Detroiters like to brag about how tough our town is, but consider how Daryl Hall and John Oates met.
The two former Temple University students from Philadelphia didn’t meet until they found themselves in the freight elevator of a rundown ballroom in that city, trying to flee gunfire that erupted during a “Battle of the Bands.”
Hall was with the Temptones, a group of blue-eyed soulsters who were taken under the wing of Motown’s Temptations, and Oates, equally smitten with rhythm and blues, was with his group, the Masters.
Tough town. Soulful music. Sound familiar? Detroit audiences have never had a problem understanding Hall and Oates, once they were a team.
Daryl Hall and John Oates will return to Detroit to perform a show May 17 at Joe Louis Arena. Tears for Fears will open.
“It’s hard to say what makes a region vibrant musically,” Hall said, speaking by phone from his Charleston, South Carolina, home.
“Detroit is soul town, and they obviously get what we do. There’s a musical understanding, for sure. I think it has something to do with the racial balance, for one thing. They’re both old cities, although Philadelphia is older. I think there’s a certain proud working class that influences things, and a diversity in the music.”
Hall and Oates didn’t start playing together right away after that frenzied first meeting in the freight elevator at the Adelphi Ballroom. But as young musicians of the same age (Hall is now 70, and Oates 69), living in Philadelphia’s hippie-friendly center city in the late ’60s, the two found themselves in the same place more and more. For a time, Oates lived with Hall and his then-wife, and the duo started jamming together.
There was an interesting visual contrast, Hall being tall and blond, while Oates was short and dark-haired. Musically it was compare and contrast; their rock and soul influences were simpatico. Their voices were different but blended easily; Hall’s supple tenor could soar easily into falsetto, while Oates had a gruffer, soulful tone.
That pleasing textural difference was perhaps best expressed early on with “She’s Gone,” from their second Atlantic album, “Abandoned Luncheonette” (they were signed to the label in 1970).
Oates started the song, after a girl stood him up on New Year’s Eve. Next Hall worked on the song, and it evolved into lyrics that somehow straddled the line between simple and profound, and music that combined strains of folk, rock and soul. It was a classic song of romantic loss. It was recorded in 1973 at Atlantic’s New York studio, by all accounts a charmed session, with R&B drummer Bernard Purdie adding his inimitable groove.
The ensuing years saw the two rack up many other hits, running the gamut from rustic to slick ’80s funk with “Sara, Smile,” “Rich Girl,” “Out of Touch,” “Maneater,” “Kiss on Your List,” and “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).”
In all, they had eight No. 1 singles and 29 Top 40 hits, selling more than 80 million albums. Hall & Oates were inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame as individual songwriters in 2004 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a duo in 2014.
They took a brief hiatus when both released solo albums. Hall threw himself into buying and restoring old houses, and launching a web series, “Live from Daryl’s House,” featuring a different musician friend each week (including Todd Rundgren and Smokey Robinson) singing and eating dinner with him at his various houses.
The series is now in its 10th year, and, Hall reckons, will start up again in the fall. Which, of the many houses he’s bought and worked on, was his favorite?
“I’ve had so many houses, I like the one that we were shooting the show out of, Flint Hill, a Colonial house (near Amenia, in New York state). I thought that was a great house. But I put that house up. I moved two houses and swapped them together, built them from the ground up. Then I had a house in London that I really liked, too.”
“We grew up with all that (Revolutionary War-era houses) in Chester County,” he said of his Pennsylvania roots. “And I come from a pretty old family, all my cousins lived in old houses. My grandfather was a stonemason, he built houses. So I was very familiar with construction sites.”
Hall also supervises the food. “I cook just about every day when I’m on my own. I think that music and food must go together naturally, ’cause if you have a party, and have a bunch of people around, you have to feed them.”
His partner Oates has written a memoir that’s just out, “Change of Seasons” (St. Martin’s Press), but don’t look for such a book from Hall.
“Nah, I don’t need to write a book. My music is very autobiographical. If you just listen to the music, read the lyrics, that’s my book. I don’t have a burning desire to share any more than that.”
In Detroit, we can expect a different sort of show than the duo have performed here lately.
“The show that we’ve put together is not what we’ve been doing recently, that was sort of hit song, hit song, another song, very straight ahead,” Hall said. “This show is more textural, it moves differently. We have some songs that are probably going to be surprises, that we haven’t played in a long time — two of John’s songs, one is from the ‘War Babies’ album (produced by Todd Rundgren).
“The show just moves at a different pace. I am excited about doing this.”
As for the future, there will be no new Hall & Oates recordings, for now anyway, but separately: Oates has an acoustic roots album he hopes to have come out next year, and Hall’s next solo outing is due at the same time.
“I need time to finish the vocals and odds and ends on it,” Hall said. “I love it, it’s really gospel-y and raw. I recorded some of it down here in South Carolina, some of it in Los Angeles, and some in upstate New York.”
For the May 17 show at Joe Louis Arena, Hall and Oates are paired with Tears for Fears as their opening act — they will tour as a package for some months.
In Philadelphia, they’re calling their May 27 show “Hoagiefest” (at Hall’s suggestion) and it’s a full-on celebration of all things Philly.
“If you’re from that part of the world, you understand, it’s the one thing that unites the citizens of the Delaware Valley,” Hall said, of the signature, Italian-influenced submarine sandwich known as the “hoagie.”
What, and not Tastykake (the iconic Philly cupcakes and pies)?
“I could have called it the Tastykake Festival,” Hall concedes with a laugh.
Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News. Contact her at susanwhitall.com.
& John Oates
with special guests Tears for Fears and Allen Stone
7 p.m. May 17
Joe Louis Arena
19 Steve Yzerman Drive, Detroit
Tickets: Livenation.com, Ticketmaster.com, or call (313) 471-6611