The best-selling pop duo of all time, Hall and Oates have recorded and performed together for over 40 years now. Both Daryl Hall and John Oates have various side projects—starting in March, Oates plans to release a new solo song every month —but the two guys that grew up listening to lots of Philly soul have somehow found a way to keep it together despite taking a brief, two-year break in the mid-'80s. Oates recently phoned in from his Nashville home to talk about the upcoming tour and reflect on the band's longevity.
Your date here in Akron is the start of a short tour. What do you have planned for the set list?
We have a very good problem. We have a lot of hits. People come to hear those hits. We have to respect that. At the same time, we throw in album tracks and songs we haven't played in a while. We do a combination of things. In the end, we have some hits we don't get to play because the show would be too long. It's a good problem to have and we try to do our best to keep us satisfied and keep the fans satisfied. We go into sound check and learn a new song that we then try out at the show. It's very casual. We have a core set list and from that core set list, we intersperse different tracks. We've been doing a bunch of stuff like "When the Morning Comes" and "Las Vegas Turnaround." We've been doing "Did It in a Minute." We'll throw in an old Philly soul song.
I think last year marked 40 years since you've been together as a duo. Did you do anything to mark the occasion?
No. We're not like that. We don't pretend we're going to retire and then come back and do a reunion tour. We don't do shit like that.
Your first hit didn't really come until 1975. Why do you think "Sara Smile" became a success?
That was a total fluke. We had "She's Gone" out two years before that and had done pretty well but wasn't a big hit. We released that silver album that contained "Sara Smile" and we were on tour in Europe for the first time. We had released two singles from that album that got into the Top 30 but nothing groundbreaking. We got a call from our management that a small R&B station in Ohio - I think it was Toledo, but I'm not sure - started playing "Sara Smile" as an album track. People were calling and raving about it and couldn't get enough of it. RCA said, "Let's give this a shot and release it as the third single." There you go. Back then, radio stations could do whatever they wanted. That was the difference. If a program director was running the station, he could program it. Often, each disc jockey programmed their own music and added their own personality to their own shows. That's one of the things I miss. You do hear that on satellite radio, which is great. They have personality-driving shows, and I love that.
If you had initially signed to RCA instead of Atlantic would have that changed anything?
I don't think it had much to do with it. It had more to do with us writing songs that connected to what was on radio. The Whole Oats album we did for Atlantic was a singer-songwriter album and a non-event. Abandoned Luncheonette is to this day one of our best albums. It was a great period of time where we were working with Arif Mardin, one of the greatest producers in the world. We had unbelievable studio musicians. We had a perfect storm of creativity. We did War Babies with Todd Rundgren and that threw Atlantic for a loop. It was 180 degrees from Abandoned Luncheonette. It was a more experimental rock album. Atlantic didn't think we were right for the label and we moved to RCA and stayed with them through the '80s.
Was "Maneater" originally intended to be a reggae tune?
Yeah, when I originally wrote it, I wrote it as a reggae song. I wrote the chorus as a reggae song. I played it for Daryl and he loved the idea, but I remember his exact words. He said, "Hall and Oates don't do reggae." Honestly, he came up with that Motown-ish groove and it gelled.
So what's it like to perform and record without Daryl?
It's fine. It's great. I don't consider myself a real front man person. My solo stuff is more intimate and more singer-songwriter. I perform with a band and without. I like telling stories and engaging the audience. I have a cool project that I'm doing now and I'm going to be releasing one song a month in March and it will go for a whole year and at the end of it there will be an album that will come out. The first song comes out on iTunes on March 13 and will be featured on a NASCAR race on March 18. Each month, a new song will come out and every song has a different story and I worked with Nathan Chapman and Vince Gill and Hot Chelle Rae. Some of it sounds like R&B, some of it sounds like folk-blues and some of it sounds like country, a little bit. It's really cool because every song is completely different.
You guys are known as tremendous songwriters? In the age of American Idol, has songwriting become a lost art form?
I don't believe that at all. Songwriting is alive and well. All those great singers would have to keep their mouths shut if they didn't have a song to sing.
Do you have a favorite up and coming songwriter?
I like everything from the young pop stuff like Bruno Mars and Hot Chelle Rae and One Republic to people like Alison Krauss and everything from that to people like Alison Krauss and Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller. I have a wide range of interests.