John Oates is getting a little nostalgic. Best known for his part in the dynamic rock and soul duo, Hall & Oates, the multi-talented musician has returned to his musical roots with the release of Mississippi Mile, his fifth solo album.
Says Oates, “Mississippi Mile is a chronicle of the things that really mattered to me to me most when I was a kid.” It pays homage to his early influences in blues, folk, and rock. Most notably, artists like Curtis Mayfield, Chuck Berry, John Hurt, and Elvis Presley. And offers up sophisticated, acoustic renditions of “All Shook Up,” “Let It Rock,” and “Come Back Baby,” along with a breezy, Texas swing update of “You Make My Dreams Come True.”
In the 80’s, Oates struck gold with credits that include 8 Billboard Number One songs like “Sara Smile,” “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),” and “Maneater.” And recently, has elevated his work to a whole new level, exploring the realms of pop, soul, and blues on his own terms.
Today, John Oates makes his home in Aspen, Colorado, where he and his family have been for the last 20 years. And if you’re lucky enough, you may find him performing routinely at the Wheeler Opera House, the Belly Up Tavern, The Aspen Songwriter’s Festival, and all around the front range, from Swallow Hill to the Soiled Dove to the Boulder Theater.
With Mississippi Mile hitting the airwaves and two tours already underway, the dark haired, mustache-less Coloradan took a moment’s pause to do a little “One on One.”
Talk to me about your connection to the Delta, your musical influences, and how the album came about.
Well, the album really started out as a project to record some of my favorite songs from when I was a kid. It was as simple as that. And as I started getting more and more into the recording and could step back from it, I realized exactly what I’d done. Almost unconsciously, I created a kind of musical autobiography for myself of the songs that really inspired me and influenced me well before I met Daryl Hall and before we took the path of Hall & Oates.
I started playing guitar when I was five years old and of course, didn’t meet Daryl until I was eighteen; so, you’re talking about 12-13 years of guitar playing, performing, and singing all kinds of music before I even met Daryl.
People think that I was born with a mustache singing “Maneater!” (Laughs). But on the contrary, I had a whole musical life beforehand. This record, Mississippi Mile, is a chronicle of the things that really mattered to me to me most when I was a kid.
With a hint of Hall & Oates?
Yes, there’s one song: “You Make My Dreams Come True.” It was put on there for fun. Just one of those things that happened. That song is a little bit of an aberration to the rest of the album in that I was in the dressing room with Pete Huttlinger, a friend of my mine who is also an amazing guitar player. So, I started playing this Delta blues, finger picking thing. And he followed suit, playing alongside with this Texas slide thing. In the middle, I started singing “You Make My Dreams Come True.” It was so spontaneous and fun, we took it from the dressing room and went out and played it later that night at a little show we were doing. And it stuck in my mind as something that might be cool to put on the album, not just as a great thing for the fans, but another way to show how a great song can be reinterpreted.
Is it true that you and Daryl met during a band competition in Philadelphia and a gang fight broke out?
Sort of. It wasn’t quite a band competition. It was really a show put on by one of the local R&B radio stations. Both Daryl’s band, The Temptones, and my band, The Masters, had singles out at the same time. We were both on the radio, but we didn’t know each other. And invited separately to perform at this radio station’s teenage dance when a gang fight broke out. So, we ran out the back and to the service elevator. And that’s how we met.
What were those early conversations like and how did it lead to a musical partnership?
They really weren’t much of anything. We both went to Temple University. I was aware of his group and he was aware of mine. And it was around the time of the Vietnam War. My bass player and drummer got drafted and my band fell apart. And Daryl had a similar situation, whereby his backup band fell apart. So, he asked me to join his band simply as a guitar player. But shortly thereafter, that band fell apart, and the two of us gravitated toward each other.
How did you find the essence or the soul of Hall & Oates, especially during the production of Voices?
Well, through the early 70s, we had many different producers. It started out in a super positive way with our first producer, Arif Mardin, at Atlantic Records. He was one of the greatest producers of all time and was our mentor, guiding us through the studio. His genius was that he could let us be ourselves and at the same time, surround us with incredible musicians to guide us and bring out the music that we had in us before we really knew how to do it.
From there, we kind of jumped around a lot – we experimented with Todd Rundgren, we worked with Christopher Bond out in L.A. for three albums, and we worked with David Foster. In fact, we were the first group that David Foster ever produced. He was brand new and we gave him a try.
But through all those experiences, we were never really satisfied with the results – we built and built and evolved to the point where we just felt we had to take the reins and take control of our own recordings. That happened in 1980 with the Voices album and that’s when this huge string of hits and success began to come our way. But a lot of it had to do with us because we finally got it right and did it the way we wanted to do it.
That’s pretty funny because I’ve been on the road since 1972 and my one, great road story could probably fill a volume. But lots and lots of crazy stuff. Did you ever see the movie Spinal Tap? The reason I ask is because everything in that movie happened to me in one way or another. You could put Daryl and I in there instead of that band and it’s basically the same thing.
One of the most memorable moments had to be our first tour of Australia. We arrived in Melbourne and did our first concert. Then, after the show, we went to a restaurant for dinner. It was technically closed, but they held it open for us. So, no one was there except our little table with 4 or 5 people – Daryl, myself, our road manager, our bass player, his girlfriend, that sort of thing, etc. And at the other table on the other side of the room was the chef and his wife, along with his brother and his wife.
So, we were about ¾ of the way through dinner when this guy in a ski mask and a sawed off shot gun burst through the door screaming. He told us to throw our money on the table immediately or he was going to kill us. So, we started putting stuff on the table.
At first, I thought it was some kind of joke. But then I realized it was actually a real gun. When he went over to the other table where the chef was and the woman was opening up her pocketbook, he kind of looked down, and the chef grabbed him by the throat and punched him in the face, knocked him back, and we all jumped up at the same time, rushed him, and pushed him through a plate glass window. At the time we did that, the police arrived because the kitchen staff had seen what was going on from the back and called the cops. So, it turned out that we had captured this guy called the ‘Rusty Gun Bandit,’ and we made front page news all over Australia. To this day, it still sticks out in my mind.
What about Aspen and Colorado do you like most and why have you chosen it be your home?
I came out here in the late 60’s when I was a student and always loved skiing. When I lived back East, I skied all the time, especially when I was a little kid. And my dream was always to come to Colorado.
Aspen just appealed to me because it was the first place I came to, I guess. The town is unique, the mountains are spectacular, the people are great, and there are so many positive things you can say. Little by little, I kept coming back, and finally in the early 80’s, I bought a condo and I used it as a vacation home. Then, in the late 80’s, I got divorced and wanted to start my life over again. So, I decided to move to Aspen and I’ve never left since.
I saw a quote from you that said during the 70’s and 80’s, your music was never really appreciated, i.e. the breadth of the writing and the music. But now it seems that there’s a renewed interest, from feature films like The Fighter, She’s Out of My League, 500 Days of Summer, and artists sampling and doing tributes like Chromeo, Kanye, The Bird and The Bee. Do you feel like tide is changing a little bit?
I think the tide has changed a lot! We were so known for our hits and the goofy videos on MTV and the clothes and all that stuff, I think it really overshadowed the true quality and what we were doing musically. Although Daryl and I never really bought into it that much, we were there and were very much a part of it. But it was all about the music for us from the very beginning. And it still is to this day.
I think now, with the passage of time, people have forgotten about all the goofy parts and the music lives on. The music has stood the test of time and a younger generation has heard it and are hearing it without the trappings of all of that stuff – the culture of the 80’s. They hear it for what it is – just good music and great songwriting. And that’s why I think there’s a renewed interest and renewed appreciation for what we do.
With all the success you’ve had over the years, what are your current and future ambitions? Do you have any regrets?
I have a lot of regrets, but we just don’t have enough time (laughs).
I’m focused more on the positivity of what’s going on. And I think I‘ve reached a place in my career where I can do what I want to do. It’s a really special place that a lot of creative people aspire to, but never attain. And I’m very fortunate and blessed to be able to do that. I have the best of all worlds.
I played in the great Hall & Oates band, which left a tremendous legacy of music that Daryl and I are very proud of, and then I leave that world and get to play with incredible musicians like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Bela Fleck. I’ve developed relationships with a lot of people in different musical genres who I have great respect for and they, in turn, want to play with me. And it’s really satisfying for me to be able to live in all these unique worlds and learn from them and grow.
Plus, you get to perform and share your music with a live audience.
Yes, I’m playing with my solo band and we’re going to debut Mississippi Mile across the country. We’re going to do a series of concerts of the new songs from the album and, of course, some old songs as well.
And Hall & Oates? Will the “Do What You Want” tour make a pit stop in Denver?
Eventually, yes. But not right now. We’re going to do most of our touring on the East Coast and Midwest this year and then we’ll be back. I promise.