In Defense of John Oates

More than just a moustache and a goofy sidekick, rock’s “most highly paid backup singer” deserves your respect.

If you came of age in the MTV-dominated early- to mid-’80s, or are a younger fan of the same era, you could be forgiven for asking what Oates’ contribution to “Hall & Oates”, the most successful duo in pop music history, was. All through the group’s existence, but especially in the hitmaking ’80s, Daryl Hall – the tall, blonde frontman with the hyperactive stage presence and astonishing set of soulful pipes – dominated the duo onstage and in video, where John Oates was often relegated to romp around in front of their (superb) backing band.

The imbalance was such that back in the day people would sometimes speak of John Oates in the same breath as Andrew Ridgeley, the guy who wasn’t George Michael in Wham! and who appeared to do virtually nothing non-cosmetic. Oates’ lead vocal contributions on the band’s later albums were basically token appearances, and lead guitar duties were likewise handled by the dazzling and quirky G.E. Smith.

Daryl Hall’s presence, not to mention that of the band, was so powerful that one could watch a video, or listen to a Hall & Oates record, and think one barely registers Oates’ contribution at all.

Ah, but careful. Records are not all about who’s up front and center. As Oates himself once put it, you need a horizon to appreciate a beautiful sunset.

Daryl Hall was the primary lead singer of Hall & Oates for a very good reason – not only was he an outstanding vocalist, but his voice cut right through an AM radio. John Oates’ warmer tones (similar to Felix Caviliere of the Rascals’) tended to get buried in the mix – even on their early records where he was featured more prominently, Hall would often chime in with some tenor counterpoint to add dynamics (something Oates did, or was allowed to do, much less frequently).

But a voice that gets lost in the mix is a voice that blends, and if you’ve ever heard a Hall & Oates record you’ve heard lots of Oates. You just didn’t notice…because that’s what Oates does. As an individual as well as as a musician and singer, Hall stands out. Oates blends.

Nearly all of Hall & Oates’ hits feature tightly harmonized background vocals patterned after their heroes, the Temptations. With only a few exceptions, Hall & Oates layered all those vocals themselves, and you’ll notice that despite it being only two voices, except in a few cases (“Maneater” being the most obvious) you never pick Daryl Hall’s voice out of the background vocal lineup. What makes for the contrast between Hall’s prominently featured lead vocals and the satisfying, rich layers of backup vocals – which get nearly equal time on most Hall & Oates recordings – is Oates’ voice.

If you don’t believe me, check out Hall’s excellent 1986 solo single “Foolish Pride.” The backups on this track are all Daryl Hall. They sound exactly like Hall & Oates backing vocals. Except they don’t. That’s when you’ll notice that John Oates isn’t there.

Without Daryl Hall, you can’t have that pirhouetting lead vocal that cuts through a set of car radio speakers (or now, earbuds). Without John Oates, you can’t have that thick satisfying gob of background vocals.

Of course, on the infrequent occasions Hall & Oates actually did duet as lead vocalists, the

During their early ’80s hitmaking run, Daryl Hall’s vocals and persona overshadowed his partner’s contributions.

contrast was even more satisfying – Hall’s impassioned tenor over Oates’ smooth, husky baritone is a match to die for. “She’s Gone” is the obvious example, but also later covers like the New Wave-y update of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and the more straight ahead rendering of Mel & Time’s “Starting All Over Again” from 1991’s Change Of Season, or of The Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh Child” on 2004’s Our Kind Of Soul. All three recordings received substantial radio play in their respective decades. It’s too bad that, in Daryl Hall’s estimation “the ping-pong thing doesn’t work” because as duetting lead vocalists, the combination of their voices is spine-tingling.

Oates’ work as a guitarist is also underrated (and contributed a lot of keyboards as well – most of “Out of Touch” is him). Though he generally deferred to G.E. Smith in their glory days, Oates possesses serviceable Stax-oriented lead guitar chops and impressive acoustic fingerpicking skills.

A great example of what Oates contributed is their 1983 hit “Adult Education.” The searing, distorted atmospheric lead guitar is G.E. Smith. The off-kilter, Talking Heads-ish hook figure, and the Nile Rodgers rhythm guitar that opens the blazing outro are Oates. Oates also contributed the puckish little set of two note figures that punctuate the otherwise entirely keyboard-and-sax dominated “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).”

It’s also a little known fact that although Daryl Hall was admittedly the more prolific songwriter in the group, Oates’ contributions there are substantial. Three of the duo’s most enduring hits – “She’s Gone,” “Out of Touch” and “Maneater,” originated with John Oates chorus hooks. You probably know that during their brief separation in the late ’80s, Daryl Hall squeezed out one big solo hit, the psych-pop “Dreamtime.” You probably didn’t know that during the same period John Oates came up with Icehouse’s hit “Electric Blue.” Now you do.

But what about Oates as, well, Oates?

As a vocalist, of course, he couldn’t touch Daryl Hall in his heyday. Few could. But it’s worth nothing that, when the duo did (and do) sing in tandem, he more than holds his own (even though his mic is often lower in the mix and his partner has an annoying tendency to step on his lines). While Daryl Hall’s voice is brassy and powerful, Oates’ is rich and smooth, with a gorgeous falsetto that, tonally if not in versatility, surpasses his partner’s (and unlike his partner’s, is mostly still intact).

Don’t believe me? I’ll offer evidence below, but note that on the recent duet concert Hall & Oates did with Train, Oates was almost entirely shut out from lead vocal duties. But when the turn came to pull off Eddie Kendricks’ sky-high falsetto vocal on “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” both Hall and Train’s Patrick Monahan took a step back, and left it to Oates, who at age 70 was able to pull it off.

Since 2001, beside regularly touring with his old partner, John Oates has been pursuing a solo career as an Americana artist – first tentatively but with increasing confidence and direction as the years have gone on. Interestingly, the understated but rich vocal quality that forced Oates into the background of much of Hall & Oates’ hitmaking ouvre is tailor-made for the new quieter and more intimate sonic surroundings. As a low-key crooner of acoustic blues and pop, John Oates has recently found a respectable niche all his own.

What follows are some high points of John Oates’ rich recorded legacy, from the early days to the most recent, for you to check out.

All hail John Oates!

(And you’ll notice I didn’t say a word about the moustache)

Had I Known You Better Then

When asked to choose a song of his partner’s he wishes he’d written, Daryl Hall offered “Had I Known You Better Then” from the duo’s classic 1973 Abandoned Luncheonette album, one of just a handful in Hall & Oates’ ouvre (the last being 1980’s Voices) where each man’s songwriting contributions are at rough parity. It’s perhaps for this reason that the duo revived this song for Oates’ appearance on Hall’s popular internet series Live From Daryl’s House. It showcases a number of Oates’ best talents – his thoughtful, hooky songwriting ability, folk leanings, and mellow way with a vocal melody….and the backing harmonies here are to die for.

Can’t Stop The Music (He Played It Much Too Long)

On the other hand, Oates barely got a foot in the door on the follow-up album, 1974’s experimentally rocking War Babies, in which he very much took a back seat to Daryl Hall and producer Todd Rundgren. That said, there’s a reason Oates’ sole solo songwriting contribution was sequenced first – on a perplexing (though ultimately rewarding) record, John brought the hook. This sounds like a lost outtake from A Wizard A True Star, that is if Todd had been of a mind to write a hit on that album.

I’m Just A Kid (Don’t Make Me Feel Like A Man)

My good friend Erik Herrera once pointed to this on Steve Hoffman’s message board as Exhibit A of John Oates’ talent. No argument here, and what a great live performance. From the first, Hall & Oates assembled terrific backing groups, and in the mid ’70s their music was at its most elaborate, progressive phase, which they were more than capable of pulling off live. If you want something even proggier than this, check out Oates’ “Is It A Star” from the same era.

Back Together Again

Oates’ biggest hit as the primary singer on an A-side (#28 in 1977) is a convincingly streetwise slice of minor key R&B mining the same lyrical territory as “Can’t Stop The Music” above. As great as this track is, it shows why Daryl Hall was best suited to carry the ball on the pop singles, since John’s voice tends to get lost in the mix, whereas Daryl’s lines pop right out. The years (and a change to the melody) have evened out the balance to some extent, as this 2015 live version of the song shows.

Bebop/Drop

1979’s X-Static was a somewhat demented nod to the new wave by the duo, and as this live romp at the famed Agoura Ballroom shows, with G.E. Smith newly on board, they basically pulled it off. Here John goes up front with a singlet and belts a song about being a f**k buddy as Smith loses it behind him. Oates has said in a recent interview that he dislikes genre labels because he enjoys playing all kinds of music. Good example here, as the normally introverted guitarist gamely fronts the band as an ersatz punk rocker.

How Does It Feel To Be Back

The Oates-authored lead single from 1980’s breakthrough Voices album was in line with the Byrds-influenced Tom Petty sound that was big at the time, but its disappointing chart run (peaking at #30) spelled the end of John Oates’ presence on Hall & Oates A-sides as lead singer, and nearly also meant the end for the duo. Had the album’s third single “Kiss On My List” – which having begun life as a songwriting demo for Janna Allen, Daryl Hall’s girlfriend/collaborator’s younger sister, had never been intended for the album – not taken off, they likely would have been dropped from their contract. But it did take off, and the rest is history. The song’s relative failure as a single aside, it’s one of the duo’s more fondly remembered tracks, the kind of tune where someone says “I don’t really like Hall & Oates, but I do like that one song.” Also note that with Oates on the lead vocal, Daryl Hall’s voice is much more pronounced on the backup vocal mix. The Beatlesque harmonies at the end show off the duo’s versatility.

Italian Girls

It’s easy to overlook a few things about Hall & Oates’ hitmaking years; one is that despite Hall’s preening and sometimes grating persona, the duo never lost their sense of humour and directed a lot of it at themselves. Another is that though Hall was indeed the dominating artistic force, Oates often brought the hooks to the table. Both qualities are on display on Oates’ well-loved (though slightly un-PC) contribution to 1983’s hugely successful H20 album. Despite the record company powers that be’s insistence that Hall sing the hits, this song made it big in Canada.

Possession Obsession

After the failure of “How Does It Feel To Be Back” and the middling success of the follow-up duet on “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” John Oates never got a shot at singing a hit until the very last single at the end of their early ’80s hitmaking run. Rolling Stone called Oates’ falsetto on this song “a revelation” and indeed, it showcases Oates’ rich upper register to great effect…and the live performances of this song on subsequent tours are stunning. The video (one of their best) humorously switches their roles, with Hall relegated to being back with the band – and it’s great to see Hall’s rambunctuous delight as he peers from behind as his low-key partner gets his moment in the spotlight. Unfortunately, this song’s modest success exactly mirrored that of “How Does It Feel To Be Back” five years earlier (though it made #8 on the A/C chart, tying “Out of Touch” and besting the other singles from Big Bam Boom) – bookending an incredible era of Daryl Hall-fronted pop hits. People were so used to Daryl Hall’s voice at this point that most thought that it was a (unusually good) Culture Club song. Like “How Does It Feel To Be Back,” though, it’s well-remembered in retrospect.

Love Is Fire

When Hall & Oates temporarily went their separate ways in the mid ’80s, Oates only recorded one solo song for a soundtrack – but behind the scenes, he notched two hits. The better known one was Icehouse’s “Electric Blue,” with Oates as songwriter and background vocalist, but he also produced, cowrote and sang co-lead vocal on this top 30 Canadian hit. (It’s also amazing to me that this, “Possession Obsession” and “Out of Touch” all have the same chorus chord progression, but the melodies are so different you’d never notice) With more of that soaring falsetto, it’s a good example of how Oates’ vocal strengths could still be worked into the context of a pop single. And just how good that falsetto is, dang.

A Promise Ain’t Enough

Sometimes the underdog wins. Though as a songwriter, singer and musician, Daryl Hall brings an intimidating set of talents that few people could match, when less is more there are times when his partner simply brings the goods in a way that Hall can’t. Though Oates’ contributions on their latter-day albums are noticeably diminished, his name tends to be in the credits for the singles. Both the excellent title track and the hit single from 1997’s Marigold Sky are Oates cowrites, and from this solo version of the latter, one suspects Oates’ contributions to “A Promise Ain’t Enough” are significant. The hit version, sung by Hall (with Oates barely featured in the video) is a bland affair perfect for prevailing radio trends at the time. This acoustic version, sung by Oates, is warm, intimate and transcendent. It’s a whole ‘nother song. With due respect to Hall, who also cowrote, the hit version does nothing for me. This performance, however, illuminates what a wonderful piece of music this is.

Love In A Dangerous Time

Oates’ only solo vocal on the duo’s final original album, 2003’s Do it For Love, is a compelling and uplifting piece of pop-soul with a great hook. Though it suffers a bit from lifeless production (as does the rest of the album), it’s still a stirring piece of work. Don’t miss Oates’ impressive little acoustic guitar break that darts out of the mix just prior to the fadeout. Sweet.

Santa Be Good To Me

Those who question Oates’ versatility as a musician, or his vocal chops, take note of this live performance of a throwaway Christmas original with a small jazz combo. Oates negotiates the intricate chord sequence and complicated melody with dazzling ease.

Close

From 2015’s Another Good Road, “Close” stakes out a smoky blues-country aesthetic without losing track of the hook, and highlights how well Oates’ understated vocals and musicianship (that’s quite a guitar line he’s holding down there while he sings the lead vocal) works at the center of a collaboration with musicians that are allowed space to shine but never overwhelm. Whereas Hall reached out and grabbed you, Oates draws you in. This performance, and track, are cool as hell. I particularly love Oates’ idiosyncratic guitar solo.

Arkansas

John Oates’ latest, Arkansas, is something of a tribute to one of Oates’ formative influences, Mississippi John Hurt, and he further develops his new blues-Americana-pop hybrid into a confident sound of his own with this album. Though I’m a fan of Oates as a vocalist, I’m not a fan of the scratchy back-of-the-throat vocal thing he often does, and there’s a lot of that on this track. That said, it’s appropriate to the tune, and the arrangement, song, and video all blend beautifully the conjure up a hazy wide open horizon in the deep south.

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