Being one-half of one of the most popular singing duos in pop music history is quite a feat unto itself. Yet all those gold records and worldwide tours haven’t dulled John Oates’ penchant for creativity one whit.
Between recent tours with his longtime performing partner Daryl Hall, the New York City native has delved deeply into the Americana arena on his own. Arkansas, Oates’ latest solo album on his own PS label, started out as a tribute to one of his musical heroes, pre-war blues pioneer Mississippi John Hurt, but developed into something more ambitious during the recording process with his hand-picked studio cohorts, the Good Road Band.
“I have been connected, kind of cosmically and personally, to Mississippi John Hurt for quite some time,” says Oates. “Back in the ‘60s, when he was rediscovered, he used to come to Philadelphia quite frequently, and my guitar teacher, Jerry Ricks, was a very good friend of his. When John Hurt passed away, his guitar that he played at Newport was given to Jerry Ricks. And subsequently Jerry played on the first two Hall and Oates albums, and brought that guitar to New York so I could play it. So I’m actually playing Mississippi John Hurt’s guitar on the first two Hall and Oates albums. During that period of time, I learned all (of John’s) songs, and his entire songbook, basically. Over the years, it’s just been a sweet spot for me.”
Oates’ fascination with the legacy of guitar master Hurt, who recorded 13 seminal sides for the OKeh label in 1928 and then receded from view until his 1963 rediscovery, remained intact through the decades. “I just wanted to record some John Hurt stuff,” he says. “I had dabbled with it on my album Mississippi Mile a few years ago. I did a version of ‘Make Me A Pallet On The Floor.’ But I wanted to go in the studio. I was just a little bit restless, and I said, ‘You know, I’m going to go in the studio and just cut some John Hurt stuff in a very authentic way, with acoustic guitar and voice, kind of just like he did.’ And I went in and I did that. I cut a number of songs.
“After I stepped back a little bit, I said, ‘Cool. I can do it, but it’s been done before. It’ll never be better than the original.’ But I didn’t want to abandon the idea of the songs themselves. So I said, ‘I wonder what this would sound like if I assembled a band, and we played them as a band?’ Because you very seldom hear these songs that are so associated with acoustic guitar and voice being played with a band,” he continues. “I assembled a very eclectic set of instruments—a cello, a pedal steel, a mandolin, guitar, bass and drums. They were all friends of mine, and the great Sam Bush was on mandolin–some incredible genius players that I had become friends with over the years in Nashville. And from the very first track that we cut, which was ‘Stack O’Lee,’ my engineer and co-producer David Kalmusky said to me, ‘Man, John, I don’t know what this is, but it’s really cool. Just do it. Just keep going!’
“It was really just kind of an experiment that turned out really well,” says Oates. “If you strip away all the instrumentation from the record, I’m basically playing the authentic acoustic guitar parts, so I wasn’t really doing anything differently than I kind of set out to do. But I surrounded myself and I surrounded the songs with this incredible accompaniment. So that’s what brought the magic to the project, and that’s what made the songs unique and the project unique.”
The set offers Oates’ vibrant remakes of Hurt’s classics “Stack O’Lee,” “My Creole Belle,” and “Spike Driver Blues” as well as a lesser-known “Lord Send Me.” “Many times, he would start his show with that song, and try to put the audience in this mood,” he says. “He used to say, ‘Let’s put the Lord out front.’ That was an actual quote that he used to use. He used to like to set the tone for his show that way. And so I adopted that as well as a way of starting my live show, and doing kind of a gospel version of that. Just a great gospel song.”
Oates’ concept expanded during the recording process to include Blind Blake’s “That Will Never Happen No More” along with themes from outside the blues genre that hail from the same era, notably Emmett Miller’s 1924 Okeh recording “Anytime” and “Miss The Mississippi And You,” associated with country music immortal Jimmie “The Singing Brakeman” Rodgers. “As I went on, I realized that the album could have a broader scope. It didn’t need to just be Mississippi John Hurt, even though that was kind of the initial inspiration. And I started thinking about songs that might have been contemporary with him,” says Oates. “I started to think about a snapshot of this early American popular music, and then I started putting all the pieces together.
“I also found out that Mississippi John Hurt was a big fan of Jimmie Rodgers, which I didn’t know, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s a unique kind of a circumstance, that Jimmie Rodgers might have affected John Hurt, or visa versa.’ So I included a Jimmie Rodgers song. And along that way, that’s how the album kind of widened its scope.”
Not everything on Arkansas is a vintage chestnut. “‘‘Dig Back Deep’ is a very unique original, but it’s an original that really borrows and owes a lot to the tradition. You think about the blues tradition, it’s really an evolving tradition. It never really ends,” says Oates. “I took Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Slidin’ Delta,’ and I adapted ‘Slidin’ Delta,’ just the lyrics of it, to a completely different melody and a completely different set of chords and a completely different attitude, which is what blues musicians have always done over the years.”
The album’s title track is an Oates original, inspired by a trip with his band to the title state. “We were invited to go to this place called Wilson, Arkansas, which is a little town that was at one time a huge cotton plantation,” says Oates. “After the show, we all walked out and stood literally on the banks of the Mississippi, in the cotton fields in the moonlight. And it was just this evocative moment where I felt the vibes. Highway 61, the blues highway, runs right through the middle of Wilson. So it was this kind of moment where it all seemed to crystallize. And we were in the midst of recording at the time, and I just thought, ‘Wow—this is ground zero, in a sense!’
“It moved me, and I went home and wrote the song. I tried to paint a picture of that moment at night, standing in those fields.”
Oates’ early association with Ricks, a young Philly-based acoustic blues performer during the ‘60s, was central to his musical connection with Hurt. “Jerry was friends with Dick Waterman. Dick Waterman and Jerry lived across the street from each other in Philadelphia. Dick Waterman brought a lot of the early bluesmen up to Philadelphia and up to the northeast,” says Oates. “Whenever the Philadelphia Folk Festival would be on, or the various folk coffeehouses where some of these players would be performing, in those days they didn’t have money for hotels, and they didn’t know their way around northern cities and things like that. So Dick would put them up at his house, and if there was an overflow, he would put them up at Jerry’s house.
“I used to sit in front, basically right at the lip of the stage, at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in the early ‘60s. And I saw (John) perform many, many times. I saw him perform at the Main Point and the Second Fret, which were two of the premier coffeehouses in Philadelphia. Whenever he would play in the Philadelphia area, I would always go. And I was only in high school, so I would just absorb it. And I did the classic thing that people did in those days—I did the needle drop on an album and tried to figure out what he was doing. And it wasn’t really until I met Jerry Ricks later on that I began to learn the correct way of playing it, the actual authentic styles, because Jerry learned from the source. So that was a unique opportunity for me.”
Though born in New York City, Oates grew up in North Wales, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb. “I remember music before rock and roll started,” he says. “I remember big band music and things like that. And I was old enough to realize that when rock and roll first came on the radio that something monumental had changed. So being a young kid and being musically inclined, I picked up on the early rock and rollers—Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, of course Elvis, and so on and so forth.
“As I moved up through the ‘50s into the ‘60s, I listened to all the Allen Toussaint stuff, the stuff that came out of New Orleans—Fats Domino and Ernie K-Doe and all that kind of stuff. And then when the folk boom kind of hit in the early ‘60s, I was immediately drawn to that. That’s when I began to discover people like Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt, and the more contemporary people like Dave Van Ronk who were interpreting that stuff. So I got into all that in the early ‘60s.”
Oates fronted a self-contained blue-eyed soul group that made a 1967 single, “I Need Your Love” b/w “Not My Baby,” for Jerry Greene’s Philly-based Crimson label as the Masters (Oates co-wrote both sides). “That was my high school band. We had four different names. We started out as the Avalons. Then we became the Soul Sound Continentals. Then we became the Masters,” he says. “I joined that band when I was in seventh grade, and the guys were a little older than me. They were in ninth grade. And then I stayed with those guys through high school. We got pretty popular in the local area, and we played a lot.
“When I graduated from high school in the summer of ‘66, we decided to pool our money together and make a record. So we went to Philadelphia and hired a guy named Bobby Martin, who later went on to become a Grammy-winning arranger for Gamble and Huff. And we went into the Frank Virtue Studio on North Broad Street. Frank Virtue was the guy who recorded ‘Guitar Boogie Shuffle.’ That was his claim to fame. And he had a studio called Virtue Sound. And it was basically all we could afford—a little four-track machine. We went in there and Bobby Martin helped us arrange it, and we recorded it.” The group was named almost as an afterthought. “When we finished the recording, they have to label the tapes, and they label the acetate. And they put ‘Master’ on there, because it was a master recording. And we went, ‘Okay, we’ll call ourselves the Masters!’
“The way we got the deal at Crimson Records was really weird. We made the demo, and we had an acetate. We came out of the studio with a couple of acetates,” says Oates. “One day, me and a couple of the guys in the band, we took the train down to Philadelphia. We walked to the Record Museum, which was a place I used to love to go and buy 45s. It was on Chestnut Street, a tiny little record store. We walked in, and I had the acetate in my hand. And there was a guy behind the counter. I said, ‘Hey, we made a record! You guys want to hear it?’ And they put it on, literally right there at the counter. The guy said, ‘Hey, hold on a second.’ Brought us into the back room. I guess it was Jerry Greene. I don’t know who was there. But he said, ‘Hey, you guys want to put this out?’ We said, ‘Yeah, we want to put it out.’ He said, ‘Okay, we’ll put it out.’ And literally handed us some paperwork. We signed it. Of course, we didn’t know what we were signing. A classic music business story, right?”
The Masters’ debut single wasn’t a national hit; Crimson focused most of its promotional muscle on the Soul Survivors’ smash “Expressway To Your Heart.” Meanwhile, Hall’s fellow blue-eyed soul group, the Temptones, had just waxed their debut single for Jimmy Bishop’s Arctic label. “That song was out at the exact same time. So our two records were being played simultaneously on Philadelphia radio,” says Oates. “That’s how we kind of entered into the professional music business. Separately, of course, but then eventually we came together.”
Oates quickly found his way into the City of Brotherly Love’s booming music scene while attending Temple University. “I started playing in the Philadelphia clubs, met Jerry Ricks, started playing at folk clubs, and started really honing my chops,” he says. Hall was also enrolled there, but the two didn’t meet in the ivy-covered halls of academia. “Daryl’s group had a single out on radio. My group had a single out on radio. And we knew of each other, but we hadn’t met,” says Oates. “Then we were both independently asked to come to this ballroom, which was kind of a teenage dance on a Sunday afternoon at a place called the Adelphi Ballroom in West Philadelphia. We were there, Howard Tate was there, the Five Stairsteps. We were kind of waiting backstage to go on and lip-synch our singles for a disc jockey from the local R&B station. And that’s when a big gang fight broke out, and we kind of ran down, got in the elevator, went down to the street level. And that’s when we kind of said, ‘Hey, man, I know you go to Temple University. I’ll see you around, you know?’ And then we started meeting.
“When I graduated from college in the spring of ’70, I wanted to go to Europe. So I pulled my money together. I took a backpack and took my guitar, and I went to Europe for about four months. I left in June and came back in October. While I was there, I just busked around Europe and played my guitar and visited all the places that I had always dreamed about and wanted to see,” he says. “I had sublet my apartment to Daryl’s sister and her boyfriend while I was away, and they didn’t pay the rent. So the apartment got padlocked. So when I came back from Europe, I literally went to the apartment and I couldn’t get in. And I had nowhere to go and no money, so I went over to where Daryl was living. And I said, ‘Hey, man, you sister and her boyfriend kind of left me hanging.’ And he said, ‘Well, don’t worry about it. Just move in here.’ And there was a spare bedroom upstairs, so I just moved in there. And because I was there, and that’s where his piano was, he’d come up and play the piano, and I’d pick up my guitar, and we started playing.
“We didn’t sound that good when we first started. Our styles were so distinctly different. I learned from him, he learned from me. I taught him a lot about traditional music—blues, bluegrass, Delta blues, things like that. He taught me a lot about gospel music, because he was a piano player, and R&B. He was classically trained, so I got a little bit more sophisticated from him.
“From there, an original style started to emerge. But it took quite a while.”
By the time the young duo signed with Atlantic Records in 1971, that style was coming together fast. “Being fans of blues and early R&B, Atlantic Records was the home. It was the motherlode of that music—Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and on and on, Solomon Burke,” says Oates. “Being produced and discovered by Arif Mardin, who without a doubt was one of the greatest producers of all time–having him to mentor us through our first two albums was just a godsend and a unique opportunity.”
Yet many of their biggest sellers came after they assumed their own production reins. “We had worked with so many good and interesting producers—Arif Mardin, Todd Rundgren, David Foster, Christopher Bond,” he says. “We had learned a lot from all of them. But we realized that we were doing the bulk of the work anyway. So when the ‘80s started coming around, we just said, ‘You know what? We don’t need these guys anymore. Let’s just make our own records.’ And that’s really when we became more successful than ever, because we were actually getting the sound that we really wanted.”
Oates recently tracked down Hurt’s precious guitar, the very same one that he’d played so long ago. “I didn’t know what had happened to that guitar,” he says. “A gal who kind of ran my book club (Oates released his autobiography, Change of Seasons, last year), she started doing some research, and she discovered that the guitar was in a collection in Denver, Colorado of a fellow who had just passed away.
“She pointed me in the right direction, and I reached out to some people and ended up purchasing it. So I now own that guitar—the one that he played at Newport in ‘64, the Guild F-30 that he played,” he says. “I got it after the album was finished. I wish I would have had it to play actually on the album. But I did get it right after the album was finished, so in a way it was kind of a reward, I think, for doing the project.
“It’s one of my prize possessions.”
Visit John’s website at: https://johnoates.com/
Interviewer Bill Dahl is a lifelong Chicago resident who began writing about music professionally in 1977. He’s written for Vintage Rock, Goldmine, Living Blues, Blues Revue, Blues Music Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the Reader, and is the author of The Art of the Blues, a 2016 book published by University of Chicago Press, and 2001’s Motown: The Golden Years (Krause Publications). Bill was awarded the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in journalism in 2000.