Philly duo gets its due

In 1975, the year they hit it big with their first hit, "Sara Smile," Daryl Hall (left) and John Oates performing. Hall grew up outside Pottstown; Oates was raised in North Wales.
In 1975, the year they hit it big with their first hit, "Sara Smile," Daryl Hall (left) and John Oates performing. Hall grew up outside Pottstown; Oates was raised in North Wales.
Posted: April 07, 2014

It may seem strange that a couple of white kids from the suburbs would grow up to be the first Philly performers to go into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame representing the city's signature soulful sound.

But Daryl Hall and John Oates have been confounding expectations since they met as students at Temple University in 1967.

Beginning with "Sara Smile" in 1975, they wracked up 29 Top 40 hits, becoming the most successful duo in music history.

On Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Hall and Oates will be inducted into the hall by Roots drummer, Tonight Show bandleader, and fellow Philadelphian Questlove. The other honorees, in a ceremony that will be shown on HBO on May 31, are Peter Gabriel, KISS, Nirvana, Linda Ronstadt, Cat Stevens, and Springsteen's yeomen, the E Street Band. (The Boss was installed individually in 1999.)

Hall and Oates are going in on their first ballot. They've been eligible since 1997, but, remarkably, have never been nominated until this year. Why the oversight?

"A lot of people wonder why it is so often that artists who have sold a lot are not inducted more quickly," says Greg Harris, the president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "The number of units sold - that piece doesn't speak to contributions to the art form as much as artistic merits do."

But as a Bucks County native, Harris admits he's pretty pumped. "I think they're terrific," he says. "As a music lover and a Delaware Valley guy, it's always extra exciting when it's a band you grew up hearing on the radio."

The two musicians have been hearing that questionable argument - their music can't be good because it's too popular - their whole career.

"There was a definite stigma attached to being a band with a No. 1 hit in the Top 40," says Oates, who turns 65 this week. "It meant you couldn't be important or deep or hip.

"Now the only way to be hip is to get on the top of the charts, to stand out from the clutter," he continues. "It's turned 180 degrees. Now young people look at what we accomplished as supremely hip."

A new generation of vocal fans has emerged in millennial musicians like Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump, Chromeo's Dave 1, and Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard. Rapper Travie McCoy, former front man for Gym Class Heroes, has large tattoos of Daryl and John on the backs of his hands. That's hard core, man!

Make no mistake: Hall and Oates are proud to enter the hall as POP artists (Products of Philadelphia).

"I owe Philadelphia my career," says Hall, 67. "It made my music what it sounds like."

"It's the heart and soul and core of what we do," agrees Oates.

'Always' Philly

They still play about 45 dates a year. Recently, Oates has been doing solo appearances in support of his just released album, Good Road to Follow. Since 2007, Hall has hosted an acclaimed Web series, Live From Daryl's House, in which he duets with artists as diverse as Grace Potter and Chiddy Bang. He just finished an episode this week with Darius Rucker at his home in Charlotte.

Oates splits his year between Colorado and Nashville. Hall maintains homes in Connecticut and Charleston, S.C.

"It doesn't matter where we live or record," says Oates. "We're always going to represent Philly."

Both Hall, who grew up Daryl Hohl outside Pottstown, and Oates, who was raised in North Wales, were drawn to the musical magnet of the city. Enrolling in classes at Temple was just their day job.

Hall, who doted on local soul singers like the Delfonics and the Intruders, joined four other students in a vocal doo wop band called the Temptones (originally the Templetones).

After a triumphant amateur night performance at the Uptown Theater on North Broad Street, the Temptones were signed to Arctic Records by Jimmy Bishop, program director and DJ at WDAS. The label's biggest hit came in 1965 with Barbara Mason's "Yes, I'm Ready."

Oates was happily soaking up all the '60s had to offer. "Between all that R&B radio in the city and going to the Folk Festival, between Jerry Blavat and early underground FM radio on 'MMR, it was the ultimate fertile ground for absorbing music," he says.

He played guitar for an R&B band called the Masters that was signed to Clover Records. The label, co-owned by Blavat, later had a breakout with the Soul Survivors' "Expressway to Your Heart" in 1967.

Both bands were promoting their singles at a record hop at the Adelphi Ballroom in West Philadelphia when a riot broke out. Trying to escape, Hall and Oates ended up in the same elevator and struck up a conversation.

The Masters broke up shortly after and Oates was drafted to play guitar for the Temptones. That's when Kenny Gamble, the architect of the sound of Philadelphia, met them. "They were working with us at Frank Virtue's studio at Broad and Columbia [now Cecil B. Moore Avenue] and they were fantastic," he says by e-mail.

Gamble and longtime partner Leon Huff were inducted into the hall in 2008 as non-performers. The O'Jays, who were on Gamble and Huff's label, Philadelphia International and were inducted three years earlier, were originally from Ohio.

'LIttle by little'

It rankles Hall that the City of Brotherly Love is so neglected. "Considering the overwhelming impact Philadelphia has had on the music world, it's really underrepresented in the hall," he says. "I find that disturbing."

Back to that fateful first meeting in the elevator: You would think when two men who were destined to form one of the most prolific partnerships in modern music met, a choir might descend from the rafters.

Not so much. "There was no lightning," says Hall, chuckling. "We both liked the same kinds of music and we both came from the suburbs, so we each needed a roommate to share an apartment in the city. It was only over the years that our friendship turned into trying to make music together."

"Little by little, we tried some things," recalls Oates. "The stuff we did in the early days didn't sound very good. We couldn't get our voices to blend."

In fact, even after they signed to Atlantic Records, it took them four albums to really find their groove.

"That doesn't happen anymore. No label would give us three records to make mistakes and find ourselves," says Oates. "We wouldn't be having this conversation."

He believes it's the tunes as much as the talent that has carried them to this lofty point.

"Our songs have been able to sustain, to keep being able to be played on the radio," says Oates. "Some, luckily for us, sound timeless. That's why people still come to see us. That's why in my estimation we're getting in the Hall of Fame."

Well, that and a dose of Philly street flavor.


Hall of Fame Playlists

We asked the Philly inductees to share the five essential albums in their personal collections.

Daryl Hall

What's Going On, Marvin Gaye (1971)

Greatest Hits, The Temptations (1966)

Going to a Go-Go, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (1965)

Revolver, The Beatles (1966)

Back Stabbers, The O'Jays (1972)

John Oates

Doc Watson, Doc Watson (1964)

Blue, Joni Mitchell (1971)

The Band, The Band (1969)

Temptations Live!, The Temptations (1967)

Live at the Apollo, James Brown (1963)


dhiltbrand@phillynews.com

215-854-4552

@daveondemand_tv

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