03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

From Philly to Cleveland : A Conversation With Daryl Hall & John Oates


You know their hits by heart: "She's Gone," "Sara Smile," "Rich Girl," "Kiss On My List," "Maneater," "One On One," and many, many more. You also may know that they're considered the most successful pop pair in music history, outselling and charting higher than any other two-member recording act including the Carpenters and Everly Brothers. What you may not know is that, just a few weeks ago, the music of Daryl Hall and John Oates was anthologized across a four-disc box set titled Do What You Want, Be What You Are, and that collection outperformed expectations by hitting Billboard's main album chart at #89 and r&b album chart at #17, it becoming the third highest charting box of 2009 behind two Beatles collections. To date, it has sold over 10,000 copies, which is a big deal in the world of box sets since they often only sell a few thousand over the course of their existence.

Beyond the box, Daryl and John also have enjoyed a surge in popularity due to the use of their hit "You Make My Dreams" as the musical backdrop for Joseph Gordon-Levitt's dance routine in (500) Days Of Summer. Add to that their being animated as angel/devil Animal House-style on the Family Guy spin-off Cleveland, the success of the internet series Live From Daryl's House, and--you may be hearing it here first--their upcoming Playboy photo shoot with Mick Rock. Plus it was just announced that Daryl Hall and John Oates were nominated for a Grammy for Best Pop Duo Or Group With Vocals for their contributions to Jimmy Wayne's country version of "Sara Smile" making 2009 not only a big comeback year for The Fab Four, but also for pop music's Dynamic Duo.

Mike Ragogna: How did you determine what tracks would appear on Do What You Want, Be Who You Are?

Daryl Hall: When I heard that it was going to be made, I said this was going to be what we think are the important tracks we did--the songs that were pivotal, the songs that mattered, the ones that showed our growth as musicians as well as the hits and all that. But all those other songs, the bulk of the selection, are things that we thought were significant to explain us in a way that we've never really been explained before.

John Oates: It had been simmering on the label side for quite a few years, but there didn't seem to be any energy behind it. Once those guys (Jeremy Holiday, Rob Santos) got involved and they started doing the archival work, Daryl and I got excited and we got more hands-on with it when working with them to create a project that was done as a collaboration. That's what makes this box set special. It really is our take on our music and our lives, and that's what's important. You know, there are a million greatest hits packages floating around out there on us, but that's not what this is about. These are the songs that we think show our progression as artists and as songwriters and producers through the past thirty-five plus years.

MR: In the boom years of the box set, it seems that a Daryl Hall & John Oates collection would have been a no-brainer. Why did it take so long?

DH: Everything has its time. There's a certain thing going on with people's consciousness, you never know why things happen. Why are people interested in our music and are being influenced by it? You know, you can't explain that. I think that's the reason that it's time for a box set, and it's time to have a retrospective and a perspective of what it is that we've done over the years and why we're here.

MR: You have a reputation for being studio wizards and the bulk of the box collects from those recordings. But you also are a terrific live act, and it's nice that the box shows that side too.

DH: We've always been known by our fans and outside the States to be a great live band. When we went to England, we were really, really respected as a live band in the U.K., and all over Europe all through the eighties and to the present day.

MR: What went into choosing live versions of popular titles over studio versions?

DH: There are certain songs that I think increase their impact by being shown in their live version, like the song "Do What You Want..." There's something about the way we do that song onstage that takes it to an even higher place than the record.

MR: In that song in particular, one might miss the stacked "You can change, you can change..." answer-backs, but the lyrics pop a lot better without all the production.

DH: Yeah, you hit it on the head, that's exactly it.

MR: You guys unearthed live material from your show at London's New Victoria Theater in 1975, and they're some of the best tracks on the package. Why were they never released as a live album?

JO: You have to remember, we didn't have any hits at that time. "She's Gone" was a cult hit, and "Sara Smile" had just come out. The crazy part is that I had those on an old-fashioned videotape, and I was the only one who had a copy of it. I pulled it out, sent it to New York to a special lab to have it transferred to DVD because I didn't want to lose it. When I got it back and started watching it, I literally freaked out! I didn't realize what we had done, it was just one of those moments when the band was on fire--the energy, the youthful exuberance, the passion. We were kind of an underground cult band at the time, and to have that moment preserved... The whole concert is incredible, but the seven songs that made the box are just spectacular. I am so proud of the quality of that band, and it's funny, I never thought of that band as being one of our better ones. But hearing it now, it was just a revelation, and I think the die-hard Hall & Oates fans are going to be happy to hear that.

DH: When Sony said, "We want to do a box set with you guys," we said, "Well, if we're gonna do it, we have things in our archives that you don't even know about." Actually, I didn't know that John had this show that he had been saving over the years of the New Vic in London which was our first tour of England. When he played it for me, I said, "Man, I can't believe how good this band was," because, truthfully, we were influenced by a lot by people around us who said, "...they don't really work in the studio, you should loose them, go with the L.A. session guys," which is what we did in the late seventies sort of against our will. But now I wonder why we ever did that. Other than the band we have today, I think that band was the best one we've ever had.

MR: After all these years, what do you think of the guitar solos, especially those on "Lady Rain" and "Bennie G. And The Rose Tattoo"?

DH: Todd Sharp, an amazing guitar player.

MR: Even without your band, you guys sounded pretty amazing that night, like on "When The Morning Comes." That song sounds so much more inspired with just the two of you and an acoustic guitar.

DH: That's another thing I got a perspective on after listening to all of this in a giant gulp, just how in tune John and I were in those days. You know, we were living in the same apartment, living in the same world. We'd always been brothers, but we were really livin' the life together, and I think it really showed in our musical communication in those early and mid-years. We never lost that, but it's amazing to hear it from these young guys.

JO: It's crazy, that's probably the only recording that exists of just Daryl and I playing together with no one else. In those days, there was no pitch correction or Pro Tools. What you hear is what happened. You had to be good, you had to be able to perform, to sing with pitch, to play in order to get the song over. And that's what the audience expected. You know, the audience's expectations were quite high because people really cared about music.

MR: Speaking of sound quality, your LP Abandoned Luncheonette was auditioned on audiophile stereo systems in major retail outlets to sell equipment. Before you had hits, many people were becoming fans of that album because it sounded so good.

JO: Think about who made that record--Arif Mardin producing and Gene Paul, Les Paul's son, engineering. Hello? The son of the guy who invented multi-track recording engineered the record, and there were players like Bernard Purdie, and the like who were on it. Sure, it's an audiophile wet dream. Records had to be well-recorded then, people cared. There was no such thing as MP3s and squashed compression for listening on these little tiny ear buds. People who cared about music wanted to hear it in its full frequency glory. And I'm still like that today. On my solo album 1000 Miles Of Life, I sought out the best engineer I could in Nashville, Bill Vorndick, and we recorded it with the highest quality mics we could find. I knew it was going to be reduced to MP3 quality for downloads and stuff, but it didn't matter. Music still matters to me, and sound matters to me so...

MR: It seems like we lost so much when we dumbed-down sound for convenience, like when boom boxes became popular.

JO: Yeah, you're right, it probably did start with boom boxes and cassette tape, and it went downhill from there. There's a whole culture, a whole music audience out there who doesn't even know what high fidelity sounds like, and they don't really care. It's very unfortunate, but that is how it is.

DH: I think there are people who really always have and always will care about the quality of music in general, about the sound of the music, things like that. I think it's a relatively small group of people who have that kind of musical ability. And then there are the masses that are less attached to music. They're attached to it for different reasons--because of fashion, because of what their friends like--and the music is more incidental to those people. They don't care so much. I always work for the people who really give a s**t. To me, that's my audience, and if anybody else wants to join in, that's all well and good. I always try and set my standards high.

MR: It seems unfortunate that as we become more of an ADD culture, so many of us can't slow down enough to appreciate things like audiophile sound or even learning how to play an instrument without sequencing and pitch-correcting.

JO: Well, unfortunately, the world is going to just speed up, so you have to keep pace with it. But at the same time, you have to satisfy your musical integrity and what it is that means something to you. Hopefully, as things go, there's a place for all of that, and there's a place for the audiophile, for people who want to hear something that goes above and beyond the virtual music world. And then, there's that world that will continue to grow and supply music for people who want it that way, who want the fast food (version) of pop.

MR: And considering how it's used more as a supplement to other entertainment formats than ever before, it seems that making records is more about placement in Rock Band or on Gossip Girl than about creating art.

JO: I have a thirteen-year-old son, and music in his world competes with PS3, video games, and the computer in general--the internet, YouTube, whatever. It's just all part of this giant barrage of entertainment choices. But there are people out there who believe music is special, and there is a lot of passion in young musicians who I found care as much if not more than anyone ever did. They're out there, but you have to seek them out, and that's why I'm returning to this folk and kind of traditional American approach that I've returned to as, basically, a refuge. For me, it's a place where music in its most authentic form lives.

MR: Though you've made some great r&b records and your first album on Atlantic had a folk sound, you've built your legacy on the four-minute pop song. How does it feel to be considered one of the greatest "pop" duos of all time.

JO: We appreciate the genre. It's funny, in the seventies, if you had success on Top 40 or AM radio at the time, you were considered less than hip, especially by rock journalists and the media. My reaction to that was, "Well, if it's so easy, how come everybody doesn't do it?" Over the years, that whole perception has been turned on its head, and it no longer exists. Now, contemporary artists, young artists, appreciate the fact of how difficult it is to have one hit let alone twenty or thirty of them. They sing our praises and they tout us to their fans as our being influential to them, and realize how difficult it is to have a long-term career in a very tough business.

MR: Most of those H&O pop songs were written by Daryl Hall and John Oates, but you occasionally collaborated with Sara and Janna Allen. How did they fit into the mix?

DH: Well, Sara was my girlfriend from the very beginning, from '72 until about nine years ago, so she was in my world, she was my partner. We were all a family. It was her, her sister Janna, and we all sort of lived together over the years. In the seventies, we were all living in the same places and certainly in the same neighborhood. So we were all a close family, and that proximity, among other things, made them an important part of the writing process as well. Sara was a great songwriter-lyricist, her sister Janna was a musician, a singer-songwriter and a lyricist also. So the four of us created a lot, especially in the late seventies and into the eighties. A lot of the really important songs were written as much by them as by us.

MR: Christopher Bond is credited as your producer for a few of your early RCA albums following your tenure with Arif Mardin and Todd Rundgren. How did he inherit that position?

DH: Chris was a fellow Philadelphian that was in various bands that we got together with in the very early days. When John and I were writing songs and working strictly as a duo, we added Chris, he was our early T-Bone. Then we sort of brought him into the situation when we started working with Arif. He was the guitar player, and he did a lot of the lead guitar, like the solo on "She's Gone." He had aspirations to be a producer, and we were given more and more leeway in production. So when we finally did the silver album, he had moved to California, and we said, "Okay, why don't we do it with him." It was sort of our first self-production, to tell you the truth, adding Chris to it.

MR: As you listen to the box, it's obvious that when you produced yourselves on Voices, a more clearly defined Daryl Hall & John Oates sound emerged.

DH: I started with my friends--Gamble & Huff, Tommy Bell--these were people who were just a couple of years older than me. I learned things from them, but it was more like we all learned together. But Arif was the first person I ever encountered that I treated as a mentor. He was everything, and I learned so much from him, and I took everything I learned from him into situations in the future when John and I started producing ourselves. Some things came from Todd, but I think that was more like friends interacting than a mentor situation. I learned little things along the way, I got my share of influences. And I think that all these things allowed us to be ourselves by about 1980, to create music that was very unique and personal to us without outside people influencing too much.

JO: The whole thing builds from the time we met until that time in the eighties when we took over production and made the records we wanted to make with our band. It was a ten-year process to get to that place. You hear us in New York in the early days with Arif Mardin, then you hear us with Todd Rundgren, in L.A. with the session guys in the mid-seventies, and we were gradually moving toward that moment when we really, really took the reigns. That's when it all changed. Artistic freedom and getting it right is what everyone hopes for in their lives, and you can see that progression in this box set.

MR: And there was no turning back once you hit your stride with Voices.

DH: Yeah, there really was no turning back, and we tried working with some other people. We were thrown together with some others over the years, but it never really worked.

MR: Daryl, what are your favorite tracks on this package?

DH: I love that song "It's Uncanny." I think it's such an unusual song, it's an r&b song with the weirdest word--"uncanny." I mean nobody writes a song with that title. I like one of John's songs called "Alone Too Long," that's one I completely forgot about that kind of shows our interacting with the California thing interestingly. What, there are so many songs. I got so many surprises after hearing this that I sort of obtained this objectivity that I never had. Even with the most recent things, I listened to John's song "All The Way From Philadelphia" and I wonder why we never put that on the album.

MR: John, what are your favorite tracks on this package?

JO: One of my favorites is the track "Don't Go Out." It was an outtake from the Private Eyes album that didn't make it because it didn't sound like the rest of the record. But it's one of the most interesting things I've ever done. I put a ton of production work into that song. To me, it's all about the paranoia of New York City in the eighties when walking down the street was dangerous. I tried to capture that sonically. I think it's unique, and people will hear it and go "What is that?" I love the seven songs from London, I think that's my favorite part of the entire box. I love what Daryl and I did at Live From Daryl's House, "I Want Someone." I think it's a gem, it's something Daryl and I related to as little kids. We both saw The Mad Lad at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, and we always loved that song. It's something that we dabbled with over the years, and we never played it in its entirety. We would play it at sound checks...sixteen bars, laugh and stop.

MR: So this was the first time you ever got through a whole performance of it?

JO: The interesting part of this live track is that when we decided to do it, we never rehearsed it, never discussed it. We just sat in the room and said, "Okay, what key...alright, let's do it." In fact, we didn't even discuss who was going to take the solo, so when it came to it, T-Bone and I both played a solo simultaneously that sounded like one person. It was really unbelievable. I freaked when I heard it. When we were done, I looked at Daryl and was like, "What just happened?"

MR: You've all been together for so long, do you think it was intuition?

JO: Oh yeah, it's telepathic.

MR: How did Live From Daryl's House get its start?

DH: It started because it had the ability to start, not unlike The Huffington Post. You know, we live in a different world, we live in the world of the internet where people are getting their information and, increasingly, their entertainment from sources other than the traditional ones. So, I just acted on that, and from there, I went, "Okay, now what do I do?" It was sort of the idea, "Let's play on the front porch and see what happens," and then it developed into, "Let's have some guests, and let's hang out, and let's add some food to it..." It had a natural kind of growth.

MR: On your show, you've featured classic acts such as Smokey Robinson, Todd Rundgren, and Nick Lowe, but you've also focused on current artists like Matt Nathanson, Chromeo, KT Tunstall, Travis McCoy of Gym Class Heroes, Plain White T's, Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump...

DH: Yeah, there's a certain kind of artistry that's common in the whole thing. It's people who've influenced me like Smokey, and people I've influenced like Gym Class Heroes, people like that. It kind of goes both ways, but I'm kind of concentrating on my interaction with newer artists. I think the bulk of the shows represent that, and that's sort of what it's all about--although I do like to throw in, as you said, the occasional Nick Lowe or Smokey just to break it up and to have some fun.

MR: So it's almost like it's your turn to mentor, and these younger acts genuinely are having fun in the process.

DH: The other thing about the show is that it shows people in their native habitat as opposed to most performance situations being an artist doing his or her "act" and the audience just sort of watching. But it's an act, there's a fourth wall. On this show, there's no act, everybody is completely themselves--you have to be due to the nature of what's going on. I know from a lot of managers, record companies, and artists themselves that they're very happy to come on the show because it shows their fans what they're really all about. Especially when you're a new artist and people don't really know who you are, it allows people to show a different side of themselves.

MR: Jimmy Wayne is having a hit with you guys on his country version of "Sara Smile" that just got a Grammy nod. What's your reaction?

DH: You know, "Sara Smile" is a funny song. It started in the r&b world, it became a hit on black radio, it switched to pop radio, and now, after all these years, it's a country record and it's virtually unchanged. It shows how hybrid American music really is.

MR: John, just like Arianna Huffington, you and Daryl have moved into Seth MacFarlane's universe. So what do you think about Cleveland?

JO: Cleveland is the "Soul Man" with a heart of gold. Anyone who has a bear for a neighbor, like we do in Colorado, is OK with me. Mike Henry is a genius and the writing is smart, irreverent and cool...just like Cleveland.

MR: Daryl, what did you think about Rachael Ray's petition to get Hall & Oates inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

DH: I was very flattered that she cared that much about it. I know the reality of all this stuff, I've been in this business for a long time and come up the hard way. The Philadelphia/New York world of the music business is a tough place to be. I know the politics of it and I know the people that are involved in the decision making about things like Grammys, and things like Rock & Roll Halls of Fame, and all that stuff. So, I don't bang my head against the wall about it. They have their own sets of likes and dislikes. I've always been fortified by musicians and people.

MR: After working together for many years, some acts naturally disband. But Hall & Oates is a brand that just keeps going strong. What's the secret?

JO: Well, what you're hearing when you hear Hall & Oates is a brotherhood. It's not two guys who are friends or have a professional relationship. It goes way back, we've known each other since right out of high school, we grew up together, and we experienced everything in our adult lives together. The traveling, the business, the ups and the really goes beyond just a normal working relationship.

MR: So what's the future for Daryl Hall & John Oates?

JO: Our history is our future. I think we have so much to offer historically that, right now, that is what we will be doing. I also think it's individual stuff. I think Daryl's concentrating on his internet show, and I'm going to do a solo album, my solo songwriter's series, and a Jerry Douglas tour. That's really enough. I'm so busy that I think I'm going to shut it down over the holidays and get a chance to regroup because I don't think I've worked this hard in God knows how long. I'll figure out what I want to do with my new solo album, come up with some cool songs, get together with some great people and play them together. That's pretty much what I think is gonna happen.

DH: John has his solo work that he does, I have my solo record that I'm starting after the first of the year, and it's going to take some time in the studio. I have LFDH, and I'm sure whatever John and I do next year will be box set related because we have all these "new" songs that people are exposed to now that we can play and that'll be fun.

Do What You Want, Be What You Are: The Music Of Daryl Hall & John Oates


Disc One
1. Girl I Love You - The Temptones
2. I Need Your Love - The Masters
3. Say These Words Of Love - The Temptones
4. Perkiomen
5. I'm Sorry
6. Fall In Philadelphia
7. Waterwheel
8. Lilly (Are You Happy)
9. Had I Known You Better Then
10. Las Vegas Turnaround
11. She's Gone
12. You're Much Too Soon
13. Is It A Star
14. It's Uncanny
15. Love You Like A Brother
16. Lady Rain - Live
17. Bennie G. And The Rose Tattoo - Live
18. Better Watch Your Back - Live
19. Abandoned Luncheonette - Live
20. When The Morning Comes - Live

Disc Two
1. Camelia
2. Sara Smile
3. Alone Too Long
4. Gino (The Manager) - 2009 remix
5. Ennui On The Mountain
6. Out Of Me, Out Of You
7. Back Together Again
8. Rich Girl
9. Crazy Eyes
10. Have I Been Away Too Long
11. August Day
12. It's A Laugh
13. I Don't Wanna Lose You - 7" remix
14. Wait For Me
15. Time's Up (Alone Tonight)
16. The Woman Comes And Goes
17. How Does It Feel To Be Back
18. You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling
19. Kiss On My List
20. Everytime You Go Away - Live

Disc Three
1. You Make My Dreams
2. Private Eyes
3. Head Above Water
4. Did It In A Minute
5. Your Imagination
6. I Can't Go For that (No Can Do)
7. Don't Go Out - previously unreleased
8. Maneater
9. Family Man
10. One On One
11. Go Solo
12. Say It Isn't So
13. Adult Education
14. Out Of Touch
15. Method Of Modern Love
16. Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid
17. Possession Obsession - Live
18. A Nite At The Apollo Live! The Way You Do The Things You Do/My Girl - Live

Disc Four
1. Everything Your Heart Desires - video mix
2. Missed Opportunity
3. Keep On Pushin' Love
4. Storm Warning - previously unreleased
5. Change Of Season
6. Starting All Over Again - Live
7. So Close - Live
8. Do It For Love
9. Forever For You
10. Heartbreak Time
11. All The Way From Philadelphia - previously unreleased
12. Have You Ever Been In Love - previously unreleased demo
13. Me & Mrs. Jones - Live
14. I Want Someone - Live from Daryl's House/previously unreleased
15. Do What you Want, Be What You Are - Live/previously unreleased
16. Dreamer - redux