John Oates on 50 Years With Daryl Hall, “You Make My Dreams,” and the Problem With Having Too Many Hits

Abandoned Luncheonette is such a cool, unique album. I saw that it took about 30 years to go platinum, so that’s another record that took time to really get its due.

I just got a platinum album for that a few years ago, it’s crazy. And of course “She’s Gone” was really the big hit off that album, that’s the song that put us on the map. Without that, who knows what would have happened?

The Bernard Purdie drums on “She’s Gone” and a few other tracks on that album are amazing.

Are you kidding me? That was one of the highlights of my life to play with those session musicians on that Abandoned Luncheonette session, and especially Bernard Purdie. He was always a favorite even back then to me. And so the fact that we had Arif Mardin producing us, he could surround us with these incredible New York session players, Joe Farrell, Bernard Purdie, Gordon Edwards, Ralph McDonald on percussion, Hugh McCracken played some guitar.

One thing the great drummers seem to have, they have this unspoken command of the groove. When you play with a great drummer, your life becomes easy, everything floats on this confident unshakable groove, and it really changes everything, it makes you a better player, it frees you up to do other things, because there’s this heartbeat that just won’t quit. And that’s what he would bring. One thing I noticed, during that session, is when he would count off a song, it was always right. It was always exactly where it should have been. Sometimes you play with a drummer and they count off something, “Eh, let’s do it a little quicker, that feels like it’s dragging.” Not with him, he counted it off and it just settled into this perfect tempo.

You wrote and sang lead a bit more on the ‘70s albums. Were you at a certain point ceding the spotlight to Daryl? What is songwriting collaboration like for you guys?

The songwriting collaboration was that there were no rules. We’d write a song separately, we’d write a song partially, we’d operate almost as editors of each other, or have a true collaboration, and everything in between. What I think happened, obviously Daryl’s voice is so outstanding, and his voice really cut through the radio way better than mine. I’m a good singer, I’m not a great singer, but when you’re standing next to Daryl, he’s a great singer. So naturally radio kind of gravitated to his voice, and his voice became the signature of the sound.

What goes into making a setlist for you guys?

Here’s the thing, y’know, we’re victims of our own success. And I don’t mean that in any negative way at all. We have this incredibly great issue, and the issue is that our hits are evergreen and they stand the test of time, and everyone comes to hear them. I personally feel like I have a professional responsibility to play songs that people expect to hear when they pay good money and make an effort to come and hear and see us. But that being said, it doesn’t leave a lot of room to tap the vast and I think musically interesting catalog that we have.

Yeah, a band that has three or four hits can pepper those in and do whatever they want the rest of the show, where you guys have so many songs that people want to hear every night.

We have a set full of hits, there’s no doubt about it. But y’know, listen, go see Elton John, same thing, go see Paul McCartney, same thing’s going to happen. It’s a blessing, c’mon, if every artist could have their dream set, that’s what they would have. We’re fortunate to be able to do that. And what we do is we rotate various kind of album-esque tracks into the set, and it’s fun for us, because we change that up a lot. We put “Is It A Star” in the set, which is a pretty obscure song from the War Babies album. But it’s a cool chance for me to play a little bit more blues guitar, it’s kind of in a different groove from most of our other material. And then we’re thinking about playing a song like “Back Together Again,” which was a semi-hit, went into the top 20, but it’s got a great feel. A lot of times we’ll look for a spot in the set where we feel we need something. And so then we can go to this catalog of 300 songs and find something.

Being a duo for 50 years can’t be easy. I’m sure there’s ups and downs.

Y’know, way more ups than downs, to be honest with you. It’s actually a miracle, I’m actually shocked that we are able to still play together and it’s great. It’s something that you have to really appreciate, because like you said, it’s not easy.

Do you get recognized less when you shave off the mustache?

Well, I didn’t have a mustache for quite a while in the ‘90s, then I have a mustache again with a goatee, I have a modern version. I definitely don’t have the ‘70s macho ‘stache, that’s gone.

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