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Tunes & Tales

Singer-songwriter John Oates performs his show, "The Stories Behind the Songs," this week at Steve's Guitars in Carbondale, and at the Oriental Theater in Denver. (Art Burrows)
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There’s a strong connection in my mind between skiing and Hall & Oates’ “She’s Gone.” My early experience of skiing was nights (yikes!) at New Jersey’s Vernon Valley. I was in junior high, it was the mid-’70s, and in a memory that for some reason has remained vivid, the stereo speakers at the bottom of the hill were blaring Hall & Oates’ hit about losing the girl.It is only coincidence that John Oates, half of the soul-pop duo responsible for “She’s Gone,” happens to live in Woody Creek, and is a devoted telemark skier. The song, no surprise, has nothing to do with sliding downhill, at least not in the literal sense. But Oates says my mental association with his song is fine with him.”People impose their own interpretations on the song – and that’s great. That’s music,” said Oates. “I’d never want to change that.”But when you hear the writers’ perspective on the song, it adds a greater depth and a greater dimension.”Having had the actual origins of “She’s Gone” explained to me, I can safely say that my future associations with the song will be about more than frigid nights on an icy New Jersey hill. The song came to Oates in late 1971, soon after he had moved to New York from his native Philadelphia.”I was out one night, late, and there was this club in the Village, the Pink Teacup, a soul-food place open all night,” said Oates. “And I remember being in there 3 a.m., after a show, and a woman walks in, in a pink tutu and cowboy boots, middle of the winter. A strange little girl, who, it turns out, had lived with Donovan in his castle.”The two started seeing each other, and made a date for New Year’s Eve. The girl never showed and a thought came to Oates.”I was sitting in my apartment, thinking if she didn’t show up New Year’s Eve, then she’s gone,” he said. “It was me and my guitar, a folky thing, a lament: ‘She’s gone,'” he continued. “And Daryl was going through his own romantic thing, and he heard it and latched onto it. We wrote it in almost the time it took to play it. It was the two of us pooling our emotions, and that’s how it came to be.”

“She’s Gone,” from the 1974 debut album “Abandoned Luncheonette,” would become Hall & Oates’ second top-10 hit, after their breakthough song, “Sara Smile.” It was also part of the reason the duo was tagged with the “blue-eyed soul” label. (The song was also recorded by Lionel Richie, and hit No. 1 on the r&b charts as covered by the brother-band, Tavares.) And it helped open the floodgates for a succession of hits, from “Rich Girl” to a cover of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” to “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” to “Out of Touch.”Virtually every one of those songs has a story behind it. “And some of the stories are crazy,” noted Oates.Hardly any of the stories are well-known. But that’s about to change. Oates has worked up a new solo show, “The Stories Behind the Songs,” that will mix stripped-down versions of the songs with tales of how the tunes came into being. The show has its premiere Wednesday, April 25, at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale, with an additional date Friday, April 27, at the Oriental Theater in Denver.The show will include many of the Hall & Oates hits, including “Sara Smile,” written about Hall’s former girlfriend and song-writing partner, Sara Allen, (“A real Daryl song,” notes Oates. “But I was involved. I introduced him to Sara.”), and “Maneater.” Oates will also shed light on lesser-known Hall & Oates songs like “Italian Girls,” and “Possession Obsession” (“about being alive in the ’80s, the ‘greed-is-good’ ethic, and the people I was surrounded by”). Also in the show are examples from Oates’ solo material: “Sending Me Angels,” written by the late Jerry Lynn Wlliams, whom Oates describes as an unforgettable character; and “Little Angel,” a song from Oates’ 2002 solo CD, “Phunk Shui,” written about his son, Tanner.It was a confluence of things that prompted Oates to put together “The Stories Behind the Songs.” For years, Oates has seen the response to the stories behind the Hall & Oates’ songs.”I’ve told these stories so many times, usually in social situations,” said Oates, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. “People always said, you should write a book. But I’m a musician, so I figured I’d do it in this form.”

It wasn’t lost on Oates that numerous songwriters of his generation – Oates is 58 – have taken fans behind the song-writing curtain in shows such as VH1’s “Storytellers.” In particular, he saw country singer Vince Gill do a solo show at the Wheeler Opera House a few years ago, and it made an impression.”I liked the casualness of it, that it was just him and his keyboard player,” said Oates. “And I liked the way he was winging it, and how his wife was yelling from the back, ‘Tell that story!’ And he did.”Another influence was Oates’ coming-out party as a solo act, some five years ago. Aided by the rock-solid local band Little Blue (which has since morphed into Take the Wheel), Oates finally took his first steps outside of Hall & Oates. He performed at the Wheeler and a handful of other shows, in Colorado and at the Roxy in Los Angeles. In 2002, Oates released his first solo CD, “Phunk Shui”; two years later came the DVD “John Oates: Live at the Wheeler Opera House.”From a listener’s perspective, the CD and the performances were hardly disappointing. But for Oates, it wasn’t fully satisfying, mostly because the form of the music, with full-band arrangements, was similar to what he had done in Hall & Oates for some 35 years. And the fact that the duo remains very much in business – they tour annually, and last year released a holiday CD, “Home for Christmas” – made approximating the Hall & Oates show a bit uncomfortable.”I didn’t feel it was right,” said Oates. “Playing with Little Blue, then Take the Wheel, that was the best. I can’t say enough about the way they supported me. But the Hall & Oates band is my band; they’re the greatest band in the world.”Actively playing with Daryl, I wanted to do something totally different, totally stripped down.”The final push came when Oates spoke at a songwriters symposium a year and a half ago at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. That talk, for an audience of musicians, veered toward the technical. But it got him thinking about talking about his songs. “It inspired me that this would be a good thing for the average fan,” said Oates, who writes by himself, with Hall and with other writers, a variegated experience he says has been a key to Hall & Oates’ longevity. “Not chord structure and melodic changes, but about the songs. It’s more dish and gossip and crazy anecdotes – the People magazine version of the song.”When I did the Wheeler show, it seemed the stories that preceded the songs got a lot of comments,” he continued. “The classic Hall & Oates songs are such a part of the world and radio. But people don’t know where the songs came from, what inspired them, the people who inspired them, the situations they were born from. When you have that background it gives the song a whole other meaning.”



Oates draws a distinction between himself and performers he admires, from Bob Dylan and John McEuen to comedians like Jerry Seinfeld. They are accustomed to getting onstage by themselves. Oates is not, and despite his success as half of a duo, appearing alone is like starting over again as a performer.”That’s what they do,” said Oates. “For a guy like me, it’s daunting.”There’s a certain edginess of going out there on your own. There’s something unique that comes out of that kind of setting.”Oates will not exactly go out alone; he will be joined for part of the show by Jed Leiber, the keyboardist from Little Blue. And he will hit the stage prepared: He and Leiber have put in some long hours and late nights perfecting the material. To make a fuller sound, Oates will play “stereo” guitar, using two amplifiers.For all the preparation, however, Oates wants to maintain an easygoing vibe in the show, with a spontaneity impossible in a Hall & Oates gig.”The fan club will be there in force, yelling out the most obscure songs,” he noted. “And if I can play it, I’ll do it.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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