With 16 Top-10 singles, including six that reached No. 1, Daryl Hall and John Oates proved that combining two genres can be a real moneymaker if it’s done right. Their blend of R&B and rock borrows concepts from many other artists while always sounding uniquely and unmistakably like Hall and Oates.
The two musicians were 20 and 19, respectively, when they met as undergraduates at Temple University in Philadelphia in 1967. Both had grown up in suburbs in nearby Montgomery County. Although Hall (whose family name was Hohl) majored in music, Oates was a journalism major on a wrestling scholarship. None of that mattered, though, when they were hearing great R&B artists like Stevie Wonder or playing in various bands. They became pals and roommates before they became musical partners, which finally happened in earnest in 1970.
Soon after they signed with Atlantic Records in 1972, they were ready to release their debut album, Whole Oats. This collection of original songs has a pleasant folk-meets-soul sound. Hall established himself right away as having the pre-eminent musical chops, playing a wide range of instruments (even cello), creating the arrangements, and taking lead vocals. Atlantic stalwart Arif Mardin produced.
Unfortunately, nobody noticed. In fact, the duo’s first several albums went nowhere commercially. But they were key for the act’s development. Their second effort, Abandoned Luncheonette (1973), includes a touch of that funky Philly soul style that would become part of their signature once they got big. Today, everybody knows the single “She’s Gone,” but when it was released it did not reach the Top 40. Lou Rawls’ cover the following year certainly helped.
The title song, credited to Hall, has a slightly psychedelic glaze and a Laurel Canyon chattiness with barroom-piano backing. It’s all borrowed, but the elements are combined in an entirely original way.
Todd Rundgren produced the next album, War Babies (1974), and also served as a session musician alongside members of his band, Utopia. If you wonder how hard-edged prog-rock would mesh with folky soul, that problem was solved by a change in Hall and Oates’ sound. There’s a lot more rock on War Babies than on the previous records. Although that about-face undid some of the progress they’d made toward building a fan base, they gained more than they lost: this was their first album to enter the Billboard 100.
With lackluster results from Atlantic Records, they switched to RCA, reintroducing themselves with the 1975 album Daryl Hall and John Oates. They produced this album themselves, with help from their keyboardist, Christopher Bond. Their efforts were quickly rewarded by their first Top 10 single, “Sara Smile.”
Bond also produced Bigger Than Both of Us in 1976, the source for the mega-hit “Rich Girl.”
Side B opened with a song co-written with Hall’s longtime girlfriend, Sara Allen, “London Luck & Love,” a significantly more interesting track than “Rich Girl.”
Beauty on a Back Street (1977) was not as successful, but they regained some footing with Along the Red Ledge the following year, even convincing George Harrison to sit in on guitar on one track. Determined to ride the growing pop wave, they chose Harrison’s own producer, David Foster, to shape this album.
You can hear the slicker production values on “Serious Music,” a collaboration between Oates and keyboardist/songwriter George Bitzer, who had played with the Bee Gees. The sound has a surface diffusion associated with mainstream pop; there’s a heavy reliance on synths, too.
They stuck with David Foster for X-Static (1979) but decided to go it alone as producers on the very successful 1980 album Voices. The single of their cover of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” made it big, as did two originals, “Kiss on My List” and “You Make My Dreams.”
A lesser-known song from Voices is the album opener, Hall’s “It’s Good to Be Back.” There’s a touch of Elvis Costello in the impassioned simplicity of the verses’ lyrics and melody and a Southern rock twang in the accompaniment; both are unusual flavors for this duo.
All the success Hall and Oates had had up to 1981 was outstripped by the performance of that year’s album, Private Eyes. It produced three Top 10 hits; both “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” and the title track reached No. 1. But the following year, H2O did even better, with the album itself climbing to the No. 3 spot, a personal best.
Big Bam Boom (1984) was the final commercial triumph in Hall and Oates’ reign, with pop hits like “Method of Modern Love” and “Out of Touch.” All the elements of their winning style were so well integrated and essential that their songs routinely showed on multiple charts at once, especially pop, contemporary adult, and R&B.
After taking four years off from the studio, they signed with Arista in 1988 and released Ooh Yeah! With their longtime bassist, Tom “T-Bone” Wolk, as co-producer, they created a synth-heavy collection of tracks. The highlight, notable for its multi-guitar arrangement and vocals in H&O’s old-school soul style, is “Realove.”
Hall and Oates continued to put out albums every few years through the 1990s. Our Kind of Soul, which came out in 2004, is their most recent record. Only three of the 18 tracks are originals, but the choice of covers makes up for that fact. It’s a buffet of gourmet soul food, with songs by Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Barry White, just to name a few. One of its gems is “You Are Everything,” first recorded by the Philadelphia-based Stylistics in 1971. The duo gives the song its smooth, sexy due, a shade faster than the Stylistics’ well-loved version.
COVID-19 delayed a joint tour with Squeeze, but they were able to reschedule most of it in 2021. Although they haven’t recorded in a while, they keep the fires burning with live performances. There’s something about the Hall and Oates sound that stays fresh and inviting through the generations, like a favorite brand of beer. You hope it will always be on tap.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Gary Harris.