Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sony

By Paul Freeman (2009, 2008 and 2003 interviews)

Best-selling duo in pop history? Nope, not Simon & Garfunkel, nor the Everly Brothers. That honor goes to Hall & Oates.

In 2009, RCA/Legacy released a deluxe Hall & Oates box set - “Do What You Want, Be What You Are.”

“It was a really interesting process in putting together this box, because I controlled the songs,” Daryl Hall told us. “A lot of times, with box sets, it’s what the record company thinks is important. I thought it was important that we put on the songs that define the arc of our creative career and not just the hits. The hits are there. But much more, much deeper than that.

“I don’t go back. I haven’t done this ever, probably, listening to all of that. To hear songs that I had basically almost forgotten about, and to hear it all in a big gulp like that, I sort of became objective about my own music. I got off on myself, I guess, is the best way to put it,” Hall said, laughing. “It was really interesting. We have done some amazing work, I have to say. It astounds even me.”

What impresses is not only the quality, but the range of the work. “Casual listeners think of the hits - ‘Maneater,’ ‘You Make My Dreams’ and songs like that. But when you hear all those hits in context with the other music, you get a different perspective,” Hall said.

Oates told us, “A lot of people over the years chalked Hall & Oates up to being this hit-making machine, novelty power-pop guys who had their hits and were nothing more than that. I think that’s very unfair. Even though they’re in the pop genre, they’re good songs, well crafted.”

Hall added, “We always said that we’re not just hit-makers, but people didn’t understand that. The breadth of our music is very apparent, when you listen to it in a situation like this. I always just tried to write great music and, if it became popular, that was a bonus.”

Commercial success sometimes obscures artistic achievement. Hall said, “In the modern world, those lines are so blurred that they are insignificant. That used to be an issue, in another generation, a generation that grew up fightin’ the man and somehow commercialism was evil. Soul music was light and blues was heavy. There’s a lot of misconceptions that were created by the media that have pretty much faded away. I don’t think that anybody under the age of 35 still thinks that way anymore.”

The title, “Do What You Want, Be What You Are,” is appropriate. Hall explained, “That really states, in a larger sense, what’s going on with us. We’ve always been very strong-willed people and forged our own way in a tough business. We did that by being what we were. So it’s a very apt title.”

They’ve always been leading exponents of Philadelphia’s soul-rock sound, built on harmonies, melodic verses and strong choruses.

Recording the 2007 “Live at the Apollo” album was a thrill for the duo. David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick guested.

“It was really about completing a circle,” Hall said. “I always look at my life as a series of circles. One circle completes yet another one. Playing the Apollo with Dave and Eddie was the completion of a certain circle.

“I started, at 17 years old, with those guys. I knew them as a kid. My first involvement in the music scene had to do with them and the people that were the beginning of the Motown Philly sound. So, to work with them, on stage, at the height of my pop life, it felt like it was a sort of completion of a certain circle in both John’s and my life. It was very, very important. It was one of the great moments of my life.”

Though Hall has explored all sorts of musical avenues, the soulful Philadelphia musical roots stay with him.

“I lived it, I didn’t study it. If you’re Dr. John, living in New Orleans, you didn’t learn that music, you just were it. My first musical experiences, as a child,were in that world. The first time I ever made a record was with Gamble and Huff. This wasn’t looking at it from the outside. It was being in it. I’m part of the sound of Philadelphia. I’m part of the creation and making of it.

“I don’t think you can ever leave Philly,” Hall continued. “It’s like New Orleans. If you’re a musician from that region, you carry elements of that music not matter what you do or where you go. I haven’t lived in Philadelphia since I was a kid, but that’s where I formed my musical source. I can expand upon it, add other things to it, but it’s there at the core. Harmony is the essence of the Philadelphia And harmony is one of the main points of our music.”

So is the irresistible hook. “Again, it’s part of the format of that Philadelphia music,” Hall said. “It’s very catchy to people’s ears. It’s a verse-chorus kind of format. At its core, it’s really strong choruses and interesting, melodic verses. I think that’s something that people are really drawn to.”

Over 40 years ago, Hall found a kindred spirit in Oates. “We share roots and similar experiences. But he’s the opposite of me, which is good. John is a detail person, not a broad strokes person. He’s a small strokes person. I tend to be more of a broad strokes person. I see things on a large scale. The combination of those two things works well together - like bifocals. You can see it two ways.”

The chemistry between them comes naturally. Oates said, “It’s like an old shoe. It just works. We can go away, do our thing, it doesn’t matter. When we come back, it’s like nothing ever changed.”

Hall said, “The chemistry is something we don’t have to work at. We’ve known each other for so long. It’s effortless. Our relationship is real.”

Their shared vision has enabled Hall & Oates to enjoy rare longevity. “I have a lot of respect for people who have managed to stay vital and grow over a long period of time and haven’t lost it,” Hall said. “It’s hard to do. You can fall by the wayside. As an artist, you can lose your vibe, your impetus. You can crash and burn. There’s a lot of things that can happen to you as an artist. If you rise above that, go beyond it, then you deserve respect.

“There’s a lot of keys to that. Some of it is in the genes, in the blood. You have to have the kind of personality that’s focused and strong-willed. The other thing is to live your life the right way and not let things distract you. Try to find balance and not to be influenced by negative things. Keep your eyes on the prize. Other than that, I don’t know. What are the ingredients of passion? Who knows?”

In 2002, the Hall & Oates episode of VH1’s “Behind The Music” sparked renewed interest in the dynamic duo.

Oates said, “I know how powerful television is and I know that we’ve always done very well on TV. When I knew we were going to do the ‘Behind The Music,’ obviously, it’s going to give us more exposure. That’s a given. But I think there’s more to it than that, letting people in on what we were like as people. We really have not been the most public of recording people over the years. We don’t make the scene. We’re not in the gossip columns. So, in that regard, I don’t think people really know anything about us. They just think of us as this kind of hit machine of the ‘80s, who churned out all these hits and had their day in the sun, which is totally not accurate. So that TV show helped clear up that perception. In pop music, it’s always about the juxtaposition of luck, talent, timing.”

Hall said, “Behind The Music’ was just the first step in some reemergence and reassessment of what we do. Things go in cycles and it was just our time. We were ready to do something to come out in the world again. And I think the world was ready to accept that and listen to it.”

After parting ways with Sony, the song “Do It For Love” sent Hall & Oates soaring to the top of the Adult Contemporary chart in 2003. No major label backing was needed.

“I really can’t stand the corporate world. I don’t want to be a soldier in somebody else’s army,” Hall said.

“We’ve never alienated anybody. We’ve always been friends to the radio and friends to our audience. And I think payback time had come. The audience embraced us. The record took off on its own, because people liked it and people wanted to hear Hall & Oates. And radio programmers wanted to play Hall & Oates, because they like Hall & Oates. It’s an example of what you can do if you just take the bull by the horns.

“People love honesty. They like things to be real. People are dying for reality in all media - movies, art, music . People want the real thing. And they’re not getting it. It’s all crap. When something good comes through, it’s an accident. People will support something good. They really will. They want it.

“The other good thing is, my generation wants it,” Hall continued. “We’re the people who really care about music. Kids, there’s so much music, it’s like wallpaper now. I don’t know if the new generation really cares so much about music. I don’t know if it really has great value to people coming up now. I don’t think its a young game anymore. I think it’s a game of people 25 to 55. They’re the people who seem to care about music. It’s our generation that seems to care most about music. And if nobody else is going to do it, we’ll cater to it.”

Oates said, “We had our bouts of trying to fit in, in the ‘70s, when we were starting out. But ever since found ourselves in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, we’ve done the same kind of music. Our approach to songwriting never really changed. It matured. But, to me, it’s not much different. It’s always been all about the songs for us.”

According to Oates, “Do It For Love” reflects the duo’s philosophy. “That’s why we do this. There’s really not much other reason. I mean, we obviously do it to make a living. But we’re also doing it, because that’s what we love. And I think that’s what that song communicated, too. I think people heard ‘Do It For Love’ and interpreted it however they could fit that into the framework of their lives. You can take it on a lot of different levels. And I think that’s why that song did so well.”

Oates said of the industry’s tendency to discard veteran artists who have proven their worth, “I don’t care for it at all. It’s negative on every level. It’s negative for the old artists they’re discarding and it’s negative for the new artists, because they’re not nurturing them any more than they’re nurturing the old ones. And it’s a shame. I feel even more sorry for the new artists. They don’t get a chance to make their mistakes, to screw up creatively, so that they can learn and develop. To me, that’s the biggest crime.

“Artists like us, we had our chance. We wouldn’t be around, if we hadn’t had record companies like Atlantic and RCA, who actually stood behind us when we were looking to make our mark, who believed in us as artists, not just as a commodity. There’s a lot to be said for that, and it doesn’t exist anymore. The record company is shooting itself in the foot by not developing artists. Who knows how many great artists are out there who never get the chance or only get a chance on such a limited level, as an independent? They could be making an impact. It’s terrible.”

Hall & Oates have made a tremendous impact and they’ve received many awards. In 2003, Daryl Hall and John Oates were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. But, in a glaring omission, they have yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Hall said, “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an award. It’s nice to get an award. But it doesn’t motivate me, one way or the other. Most of these award things are pretty political. So I don’t pay any attention to it. It’s got nothing to do with me, really.”

Hall & Oates’ music has left its mark on countless artists. “All art is a continuum. Nobody creates anything in a vacuum. It all comes from what happened before. And I’m proud to be part of that continuum. I got my influences from people and now people are getting their influences from me.”

Hall and Oates have pursued solo projects along the way. “I think it’s the reason that we are together,” Hall said. “I don’t think we would have stayed together, if we had been restrictive with each other. We’re two different people. We have our shared songs and this show we put on together. But we are very much individuals and think individually. John has his own world and I certainly have mine. It works both ways.”

Oates added, “ It always transfers somehow to something positive, maybe bringing new people into the fold. Any time you’re bringing creative, it’s always good.”

Like other famous duos, they’ve faced the issue of being viewed as “half of...,” when working on outside projects.

“That’s my whole life,” Oates said. “If I hadn’t gotten over that after 30 years, I think I would have a major problem. No, that’s not even an issue. I don’t even consider that at all. I mean, it’s one thing to be considered half of something, it’s another to be considered the less important half of something. That is something I think people have definitely perceived me as.

“In general, Daryl has had a much higher profile in the public’s eye over the years. He’s singing most of the leads. He is who he is. So if my solo albums will give people a clearer picture of what I bring to the table or who I am as a creative individual, then that’s great.”

Hall agreed, “I wanted John to do a solo album for so long, Because I sing lead, people tend to not know what John does. When he got out there to make some music on his own, people were really digging it. I think his solo stuff is great. I was impressed. There’s room for everything - solo records, together records.”

Oates admitted, ““To make a solo record was a major step for me. I always felt that there was a credibility factor that was a missing little component in my life. I felt that I needed to make a record that addressed that. I wanted to show people that there was substance to my ability to write songs and to my personality that was above and beyond the mega-hits.”

One of Hall’s most ambitious projects is “Live From Daryl’s House,” a monthly internet webcast. It gives him the opportunity, in an intimate setting, to jam with other gifted artists, like Smokey Robinson.

“It’s one of those things that I’ve been doing in my own way over the years. In a way, Dave and Eddie at the Apollo was a ‘Live From Daryl’s House,’ because it was the bringing of another creative entity into my world. The nature of collaboration is sort of like that. When you write a song with a stranger or with someone you don’t know that well or even with someone you do know, it’s sort of a ‘Live From Daryl’s.’

“After going around touring for all these years, the idea came to turn everything upside down and bring the world to me and my inner sanctum. By doing that, it just flips everything on its head. It’s the old breaking down of the fourth wall between the audience and the artist. Listeners go, ‘Wow, that’s the way these people really are. That’s the way they interact when their hair’s down, when they’re not doing their act, not performing in front of an audience.’ Even though there is an audience, it doesn’t feel like an audience. There’s a lot of refreshing aspects to it that make it super exciting.

Photo Credit: courtesy of Daryl Hall
“All these surprises happen,” Hall explained. “Most of these artists, I don’t know. It’s almost a blind date. So when great things happen, it’s a special feeling.”

Hall said that creating “Live From Daryl’s” is like establishing a new career. “I feel that I’m at the beginning of something new. I feel like I’m a pioneer in this internet world. In 1950, television was a new medium. Nobody was sure about it, but some pioneers decided to jump in with both feet and do this new thing. And look what happened.

“The internet’s on the way to doing that, too. Right now, it’s in a transitional phase. I’m maybe the first who’s treating it almost the same way that people treat radio or television, as an actual entertainment medium.”

In whatever medium they choose, Hall & Oates entertain, transcending boundaries of age, race and genre.

“I’m really happy that the music crosses generations,” said Hall, “that people still are moved by it in profound ways. I want to keep making that happen that.

“Most people can’t articulate their feelings. That’s why Hallmark greeting cards were invented. And that’s why people are moved by songs. I express emotions for people and they go, ‘Oh, this is what I really feel, what I really think and you’re saying it for me.’ It’s a necessary part of life, really.”

In concert, Hall & Oates make their classic hits sound fresh for the audience and for themselves.

Hall said, “The songs evolve. They change. We do things with them, play with them. We find new things in them all the time. We can find new ways to present them and to be inspired by them.”

The audience contains many young people, as well as older fans. Hall said, “Even when we were starting out, we’ve always had pan-generational response. At first, it was people our age bringing their parents. Now it’s parents bringing their kids. But we’ve always had multi-generational interest in our music. I’m glad to see that it continues.”

Added Oates, “We have a really nice upswing going with Hall & Oates right now.”

As for the duo’s legacy, Hall said, “It is what it is. It stands on its own. I’m proud of what we’ve done... but I don’t think about it that much. I’m really, really happy that people still are moved by it in profound ways and I want to keep doing that. That’s my job. That’s what I do. It’s the way I think.”

Added Oates, “I’m not complaining. I’m just glad the world lets me play guitar and sing for a living. How bad can that be?”