ALLENTOWN, PA — John Oates is best known as half of one of the most successful musical duos in history — Hall & Oates.
In the 70s and 80s, the Philadelphia natives scored six number one hits from six multi-platinum albums, plus another eight top 10 singles, and a cumulative 29 top 40 smashes.
Songs like “Rich Girl,” “Private Eyes,” and “Maneater” were in constant rotation on the radio and MTV. In 2014 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2016 received a star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame.
But Oates has more to offer. He’s a singer-songwriter who grew up on American roots music and has released seven solo albums to date. His guitar playing is heavily influenced by the likes of Chuck Berry, Mississippi John Hurt and Muddy Waters, a side of himself he’s putting on display with a run of shows in the northeast.
You can catch John Oates and Guthrie Trapp March 16 at The Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, as they dig into some of their favorite songs, and rework some Hall & Oates favorites into their repertoire – complete with a little storytelling.
We had a chance to talk with him about his upcoming run of shows, working as one half of a duo, and a Hall & Oates backstory.
Jay Honstetter for The Morning Call: How did the idea come about to do a set of shows with Guthrie Trapp – exploring your taste in pop music, blues, and folk, while sharing the stories behind some of your biggest hits?
John Oates: Years ago I put together a thing called the Aspen Songwriters Festival and it was purely songwriters, no bands or anything like that. It was really a chance for songwriters to tell their backstory, and people found it really interesting … people really enjoyed it. It’s something I’ve always done, it’s very Nashville in style, like what they do at The Bluebird (in Nashville).
After the last Hall & Oates tour ended in late 2021, I came back, and Guthrie Trapp and I have known each other for about 15 years. We were just hanging out in the living room together picking up guitars and playing … messing around with some old songs that we both love. Everything from really traditional rootsy material to other stuff, and we kind of looked at each other and said “Man this feels really good, wouldn’t it be cool if we could just do this in front of people?” It’s kind of like bringing the living room to the stage, and that’s what we’re trying to do with this show.
I’ve watched a few videos of you and Guthrie playing together and you guys clearly have some great chemistry. How’d you guys meet?
We met about 15 or 16 years ago at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Telluride, Colorado. Guthrie was playing with Jerry Douglas, I was playing with Sam Bush, and once I heard him play I knew he was something very special as a musician. Then we became friends and we realized we had a lot of the same roots when it comes to real American roots music — everything from bluegrass to blues to swing to ragtime, you name it. We had a lot in common and the more we played the more we got to know each other. It’s just like anything else, you got to work together and spend time together to make something gel. And we’ve done that over the years.
I was watching you perform on Ditty TV, and it’s great to hear you play some old Hall & Oates songs with a whole different feel to them, very bluesy and folky.
That’s me. This show gives me an opportunity to show a side of myself that I don’t think a lot of people really know. Everyone knows me from Hall and Oates, the MTV videos, and big hits, and that’s great. But I had a whole musical life before I met Daryl Hall, and this is my sweet spot.
This is the kind of music that I was making as a kid. it’s very deeply ingrained in my musical DNA, and these types of shows give me a chance to showcase that side of my music career.
I think that any time you have a collaboration between two or more people, it’s always going to be more than the sum of its parts. I was making this kind of music, Daryl was classically trained and he was doing other things — singing doo-wop on the street corner, you know, that kind of thing. I think we both brought our individual musical personalities together, and what evolved was what became Hall & Oates.
We didn’t plan it, it was a natural outcome of our combined talents.
I’m sure fans are excited to hear the stories behind some of your classic songs, can you give us a little preview? Maybe a little background on an old classic?
Every song has a story, but a song like “She’s Gone,” for instance, was inspired by a young gal I met in the middle of the night down in Greenwich Village in New York in the early ‘70s. I invited her out on a date for New Year’s Eve and she never showed up.
I figured, well if she’s not coming on New Year’s Eve she’s probably not coming at all, and I just sat on the couch with an acoustic guitar and started singing, “She’s gone, she’s gone … Woah-ah … Woah-ah,” almost like a folky lament. Then Daryl and I got together and he liked the idea and he put his piano touch on it, and then it became a completely different song. It evolved into the song it is today.
COVID has the world on hiatus for a while there, but now you’re back on the road for a bit. Do you have anything planned for when this set of shows wraps up?
Not right now. I like to stay in the present. I’m focused on this tour. And if anyone wants a sneak peak, we’re streaming the show on March 13 on mandolin.com at 8 p.m.
We’re streaming it around the world if anybody wants to watch it, and if you sign up for the stream it lasts for 48 hours, it’s not like you have to watch it right at that moment. It’ll give people a chance to see what we do, and it’s basically a full concert.
JOHN OATES AT THE COLONIAL THEATER
When: 7:30 p.m. March 16
Where: 227 Bridge St., Phoenixville
Tickets: $39.50-$75; 610-917-1228
Jay Honstetter is a freelancer for The Morning Call. Follow him on Twitter @jayhonstetter