There is no duo without divorce. It is almost a law of pop: two people start their career together, achieve success together, and then they grow apart and split up, bitterly vowing to never associate with the other ever again. From Simon and Garfunkel to Ike & Tina and Eric B. & Rakim, breakup seems inevitable. The latest case, revealed only a few days ago, is that of Hall & Oates, who in 1984 the Recording Industry Association of America referred to as “the most successful duo in rock history.”
At the end of November, Daryl Hall, 77, filed a lawsuit against John Oates, 75, alleging a breach of the contract that the duo had signed over the rights to their music. Apparently, Hall found out that Oates was planning to sell them and sued him, after which a Nashville judge issued an order preventing him from closing the sale of his share of Whole Oats Enterprises, the partnership he shares with Hall, to Primary Wave IP Investment Management LLC. The lawsuit included a temporary restraining order, a measure usually taken to prevent one party from harming the economic interests of the other.
The story of Hall & Oates is the story of one of the most profitable duos of all time, and at the same time one of the most ignored. It is difficult to find references to them in the rock history books, and when there are, as in the case of Dylan Jones’ The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music, they are not kind. “Hall & Oates were never cool. Not ever. Not at the start of their career (when David Bowie was cool), not at the height of their success (when Madonna was about as cool as cool can be), nor indeed now (when most people are cool). The problem was a simple one. Even though they made — and occasionally continue to make — some of the best blue-eyed soul ever recorded, they had an image problem, with Daryl Hall looking like a market town hairdresser, and John Oates looking like Super Mario’s smaller, uglier brother,” wrote the English author.
The key to the current conflict lies in all the hits they garnered. Between 1972 and 2006, they published 18 albums. They had six number ones in the US; 16 songs in the top ten; 34 in the top 100. At the beginning of the 1980s they made three albums that sold millions of copies: Voices, Private Eyes and H2O. In fact, on their last tour together, in 2021, speaking about their repertoire, Oates stated that their “problem” was having “too many hits.”
But they were always the epitome of a band that made music for people who didn’t care too much about music. Being a fan of Hall & Oates didn’t make you cool. “Wearing a Hall & Oates t-shirt means nothing,” Metallica’s manager once said. And it is true — but it is also true that the ubiquitous classic rock stations of today are constantly playing songs like Maneater, She’s Gone or Out of Touch. That, however, has not improved their reputation. They didn’t even get a piece of the pie when bands like Steely Dan began to be claimed as champions of the yacht rock genre. Hall & Oates were not from California; their songs did not evoke executives and silicone blondes sipping prosecco on a yacht. They were from Philadelphia and were associated with suburban, middle-class housewives. In The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Carlton — Will Smith’s cousin who acted like a preppy white guy — secretly danced to You Make My Dreams by Hall & Oates. When Will caught him, he left the room quiet and ashamed.
To a large extent, their problem is also one of prejudice. They say that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame did not want to induct them because the institution was being accused of being too male and white. Hall and Oates were white men making music that could be taken as cultural appropriation, because their most glorious songs are those closest to soul. If they eventually got accepted, it was thanks to one specific young, black fan: Questlove, from The Roots. He was also the one who gave the speech. “Hall and Oates will cure any known ailments. They cross all the boundaries, because that is what great music does,” he said.
The truth is that they were an odd couple. Daryl Hall, of German descent, was tall and blonde. John Oates, of Italian, Gibraltarian, Moroccan and English origins, was short with tightly curly black hair and had a mustache that, although he shaved it off decades ago, continues to be what comes to mind when one thinks of him. Both of their attempts to look like children of their time were pathetic. In the Rich Girl video, Hall wears a pair of absurd sunglasses and a fur coat, while John Oates dons a three-piece suit that would look more at home in a gangster movie than in Saturday Night Fever. That inevitably depreciated a great song that could have been written by Marvin Gaye.
They met in the 1960s when Hall was promoting the first single of his group The Temptones, a white quartet that did soul in the style of the Four Tops or The Temptations, and they hit it off. They were both freshmen at Temple University, and they became roommates. In 1972, they founded Hall & Oates. They began recording with Atlantic, but it was not until they signed with RCA in 1975 that they started to stand out. Their first megahit was the album Bigger Than Both of Us. It seems that Daryl Hall had the quiet conviction — so common in one of the components of those Wham!-style duos – that he did everything and Oates was little more than an extra. In fact, he did not even enjoy the idea of being a duo.
“Whatever the mystique [about duos] is, I don’t like it,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2022. “John and I call our touring company Two-Headed Monster, because it is that. It’s very annoying to be a duo, because people always say, ‘Oh, you’re the tall one, you’re the short one. You’re the one that sings, you’re the one that doesn’t sing.’ You’re always compared to the other person. It works with comedy entities, like Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, but with music, it’s fucked up, actually.” In fact, rumor has it that if they did not split before it was due to contractual obligations. RCA believed that the odd couple worked and boycotted any attempt by Hall to make a serious solo career. When he recorded an album with Robert Fripp in 1976 that completely departed from his work with Oates, RCA forbade him from releasing it, and it was shelved.
In recent times, Hall has talked about it openly. “You think John Oates is my partner? He’s my business partner. He’s not my creative partner,” he stated in an interview. According to AP, although what is known about the lawsuit does not specify what exactly is for sale, Primary Wave has been interested in acquiring Hall and Oates’ song catalog for 15 years. In a 2021 interview with Sky News, Hall alluded to a previous sale of part of the catalog. “It got sold off for me and I didn’t get the money,” he declared, before advising artists to hold on to their rights: “It’s all you have.”
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition