feel to it. I actually got together with our keyboard player,. Bobby Mayo, who’s a very, very well-known player. He played on Frampton Comes Alive, and he also played with Foreigner, among other people. I gave him the idea. He came over the house and I played him the idea. I said, “Man, I really want this to sound like an old Otis Redding record.” And then he came up with some really cool chords. And so he and I wrote that together.
I’ve interviewed you before and I remember you mentioned to me that, after that record, things were changing in pop culture. And you weren’t sure where you guys fit anymore. I feel like the Change Of Season album was a good “period” at the end of a long sentence, of at least that phase of your career.
Yeah, it was. There were big changes in my personal life and there were changes in our career. You know, it was the rise of the garage band movement out of Seattle and all that. It wasn’t a melodic time. It was more of a period of angst and kind of aggression. I don’t think our style really jibed with the moment. There’s always an element of that with any kind of music that becomes popular. I mean, not only does it have to be good and catchy and and get people’s attention, but it has to be somehow in sync with the times and we didn’t feel we were in sync with the times. And so we actually voluntarily stepped back and said, “You know, let’s wait and see what happens.” And we waited until ’96 before we recorded again.
You guys recently headlined Madison Square Garden. It’s been really extraordinary to watch this reemergence of your popularity.
Yeah, it has been amazing. And I’ll tell you, I’m very, very appreciative and blessed. If someone would’ve told me back in ’72 that we would be selling out giant arenas and things like that in 2020, I really wouldn’t have believed it, to be honest with you. And there were moments in the ’90s and early 2000s where I certainly wouldn’t have believed it either.
I think that the songs have stood the test of time and the songs seem to resonate through through generations. And there’s a quality to the songwriting and the type of records we’ve made that seem to appeal across the generations, and that’s what’s really propelled our reemergence.
Not to compare you guys too much to Motown… but I just feel like Smokey Robinson’s songs will never really be out of style. All of those songs are always going to work for me. John and Paul’s Beatle songs are always going to work for me.
I think it’s all about the songs. It really is. I use this example, and I don’t want to be morbid or anything like that. But, you know, take the Eagles, for instance. Glen Frey passes away. He was amazing guy, and founder of the band. And they go out and they carry on with Glen’s son [Deacon] and hire Vince Gill, who’s just a genius. And they sound as good, if not better than they ever sounded. It’s the same thing with Journey. Steve Perry stops singing and they find Arnel Pineda. But it’s the songs that kids are hearing. They’re not really paying that much attention to the actual personnel necessarily. So it’s really all about the songs.
I read an interview with Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, and he’s doing the Dead & Company thing [former Dead members Weir and drummers Billy Kreutzmann and Micky Hart play Grateful Dead songs with John Mayer, Oteil Burbridge and Jeff Chimenti]. And Bob Weir said that he fully expects that one day he, Hart and Kreutzmann are gonna be done. And they actually want the other three guys to continue playing their songs. I thought, “Wow.” Most bands wouldn’t say that.
That’s very, very much in keeping with the history of music. I mean, Bach and Mozart aren’t out there conducting orchestras. There are orchestras playing their music all over the world. George Gershwin’s not sitting at the piano and playing his classics. But yet those songs are timeless. And that’s the magic and the beauty of being a songwriter.
Have you ever been in a situation, at a party, at a restaurant, even at a store where one of your songs is playing and people are enjoying it and they don’t realize that it’s you right next to them?
Oh, yeah. It happens a lot. Sometimes I wonder, when I go into a restaurant or someplace like that and I hear a song [by us], I wonder if they see me come in and they’re actually putting it on. It’s funny because that’s the only time I hear our music, when I just hear by accident, like walking into a store or a shop or airport. I very seldom play our own songs at home.
The course that you’ve taken with your own career has been so interesting. I think if somebody said in the ’70s or ’80s that what John Oates would be doing in the 2010s, or in 2020, is playing with really great bluegrass musicians in Nashville… that wouldn’t be what people would have expected. But you’ve really committed yourself to doing this. Talk about the live album [Live In Nashville] and the commitment you’ve put into this part of your career.
Luckily, I had recorded Live In Nashville on January 9th of this year, right before everything shut down. And the reason I recorded it was because I had been on tour with the Good Road Band for about two years. And, you know, when you play live, the band just keeps getting better and better. And the songs evolve and the arrangements get better. And I wanted to capture this magic of this incredible group of players from Nashville while we were still kind of hot, because I was expecting that I’d be going out on tour with Daryl this year. I thought, “Well, let’s let’s mix this thing and put it out.”
When I moved to Nashville, I found myself being kind of welcomed into the Americana music movement and meeting a bunch of players and writers who were part of that world. And it really rekindled my earliest musical influences from [the days] before I met Daryl Hall, that kind of stuff that I was into. I was playing a lot of folk music. I was playing a lot of blues and bluegrass. I was not really wanting to go back in time, but to use my earliest musical DNA to create something new and unique, but still honor the past. And that’s what this music is all about.
The band seems pretty tight.
Well, it’s the result of two years of touring, and that’s that’s exactly why I wanted to capture it. The band is just so damn good. And it’s just amazing to see them play. A lot of what’s happening in the performances seems like these are all well-honed arrangements. But honestly, they’re just guys who are great musicians listening to each other and reacting to each other. And that’s what I love about it. It’s spontaneous, but really well crafted.
When I last spoke to you, you commented that Hall and Oates are attached to the hits and you can’t play too many deep cuts at your concerts… and what a good “problem” that is to have. But now that you’ve been doing your solo thing in this incarnation for so long, it seems to me that the two things complement each other. You could go to a big arena — obviously, when the world goes back to normal — and play some of the biggest hits of all time with the guy you’ve been doing it with for 40-something years, and rock a crowd of 30,000. But you could also go to City Winery and do something else without the expectation of playing 10 songs that you do every night with Darryl.
That’s exactly why I do my solo projects, because it’s a it’s a complete 180 from what I do with Daryl and it gives me a chance to express myself in any way I want. And fortunately for me, the commercial success of Hall and Oates over the years has given me that platform and that ability to be totally free musically. And that’s an amazing place to be when you’re a creative person. The ultimate goal is to have total creative freedom. And I have that. So I want to make sure I don’t squander it. You know, I want to I want to make the most of it.