John Oates on Jamming With Mick Jagger and Tina Turner, His New Book and More: Exclusive Interview
When you spend 50 years doing anything, you’re almost guaranteed to walk away with a good story to tell. And that’s certainly the case with John Oates -- one half of one of the most successful creative partnerships in music, thanks to his friendship and working relationship with Daryl Hall, which has been running for more than 45 years now.
The pair has racked up countless accolades in the half-century since they first crossed paths -- including their 2014 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In his new memoir, Change of Seasons, Oates breaks down their relationship, which he terms as a “brotherhood” and notes that “we were blessed to be born at the right time.” Reading through the pages of everything he's experienced on his own and with Hall, it’s hard to argue that point.
Not many artists get the chance to see their heroes up close in concert -- as he and Hall did when they went to see the Temptations at the Apollo in 1967 -- and also end up sharing the stage with some of those same mentors. Less than two decades later, there they were, on the Apollo stage in 1985 with David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks from the Temptations -- a bucket list moment, for sure -- and one that was preserved on audio and video.
That was a good year for the pair -- in addition to the Apollo gig, they also participated in the sessions for the all-star charity benefit single “We Are the World,” were part of the closing moments of Live Aid in their hometown of Philadelphia, backing up Mick Jagger and Tina Turner's memorable performance, and played a massive concert in front of roughly 70,000 people to help raise funds for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty.
The challenge, as Oates writes, was that he wanted to tell his story “without it becoming the Hall and Oates story minus Daryl Hall.” He was not looking to write the definitive Hall and Oates book, as he explains in the introduction. “Please try to understand that any lack of details regarding Daryl Hall’s massive talent and enormous contribution to our music and success is not intended to diminish his importance and personal achievement.” Those details, Oates argues -- are part of Hall’s “unique and powerful” story, which he wanted to leave open for Hall himself to tell one day if he chooses to do so.
It’s an important note, but even with that disclaimer, Hall and Oates fans will find plenty of details and great stories regarding their initial meeting and eventual rise to success, the struggles and high points. Oates was one of the two principal passengers on that long journey and it would be impossible to leave all of that stuff out. But you also get an in-depth look at his own personal path and struggles -- and colorful moments, too, like having gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson as his Colorado neighbor. What seems like it could have been a nightmarish neighbor situation becomes an interesting friendship.
At 400 pages, Change of Seasons tells a hefty story, but it’s one that is worth the trip -- and as Oates told us during a recent interview, it was designed so that you don’t have to take it all in at once -- you can read it in chunks. But it’s an engaging read, and chances are good you'll find yourself moving through quickly -- and then you’ll be ready, like we were, to read the next chapters (the book ends during Oates’ time in Colorado, though he’s hinted we might get a chance to read a follow-up at some point to cover the rest of the story).
With the release of Change of Seasons, Oates is heading out on a book tour to meet and greet with fans. We spoke with him to talk about the book.
This book was a heck of a read. You’ve now been working in music for over 50 years, which is pretty incredible. Like a lot of folks in life, you’ve had ups and down, which, for some people, those are kind of like mile markers along the way in the story. For you, what did the experience of doing this book bring out as you found yourself taking stock of everything?
I was astounded by how much I could cram into a 24-hour period in my youth. [Laughs] I’ll tell you the truth, I’m still astounded. I’m still cramming stuff in! The book gave me an opportunity to recall things, bring back and conjure up memories that perhaps I never would have thought about for the rest of my life, really. Some things that might have gone unremembered and that’s kind of a gift in a way. It was a really interesting process. I guess people call it regressive therapy when they have to go back in time and relive their childhood, and it really is kind of like that.
I wondered if there were elements of your life that this book kind of helped you come to terms with and put away.
I don’t think I have that many regrets. So it wasn’t really one of those things where I came to terms with it. But it was just remembering stuff and seeing how the sum total of all of these little seemingly insignificant experiences kind of added up and multiplied upon themselves to become really a lifestyle and make the person who I am.
It sounds like you kept journals along the way. When did you first start writing all of that stuff down. What got you into that?
I was a journalism student. I always enjoyed writing, regardless of whether it was music or whatever. When I was getting ready to graduate from college in 1970, I knew that whatever was going to happen to me was going to be somehow significant for the rest of my life. I didn’t know what it was going to be, because at the time, I wasn’t working with Daryl. We were friends and we knew each other, but we had no formal relationship. We hadn’t said we were going to work together in any way. And then I went off to Europe and I wanted to chronicle my trip, because I knew somehow or another, it was going to be a hell of an adventure. That’s when I began keeping the journals, and I kept the journals through the entire decade of the ‘70s. The journals became the basis of the book in the beginning. I made copies and sent them to my co-writer [Ultimate Classic Rock contributor Chris Epting], and he kind of analyzed them and laid them out and put them in order and selected various things that he thought were important. He would bring them back up to me and then those memories would start flooding back and I would write about them.
I love the fact that there’s a CD that comes with the book. How did that musical element of this project develop?
There’s only five songs -- it’s really an EP. I decided to select a few songs that were a little bit more obscure, but somehow resonated with the themes that went on in the book. Once of the songs is “Change of Season,” it’s my solo version of that song that I recorded with Daryl in 1990. But then I re-recorded it for an album called Phunk Shui in 2000. Another song that I did in Nashville with people like Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush, people who I have become friends with over the years who have set me on a new course with roots music and Americana. There’s a live version of “Maneater” that I did with the Sam Bush Band live in Nashville. I really wanted the EP to be a symbolic accompaniment to the book.
You mention Nashville, and I think that really says a lot about how much you’ve been through, the fact that this book is 400 pages and it doesn’t even go all of the way to Nashville!
[Laughs] Yeah, that was a real problem for me. Because I was looking forward to writing about that experience, because there’s so much amazing stuff that has happened to me. When I got to 400 pages, I realized that my mother wouldn’t even want to read more than 400 pages about John Oates. So I just said, “You know what? I’ve got to stop at some point!”
The thing is, I didn’t want it to be daunting. I didn’t want people to turn off from it. I actually purposefully organized the book like a series of short stories. So you can read it in chunks. You don’t have to read it stem to stern, so to speak.
When you and Daryl had the chance to work with David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, it seems like it was a pretty amazing experience. Off the stage, you can see the rough edges, particularly with David Ruffin, but it sounds like they went on the stage and just turned it on, and there’s that magic that you’re so familiar with. That must have been something pretty amazing to see, just the way they fell into it like they had so many times before -- and to be a part of that moment.
We were huge Temptations fans. It was a commonality when we first met. We bonded over this love of the Temptations. One of the first things that we did together, just hanging out, was to go to the Apollo and see the Temptations, back in 1968. And then to come back to the Apollo in 1985, and do that show and bring them back and actually perform on that same stage together, was really almost like a psychedelic experience. It was actually almost like I was watching myself perform. It was really quite amazing.
That ends up being such a busy year for you guys. There’s the live album and the video of that show. Was there ever the thought that you guys would try to do a record with them?
We did, a little bit. I actually produced Eddie Kendrick. David was a little tough. He was definitely hard to work with -- that wasn’t going to happen. But Eddie was so great and such a beautiful person. We actually did a song together. We went and co-wrote a song together, a single that never got released. It was called “The Lonely Hearts Club,” and it was a really cool song. I recorded it out in New Jersey in a studio out there with him.
That same year, you guys performed at Live Aid. What are your memories of preparing for that and, particularly, getting ready to work with Jagger?
To headline Live Aid in Philadelphia, as you can imagine, was a pretty heavy deal. We were really pumped up about it. We wanted to make it special. It just so happened that Jagger had released a solo album, so he wasn’t working with the Stones at the time and he needed a band. He liked our band. It was as simple as that. He reached out to us and the promoter said, “Jagger wants to play, but he doesn’t have a band.” I said, “No problem, he’s got a band -- we’d be happy to back him up!” He wanted to include Tina Turner, and we didn’t have any idea what they were going to do when he ripped her skirt off and everything. It was just totally an insanity moment. But he was so cool. We had met him a number of times. I think he was a fan. We met him in the early ‘70s, and he came to a rehearsal one day. We had prepared everything for him. We had his songs down pat, and he showed up at S.I.R. and walked in there, grabbed the mic and just tore into his music and played it as if it was a Rolling Stones concert. It was awesome. He couldn’t have been nicer.
I wondered if there was any sort of sense that the skirt moment was planned in advance.
Knowing him, he’s a pretty clever guy. I have a feeling it was planned, and it felt spontaneous, but I have a feeling he knew what he was doing.
You mention some of the rock 'n' roll luminaries in your book who you came in contact with along the way during your career. Did you have the chance to get to know the guys from Queen?
Not very well. We used to hang out with them. For some odd reason, Queen seemed to tour Japan every time that we toured Japan. So there were a couple of nightclubs and things in Tokyo, especially back in those days when it wasn’t quite as Westernized as it is today. All of the rock 'n' roll people would go to one club and just hang out. We’d hang out, Sting and the Police would be there, Queen would be there, Thin Lizzy and Phil Lynott -- we used to hang out with those guys all of the time. So yeah, that was one of the times when we would hang out with contemporaries. Because you know, when you’re in a foreign country, you know you just kind of gravitate toward each other.
You and Daryl have forged your own separate paths and done your own things over there years. As far as what you do together, was there ever a time where you felt like the partnership might go on the shelf permanently?
No, we never did. We knew it was time to step out of it. I produced a bunch of stuff. I went to Australia and wrote “Electric Blue” for Icehouse and had a big hit with them. I produced a band up in Canada called the Parachute Club. I went to Tulsa and worked with a guy named Jerry Lynn Williams and produced a solo album for him. It was just time to kind of explore other things. Plus, what was at the forefront in my mind, was changing my life. And that’s what I really did. What I really did, by stepping away from working with Daryl all of the time, I had a chance to really change my life. I got divorced and moved to Colorado, got remarried, had a kid, built a house and did all of the things that I couldn’t do when I was on the road for 20 years straight.
I wanted to ask you about making the War Babies album with Todd Rundgren. What comes to mind when you look back at that experience?
It was just crazy. Todd [Rundgren] was just on this wild creative roll. We were experimenting and we were trying to find ourselves. We hadn’t had any hit records, really, so we had no mandate to continue making the same kind of music. So we said, “Well, hell, if the music we’re making is not connecting, let’s just do whatever we want!” Really, that was an experimental rock album that in a way, if you combine the first three albums, Whole Oats, Abandoned Luncheonette and War Babies, the next album that followed, The Silver Album [1975's Daryl Hall & John Oates LP], kind of took elements of all three of those records and combined them together.
It was cool watching the Facebook Live event that you and Daryl did recently, and hearing that you’re planning to put “Is It a Star,” from the War Babies album, into the set list for this summer.
Yeah, it’s a cool song. I forgot about that song, honestly! I’m glad that Daryl thought about it. I thought, Yeah, that would be fun to play! Whenever we can insert deep tracks into our tour, we always try to do it. The problem for us and it’s probably the best problem any artist can have, is that we have too many hits. People want to hear those records, and we have a professional responsibility to play them, of course, but at the same time, we want to play some of those other songs too, which we think are pretty cool.
The upcoming tour with Tears for Fears is a great combination. Do you think there will be an opportunity for the two bands to share the stage together and jam on some songs?
Right now, it’s been too intense putting the tour together. But if something were to happen in the course of working together and we really clicked, I wouldn’t rule it out. But right now, it’s not in the plan.
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