Hall & Oates were one of the very first musical acts that my sister (9) and I (13) both loved simultaneously. One Christmas, when she was in love with Daryl Hall, she asked Santa Claus for the Big Bam Boom album. Then she got mad when I asked for it too, and Santa brought us both got copies.
Since then, I’ve always wished I could sing like Daryl Hall, who began his career as a backup singer for Smokey Robinson. Daryl and I do have the same range, though mine ain’t nearly as solid. I also wish I had that hair. In my youth, on a good day, I may have looked and sounded like a raggedy Daryl Hall.
More than twenty years after that controversial Big Bam Boom Christmas, I fronted a Hall and Oates cover band. Despite that I can’t play piano, I led that band as Daryl. My guitarist friend Jack performed Oates. Two young men with no kids and no serious jobs at the time, Jack and I worked on our H&O set/impression every day for two months, programming drum beats, working out his guitar parts, tryna hit them high notes.
The task was anything but simple. Hall and Oates — the top-selling duo ever in rock, with over 34 top-100 charting songs — peppered their tunes with unique chords, off-time tricks, and mid-song key changes. Jack and I really worked hard to get it all down.
We worried when our bassist, musical savant David Hyman, joined us for just four practices, one week before the Halloween show; he had a lot of catching up to do. Turned out though, Dave walked in knowing too much: “Yeah, that chord change doesn’t actually go like that.” Dave made minor adjustments to everything we’d constructed — this, even he hadn’t picked up a bass guitar once in all this time! “I just drove around in my car listening to Hall and Oates at work all month, and doing this…” Dave pantomimed playing bass, and steering with his knee.
While Dave was setting Jack and I straight/scaring us/making our whole H&O routine a lot more difficult, another trio of my friends (two girls and a guy) asked if they might wear Oates mustaches like Jack, and sing backup — more or less drunken karaoke style. I didn’t care. I had a million new chords and key changes to learn, thanks to Dave. So our mustachioed backup singing trio (named Oates and Oates and Oates) joined us on stage.
Our Hall and Oates show went really well. I came off stage very proud of our act. Until, years later, I told Daryl Hall himself about it…
I could tell, talking to Daryl on the phone for Gambit Weekly, that he had been asked every question, ever. He was nice enough about this, but also beamed it out, apparent. My default mode for musicians of Daryl’s status is to talk gear: I asked about the old Moogs and drum machines H&O used during my favorite points in their career. “When I started out, it was four-track reel-to-reel, and the only non-acoustic instruments you could play were the electric guitar, electric piano and organ,” Daryl answered. “I saw the Moog become the Polymoog, and all different kinds of advances in keyboard technology in the ’80s… I was making use of all these new tools. Now I’ve sort of gone past all that because I don’t really feel the technology has gone any farther than it did then. … So I just sort of revert to a more simplistic way of production and recording now…”
We also discussed singing, and especially the power of the falsetto. “I switch between my natural voice and my falsetto; it kind of flows and overlaps,” said Hall, who also told me he dislikes the term ‘blue-eyed soul.’ “I am a second tenor … but my falsetto increases my range considerably.”
Daryl told me that the most important thing about Hall & Oates was the vocal harmonies. “We have eight guys in our band now including me and John, and all of them sing the choruses. The chorus is the most important part of all Hall and Oates songs,” he said. “These guys are so good at harmonies that, right before a show, we can say ‘You usually sing the fifth, but tonight you two guys are going to switch, and you’re gonna sing the fifth and you’re gonna sing the forth.’ And man, they just get out there and do it perfect with barely any practice.”
You would love my friend Dave Hyman, I thought. Remembering Dave caused me to blurt, “Wow, we didn’t have anyone singing harmonies in our Hall and Oates over band.”
“Yeah. No,” Daryl replied, sounding almost disgusted. “You can’t do a Hall and Oates cover band without vocal harmonies. You just can’t.”
I felt ashamed, especially after, later, I heard H&O perform at Jazz Fest. Hearing all those choruses rise in loud harmony, I felt disgusted with myself, really.
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