Friday, October 11, 2013

This Day in Rock History (Daryl Hall, ‘Blue-Eyed Soul’ Bard, Born)

October 11, 1948—Daryl Hall, who with musical partner John Oates achieved the most record sales ever by a duo, was born in Pottstown, Pa., just outside the city where he imbibed the sounds that made him one of the great exemplars of  white “blue-eyed soul.”

A tendency exists, in more than a few quarters, to sneer at Hall and Oates. I’m not sure how much of this derives from their massive commercial success from the mid-‘70s to mid-80s—a decade of six #1 singles (Rich Girl,” “Kiss on My List,” “Private Eyes,” “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),” “Maneater” and “Out of Touch”) and six consecutive multi-platinum albums. And it might have helped them with critics if they had taken themselves a bit more seriously. (They would not argue the point that their goofy videos for “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Adult Education” were among the worst of the Eighties.)

That contempt for their music, though, is seriously misplaced. While not in the same league as songwriters with one-half of the duo they displaced as the most popular of all time, Paul Simon, they were pretty fair in their own right. (Their songs were covered, for instance, in a night of song at New York's Losers Lounge several years ago; see my post on the Kustard Kings' fine rendition of "Kiss on My List.") Each was an accomplished musician in his own right (while Oates handled production chores at their zenith, Hall was pretty handy himself with guitar and keyboards—not surprising, as he had worked in the industry originally as a session musician for Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the prime movers behind the “Philly Sound” of the early ’70s). And those vocals—well, not for nothing was their signature album called Voices.

If you want an example of their vocal prowess, consider their work on a song not from their heyday, one that was actually a cover version of a classic from the “Philly Soul” era: the early Seventies hit “Me and Mrs. Jones.” Gamble and Huff had a bit of a problem with the singer who enjoyed his greatest success with it, Billy Paul, since his voice was—well, producer Thom Bell once said that, at times, it “sounded like you could land a 747 on it.” 

Gamble and Huff expertly camouflaged it with a lush big-band sound. No such problem existed for Hall (left, in the accompanying picture, with Oates), who performed the lead vocal for this tale of anguished infidelity brilliantly in VH-1’s Live on Request. In the closing minutes of the song, Hall makes the song entirely his own, in a style that can only be described as barnburning. But don’t take my word for it—take a look at the version from Hall and Oates' VH-1 “Live on Request” special from several years ago.

A year or two ago, Hall and Oates came to BergenPAC, a performing-arts arena located a few blocks from my home in Englewood, NJ. I didn’t attend the show, and at this point I’m not sure if it had something to do with my uncertain work schedule or the ticket price, which I regarded as too high. In any case, I’m not sure the concert then could have compared with the first time I heard them in July 1977 at Central Park—right after their first significant success, but before the blazing commercial run that began with Voices.

I knew the duo at that point pretty vaguely, as creators of some catchy pop ditties (“Sara Smile,” “Rich Girl”). None of that prepared me for musicians who played as tight and professional a set as you could get, effortlessly traversing genres: rock, soul, pop, folk, even some touches of jazz.

BergenPAC is a great venue, but nothing could compare to the arena of my memory more than 35 years ago, Manhattan’s great expanse of green in midsummer twilight, when we were all so young and there was nothing in the world like the sweet heartache of “She’s Gone” for those of us sitting in the stands in Central Park’s Schaefer Music Festival.

Well, maybe one thing might compare. Some time ago, a close relative asked if I had prepared a bucket list. Despite my advancing age and growing (though still minor) aches and pains, I was not at that point. But now, I think I have one item that might make that list: An invitation to a session of Mr. Hall’s terrific Web series, Live From Daryl’s House.

The premise of the show, which began in 2007 and will run for at least another season, couldn’t be simpler: Daryl jams with his friends! Only that doesn’t begin to explain the sheer charm of the whole thing. There’s the visiting musician coming up to Daryl’s place in rural upstate New York; sitting around, cracking jokes while they chow down (the food alone looks To Die For!); and then those songs

The visitor and Daryl’s band play Daryl’s songs; then Daryl returns the favor; then they pick songs by other artists that are special to them. I doubt that you’d get any two listeners to agree on a common list of their favorite duets from the series, but for what it’s worth, mine are Todd Rundgren and Daryl covering the great ‘60s hit, “Expressway To Your Heart”; Matchbox 20’s Rob Thomas teaming with Daryl on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”; and a version of Hall and Oates’ “Kiss on My List” with KT Tunstall describable in one phrase: c'est magnifique.

Now, how might I wangle an invitation to such wondrous proceedings? I might have to resort to a slight bit of blarney, mind you. I could say that, because of my Irish heritage, I'm more than a bit acquainted with the bodhran, the great Irish drum. 

Even though, truth be told, I've never laid a hand on the instrument, I figure that, if Daryl and his house band were innocent enough to accept my explanation (an admitted stretch), I could pound along until I get a fascimile of the rhythm. By the time Daryl suspected the subterfuge, he might be blissed out enough to let me sit in the room as he picked up his guitar, sort of like a captain letting a stowaway on board, and tell me that he knew a really good lawyer who could help me retrieve any money I had wasted on learning the instrument. 

(Photo of Daryl Hall and John Oates from October 1, 2008, by Gary Harris.)

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