Whether this makes Hall Plato or Homer, his golden-boy looks and phenomenal voice always made him something of a cipher. As a doo-wop-singing teenager in Philadelphia, he knew future members of the Stylistics and Delfonics. Hall worked with Philly producers Gamble and Huff, and after he teamed up with Oates, they faced the standard challenge of their milieu: crossing over to white people. Releasing classic Philly-soul hits like “She’s Gone” years before image ruled pop, Hall & Oates were typically assumed to be African-Americans. After a few years in New York, the image started to change.
“Honestly, we are a New York band,” says Oates, calling from his present home in Aspen. “Our roots are in Philadelphia, but our music came from New York.” As new transplants, the duo had their first commercial breakthrough when “Sara Smile” crossed over from R&B radio, and, in 1977, their first true pop hit with “Rich Girl.” Then Hall & Oates started getting buzzed, morphed, and remixed by one of the most explosive cultural moments in this city’s history.
Within four years, they’d perfected a blend of soul, New Wave, and power pop that made them the top-selling duo in the country and the uncoolest band in New York. Hall lived in a two-bedroom apartment on Sheridan Square; he’d see Lou Reed walking his dog, and went to clubs like the Mercer Arts Center and CBGB, where he saw Patti Smith, Television, and the New York Dolls—once witnessing Dolls singer David Johansen’s Mick Jagger act in an entourage that included Mick Jagger. “We loved the music, we’d hang out backstage, but we never were really part of it all,” says Hall, who nonetheless captured the chill of coke-fueled, Wall Street–Warholian nightlife in songs like 1982’s chart-topper “Maneater,” which was based on observing the scene at the West Village hot spot Marylou’s.
Around this time, Hall & Oates’s then-manager Tommy Mottola suggested the duo get involved with a new-media start-up out of Times Square. “They had these fledgling V.J.’s,” says Hall, “but they had so many hours that they’d have us on and say, ‘Just go on for three hours.’ ” The band shot their first formal music video, for “Private Eyes,” in about an hour—lip-synching in fedoras and trench coats in a West 54th Street rehearsal space—and became regulars on MTV, unwittingly sealing themselves into a moussed-up, wide-lapeled epoch that has been very hard to escape from.
The end of the Hall & Oates era came in a hotel bathroom in 1990 in Tokyo, where they had just performed at a Yoko Ono–sponsored concert commemorating the death of John Lennon. There, in a sad, reflective moment, John Oates said good-bye—to the mustache.
“It really was a kind of spiritual moment for me,” Oates says, laughing. “The mustache represented a me I no longer was. I shaved it off and never looked back.” The next day, he and Hall were waiting at the Tokyo airport for a flight back to the States when Miles Davis appeared. “He came up to me with those red eyes of his,” says Oates. “He got like three inches from my face and kinda drew his finger across his own upper lip, as if he was shaving, and he said to me [in a deep, raspy voice], ‘Now the lovin’s gonna be better.’ ” Oates pauses. “And then he went up to Daryl and said, ‘I used to tell my hairdresser, I want my hair to look just like Daryl’s.’ ”
Twenty-one years later, this hair shows a silvery tint in the light streaming through Hall’s farmhouse-studio window. Sitting among Gibson guitar cases and Hammond keyboards, he wears a black Schott leather jacket, navy hoodie, Levi’s bluejeans, and cowboy boots—a rural craftsman at work. He gazes at a Pro Tools monitor displaying a track from an upcoming solo album that draws from the last ten years of his own songwriting. Hall was about four tracks into recording the album when his close friend and bassist of 30 years, Tom “T-Bone” Wolk, died of a heart attack, on February 28, 2010, hours after leaving this room.
“You have no idea,” Hall says when I offer condolences. “I’m still recovering, to tell you the truth.” He takes a sip of a quadruple iced espresso. “I’ve been through a lot in the past ten years. I formed a new relationship [with British socialite Amanda Aspinall]. I’ve had changes in my career, and my best friend just died. It all goes into music.” His album is tentatively titled Laughing Down Crying.
In the process, he has shaken off his most enduring malady, eighties- phobia. “For a long time, I dismissed that part of my work,” he says. “I was labeled as an eighties pop musician, and then I shied away from that. Now I’m not afraid of it.”
Motown’s de facto house songwriter, Smokey Robinson, who wrote dozens of hits that lasted long after his heyday, ranks Hall’s output with his own and calls him a fellow soul singer. “He feels what he’s singing and playing,” says Robinson. “When that’s happening, you’re soulful. It doesn’t matter what color you are or where you came from.” But he also names the crucial attribute every true soul artist needs. “You have to adapt, man,” the Motown guru says. “You better adapt if you wanna stay around.”