15 minutes, then 10, and finally 5 minutes with John Oates is what Dirty Impound scored, but one takes what they can get when it comes to an audience with one of the premiere songwriters and pop artists of the past 50 years. As the dark haired half of Hall & Oates, John Oates has had a hand in scores worldwide hits, but in recent years he’s rededicated himself to the music at the roots of his own music – blues, folk, jazz and early rock ‘n’ roll. Last year’s Mississippi Mile (DI review) was a serious charmer, and he’s just released a great live album with the John Oates Band entitled The Bluesville Sessions. At a stage when most well established (and well-heeled) musicians would be enjoying a comfortable retirement, Oates is in the midst of a renaissance that’s showing folks what a gifted, multi-layered artist and dedicated craftsman he is.
This conversation took place aboard Jam Cruise 10 this past January, where Oates was an Artist-At-Large who sat in with Umphrey’s McGee, Ivan Neville’s Sly & The Family Stone Tribute, and many others, including a JC 10 highlight guest turn to close The Omega Moo’s yacht rock reverie with a grand call-and-response on “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” [watch the set here]. Our time was short because Oates was itching to get back onstage and jam with more people, but he grinned – a vision of vigor, fitness and engagement – and promised he’d talk quickly.
People have this conception of you as this mainstream pop guy, and Mississippi Mile (and your other recent solo work) show off your interest in old jazz, blues and more. Is it a challenge to you as an artist to still be convincing folks about your actual range?
It is a challenge because people tend to pigeonhole you, but that’s just the nature of the world. I played guitar for 12 or 13 years before I ever met Daryl, but people think I was born with a moustache singing “Maneater” [laughs]. It’s untrue. I played a lot of folk music, blues music, ragtime, things like that, finger-picking. That’s really where I came from, and I added the urban/R&B thing much later when I got older and moved to Philadelphia. So, if you combine Daryl’s doo-wop/urban/R&B background and my folksy, blues background, that’s where we started.
If people haven’t listened to early albums like Abandoned Luncheonette they don’t know that, but it’s more apparent in your early work.
Well, the pop thing in the 1980s overshadowed everything. It was like a giant footprint that you just can’t get away from, but that’s okay.
Jam Cruise is such a unique experience. What’s been your experience of it?
I love it. I love the musicianship and the fans, who’ve been very welcoming and very respectful. The whole thing has just been a great experience.
All of your sit-ins have been cool. I loved seeing you strap on a guitar and stomp the wah-wah pedal during the Sly & The Family Stone tribute.
Well, I’m an old wah-wah guy!
Is it fun to just be a freelance player in these bands?
Absolutely! There’s no responsibility for me. I can just sit in and have fun. Whether it’s my solo thing or with Daryl, I’m a bandleader and I’m a principal. And when you’re a principal and a bandleader, there’s a lot of other things you have to do besides make music. But here, all I have to do is play, and it’s totally freeing and cool.
Another aspect of Mississippi Mile worth noting is what a range you show as a lead singer. Frankly, Hall & Oates doesn’t always showcase this fact.
In the early days we sang more equitably, but once we started having hits and Daryl’s voice became the signature sound of our hits that’s what happened – simple as that. I don’t think people realize what I do onstage [with Hall & Oates]. Daryl is such an outgoing personality – very aggressive and in-your-face – and he’s an amazing singer – one of the greatest singers of all-time in my book. So, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve always been a singer, but I found my niche with the blues and early R&B and rock. That’s where I really come from, and so I like this niche I’ve found.
Who are some singers that turn you on? I hear real echoes of the 1940s in your voice.
Believe or not, I do go back to the 40s – The Ink Spots, The Mills Brothers – and early rural blues – Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee – and Dave Van Ronk, Doc Watson, Curtis Mayfield, Little Richard, Gary U.S. Bonds…Put all those names together in a big mixer [laughs].
Beyond your music, you’ve made it into mainstream pop culture, including bizarre moments like J-Stache.
That was an aberration really. The J-Stache thing was an idea by our publishing company to promote our catalog and to do something unique that gets attention on the internet, something viral that people would pay attention to. And I jumped on board because I thought it was funny.
Did you know Dave Attel [the voice of Oates’ disembodied moustache in cartoon] before this project?
No! They hired him to do it. There was a lot of [mimes toking off a joint].
So, you’ve accomplished a lot already in your career. What’s really got you excited these days?
Music. I’m a very blessed and fortunate musician because I can pretty much do whatever I want. I have this incredible foundation of Hall & Oates that I’ve built my house on, and the house is pretty solid. I can go back to it and enjoy and appreciate it and do it, but at the same time, it allows me to go out in the world and do what I want. I think that’s probably the ultimate goal of a creative person, and I’m really fortunate to be able to do it.