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John Oates: “Philadelphia Just Always Feels so Warm and Fuzzy to Me.”

October 3, 2014

9.26.14_JUMP_JohnOates_LewKlein_DarraghDandurand_04Last week, Temple University’s School of Media and Communication hosted the 14th Annual Lew Klein Awards, an invitation-only celebration of prominent media makers in Philadelphia and beyond. 

Recipients of the award this year ranged from Larry Margasak, former journalist for the Associated Press Washington Bureau to Claire Smith, longtime sports reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times. NBC’s Brian Williams took away the honor of the Lew Klein Excellence in the Media Award, but we really showed up to see John Oates, of Hall & Oates fame, perform a few new songs. 

Oates, a former Temple Student, has been no stranger to his alma mater since he left. Having come back several years in a row to speak with students, Oates has spent time promoting his work and sharing his music knowledge.

This year though, he proudly climbed the stage at the Lew Klein Awards to thank Mr. Klein and several other prominent figures in Philadelphia’s entertainment industry for the recognition. Having just been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Oates spoke fondly on his time with Daryl Hall and perched himself on a stool to play a tune for the adoring audience of his peers. 

After the event, Oates met with a gaggle of reporters, including our own Darragh Dandurand, who filed this report. He answered some cliche questions about the 1980s, some queries about his upcoming tour and no one, thank God, asked about his long-gone mustache.

You referred to that first recording you made here on campus. Could you talk more about that experience and when you and (Daryl Hall) began playing together?

Well, Daryl and I were in different groups. He had a group called The Temp Tones and I had a group called The Masters and we were both being played on the R&B stations in town so we didn’t know each other but we knew of each other.

My group broke up. Two of the guys got drafted into Vietnam and I actually joined Daryl’s group as a backup guitar player. That group subsequently broke up and left the two of us. We then became roommates, started hanging out in Center City and one day we had written a song together and we thought that it would be great to record it and I said that I could get the key to WRTI. After hours, we went in when no one was there. We ran the little tape machine, we recorded the song and it was awful. And then we agreed that this would never work and that we should just stay friends. But then, little by little, we evolved into having a partnership.

Do you feel that there is any inspiration left in Philadelphia? Are you keeping up with its folk scene?

I don’t really spend enough time in Philadelphia to really know what’s going on here with young artists and people like that, but every time I come back…it puts me in touch with memories. It puts me in touch with reasons I became who I am and the reason my music is what it is.

You know, people always talk about Philadelphia and its tradition of artists and the urban R&B tradition but for me, Philadelphia is much more than its folk and blues traditions. I’ve been there since the beginning, there at the right place and the right time. Philadelphia in the 60s for me was so rich and vibrant with culture and traditions.

Philadelphia just always feels so warm and fuzzy to me.

Do you still pull from Philadelphia when you write your music?

Every thing I write has Philadelphia in it. Everything. Daryl is the exact same way. The core of what we do is this unusual hybrid of Philadelphia urban R&B and traditional American music which all were happening in the 60s in Philadelphia when we were here. We somehow synthesized that. We took those kind of authentic roots and combined them to be uniquely our own.

In a lot of interviews you talk about taking a topic that is very personal to you and making it universally relevant. Is there anything from Philadelphia that is personal to you that you can pull from to tell young artists how to make it relevant to them outside the city?

Not something specifically. When we were learning to write we found that if you take a universal topic you can somehow personalize it and you can make it feel as though its communicating directly to a person on a more personal level than a universal level, you can somehow communicate that universal idea in a much easier, more palatable, more commercial way.

That’s just something that we do. To answer you question, the closest thing to a direct relationship with Philadelphia would be the song Daryl wrote called “Fall in Philadelphia,” which, if you listen to the lyrics, is a complete recounting of what was going on at that time around us. It’s a snapshot, a moment in time during that period.

Being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was called an “affirmation of your success.” Can you comment?

It is not an affirmation of my success.  It’s like a lifetime achievement award. It’s like a bowling trophy. I don’t value my success or what I have achieved by awards or other people’s acknowledgment of those awards. I’m not trying to be negative about it, but all I am saying is that I look at what Daryl and I have achieved as a product of our hard work, professional and inspiration. The fact that a small cadre of old journalists decided to elect us to their little, exclusive club when we were up for eligibility since 1997, means nothing to me. Other than the fact that I am glad I have the trophy, it’s up on my mantlepiece along with a lot of other trophies, that’s it.

Do you measure success? And if so, how?

I measure success purely on my personal yardstick of quality and whether what I’ve done is satisfying and rewarding and if I feel like I have achieved what I wanted to do. Daryl and I have never measured our success on our commercial success. Our commercial success has always been a byproduct of hard work and professionalism. That’s where it comes in.

Someone asked me a similar question recently, about how to become a star. I told them outright that being a “star” should never be the goal, but a byproduct of hard work. I’ve always said that. Daryl and I never wanted to be stars, we wanted to be good. By the time we were good, the stardom came as a result.

Because your music is internationally known, do you ever consider the mass influence of your media messages on those who listen to your work?

You’re referring to ‘Maneater,’ aren’t you?

I don’t know. I mean, we made pop records. It’s interesting because when you’re a songwriter, you know what you’re own influence was for writing a song. But the average person who hears it, well, they ascribe their personal experience to what they’re hearing on that song or record. Now those two meanings may be miles and miles apart.

On the song, “No Can Do” – and I’m using that as one example – that song is about the music business. That song is about being frustrated and pushed around by management and agents and recording companies who wanted us to be something that they saw us as instead of what we wanted to be. And that was just a song of rejection saying, “No, I’m not going to do that.”

Our messages our embedded in our music, but at the same time they are encased in a form that will communicate popularly to many people and that’s the trick for me. It’s a very fine line to walk because I hate preaching in a song but I love to impart a message and that’s a difficult thing to do.

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