Temple alumnus John Oates shares stories from his musical past.
Main Campus has set the stage for the beginnings of many kinds of relationships – friendships, mentorships, romances – and for John Oates, pop superstar duos.
Oates returned to his alma mater on April 9 for a concert in the Performing Arts Center. A 1970 Temple graduate, his studies at Main Campus and relocation to Philadelphia provided a setting for the development of his musical career and 30-year-plus partnership with Daryl Hall.
“There was a revival of folk music and traditional American music in the sixties, and Philadelphia was a hot bed of urban R&B,” Oates said. “It had a reputation of an incredible folk music tradition in the 1960s, and I was in the middle of all that – it was amazing.”
After graduating from high school in the Philadelphia suburbs, Oates said he was attracted to the city as a college destination.
“I discovered Temple and wanted to have a city experience as opposed to a campus in the boondocks,” Oates said. “That’s what drew me to Temple, and that decision was so incredibly important to the rest of my life because that’s where I met Daryl Hall [and was introduced to] the folk music thing. None of that would have happened had I not made the decision to move to Temple.”
As a journalism major, Oates didn’t do anything music-related through the university. Though Hall was a music major, the two didn’t meet for the first time on Main Campus. Oates noted he was a commuter student his first year and spent most of his time downtown rather than around campus.
“You have to remember, there wasn’t a lot of campus life at the time. It was [truly] an urban campus,” Oates said. “The majority of students from Philly all went home [after classes] – campus was basically dead the moment classes were over.”
But his residence in Philadelphia, and subsequent musical adventures throughout the city, allowed him and Hall to find each other and build off one another’s musical undertakings.
Oates had previously released an album with his high school band, and Hall had organized a vocal group with friends in West Philly.
“Both singles came out at the same time and were being played on a Philadelphia R& B radio station, so we were both aware of each other and each of those groups,” Oates said.
At a dance held by a radio station in West Philly, Hall and Oates briefly met backstage. When a gang fight broke out, the two escaped through the back service elevator.
“We started running into each other [more],” Oates said. “My band dissolved, and Daryl asked me to be guitar back up. That lasted literally months and then broke up, so the two of us gravitated toward each other, lived downtown in the hippy enclave in Center City and shared apartments.”
The rich culture of the Philadelphia music scene proved a key venue for Oates’ immersion in the music business, as well as inspiration for his own song writing.
“In those days there was a lot going on – the whole hippy thing – all these cool little rock clubs were opening, like the Second Fret on Sansom Street,” Oates said. “It was a folk music hotbed. All the great folk music performers were being re-discovered during that era … and they all came to Philadelphia on a regular basis. It was a huge fan base for folk music and people who loved underground and psychedelic rock. The Electric Factory was the first rock club and drew people from all over the world [like] Jimi Hendrix – incredible stuff all going on simultaneously.”
After graduating from Temple, Oates traveled through Europe before returning to the city. He once again met up with Hall and began to play small venues throughout the city.
“Sharing this house, we started writing songs together. We’d sit on the steps in front of the house and play for the hippies that walk by,” Oates said. “Downtown [we’d play] little coffee houses, underground things [and] art galleries the size of a living room. We’d be playing for 30 people, all who we knew. We started becoming songwriters, doing background work, recording and playing on various records – dipping our toes in the waters of professional music.”
After exploring the music scene and making connections throughout the city, Hall and Oates signed a contract with a New York City publishing company.
“[They] looked at us as songwriters, not artists – that’s really how we started,” Oates said.
But after performing some of their songs live, the duo was re-discovered as more than just songwriters.
“This one particular guy, Tommy Mattola, discovered us and basically saw us as not only songwriters, but artists as well,” Oates said. “We weren’t thinking about us, we just wanted to write and do whatever, but that’s how it all got started. We got a recording contract and moved to New York City.”
More than 30 years, 26 albums and an induction into the American Songwriter Hall of Fame later, Oates is busy developing his solo career.
“Interestingly enough, my solo career is really quite recent,” Oates said. “The first time I recorded was in 2000. [You might wonder,] ‘Why did it take so long?’ But that’s more of a personal story than a music story. I worked so hard in the ‘70s and ‘80s [recording, touring], but I had a lot of interests outside of music.”
Hall has released five of his own solo albums, but after putting Hall & Oates on the back burner, Oates became a pilot, drove race cars and “restructured and re-evaluated his life,” which involved a divorce, marriage and relocation from the East Coast to Colorado.
“There was a lot of things I wanted to do,” Oates said. “After touring for 20 years, embarking on a solo career was low on my list of priorities.”
Oates released his first solo album, “Phunk Shui,” in 2000. His second album, “1,000 Miles of Life,” was released in 2008.
This year, Oates’ newest album was released, “Mississippi Mile,” which he referred to as a “musical autobiography,” and a chance to return to the music that first inspired him. The album plays homage to artists who Oates said influenced him before he met Hall.
“Curtis Mayfield, Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, Chuck Berry – stuff that I was absorbing as a kid – I reimagined and reinvented it,” he said.
Oates explained his visit to Temple was an opportunity to discuss these earlier influences.
“Everyone knows [the Hall & Oates story] – it’s common knowledge,” Oates said. “People think I was born with a mustache singing ‘Maneater’ … but these [artists] really meant something to me, and that’s why I did this new album. There’s a couple of originals on it, but it’s really an Americana album.”
Kara Savidge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.