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John Oates - Friend of the DFC

John Oates is an accomplished solo artist, in addition to being half of the best-selling rock ’n ’roll duo Hall & Oates. He’s a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and The American Songwriters Hall of Fame, has won American Music awards, MTV awards and been nominated for multiple Grammys.

In the early ‘70s, John partnered with Daryl Hall and went on to make 21 albums - selling over 80 million albums - making them the most successful duo in rock history. In 1999, John struck out on his own and has so far recorded seven solo albums,  playing many genres of music including rock, R&B and soul. He’s a guitarist, singer-songwriter, record producer and collaborates and develops new artists.

John spoke with us about living in Colorado, his relationship with the Denver Folklore Center, touring and a lot more. 

john oates guild guitar mississippi john hurtMississippi John Hurt’s Guild Guitar
John says he has a long history with DFC founder, Harry Tuft. “A long time ago in the late ‘60s there was a guy named Jerry Ricks – he called himself Philadelphia Jerry Ricks – he was an amazing folk blues guitar player. And he was involved with the Philadelphia Folk Festival and a lot of the coffee houses back in the ‘60s during the folk revival. Ricks was friends with Dick Waterman and a lot of the traditional players like Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt and Son House. So, I got a chance to learn from him and those guys.”

John was a student of Ricks for a while and they became friends. Then when Mississippi John Hurt passed away, the Guild guitar he had played at the Newport Folk Festival was given to Jerry. Ricks brought it to New York and John played it on the first two Hall & Oates albums.

“Flash forward to the mid ‘70s, Jerry Ricks came out to Denver and he taught lessons at the Denver Folklore Center. At the time he wanted to go to Europe (he eventually expatriated), but before he left, he sold the Guild guitar to one of Harry Tuft’s friends. When he passed away about three years ago, his daughter wanted to sell his guitar collection. And through Harry, I found out she was selling the Mississippi John Hurt guitar. I ended up buying it. It came back to me through Harry which is amazing.” 

At Home in Colorado
John first came out to Colorado in the late 1960s for a college ski trip. Then in the ‘80s, “a good friend of mine had a place in Woody Creek near Aspen. He said I could use his house if I wanted to ski. And I did … and I kind of stayed.”

Like most Coloradans, John loves the outdoors. “When I’m in Colorado I’m riding my bike. I stopped downhill skiing years ago because I didn’t feel like hitting a tree again. I do Nordic skate skiing, I like staying fit. I like driving on a country road. I’m into old sports cars and have a Porsche and an MG. I like driving my tractor too.” 

hall & oatesMusical from the Start
John says he’s been singing since he was a baby. “I had musical talent from the time I was very young. I’ve got a recording from the amusement park in Coney Island when I was five or six years old – you’d record in a booth, put in a coin and a record would come out. I started vocal and guitar lessons at five or six and I never questioned what I was going to do. I joke about it - people never seemed to boo loud enough to make me stop, so I kept doing it.”

His parents were from the World War II generation, so he grew up listening to a wide variety of music – big band, swing, Glenn Miller, Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington. He’s also old enough to remember the beginnings of rock ’n’ roll on the radio. “I remember in the early 1950s in Philadelphia, this one radio station playing exclusively rock ’n’ roll. That was a big deal - Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers. That’s the music I grew up on.”

Then in the early ‘60s, John had a friend whose older brother went to college in the south, around the time the folk revival was starting. “He came back with all these folk records, people like The Weavers, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk and others. By then I’d been playing guitar since I was six, now I’m thirteen and I’m starting to absorb this stuff and I’m learning how to fingerpick  from the records. That led me to start looking into the originators of the music. When I heard Dylan, Joan Baez, Van Ronk, I started going back and saying ‘where’d these songs come from’. And I discovered Delta Blues, Appalachian, early English folk ballads and I got into that. When I moved to Philadelphia and met Jerry Ricks, he opened a door for me to learn from the original guys as they came up for the folk festival and the coffee houses. It was protest songs, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and more contemporary folk at the time – Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Ian & Sylvia.”

These days John listens to musicians like “Mollie Tuttle, Billie Strings, they’re great. I like the people I play with, like Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Yonder Mountain String Band – guys from Colorado who I’m friends with – Tommy Emanuel. I have an eclectic taste. I’m listening to a lot of ‘70s R&B, stuff that came out of Memphis. I don’t have a style, I just like great music.” 

john oates pushin' a rockSongwriting, Recording and Performing Live
John’s songwriting process isn’t too structured. But when he does write, the songs seem to have a mind of their own. “It’s like when I’m not exercising the last thing I want to do is start exercising. It’s the same thing with songwriting. When I’m not writing I don’t even want to think about it. And then I start writing and I can’t stop. I get on a roll and it just seems to feed upon itself in some weird way.”

“Right now, for me, the songs have to have some kind of meaning beyond just a simple relationship. The last song I put out digitally was called “Pushin’ a Rock”. That song was really about struggle, overcoming struggle and adversity and never giving up. You’ve got to keep trying. I felt like that was a good message and a message that people might relate to.”

John’s new single “Disconnected” is out February 3rd. It was written during COVID. These songs are part of a series of digital singles he’ll be releasing over the next couple of months. You can find them on all the streaming platforms.

A lot of musicians have a definite preference when it comes to either recording or performing music. Some consider touring to be too loose and some find being in the studio tedious. John views them as completely different things and sees value in both. “Recording is very introspective and analytical. You’re really focused on the minutia, sonically, technically what’s happening because you’re capturing something. And performing is the exact opposite. It’s all about live, it’s happening now, it’s never going to happen again. It’s all about energy. It has to do with immediacy, with relating to the audience and what they give you back and that affects what you’re doing.” 

In 2014 John recorded an entire album of collaborations called Good Road to Follow. He reached out to musicians – some he knew, some he didn’t – but they were all “people I respected. I worked with Vince Gill, Ryan Tedder from One Republic when he lived in Denver – we actually wrote a song together in Cherry Creek where he was living at the time. Jim Lauderdale – I love him and he’s one of my favorite songwriters in Nashville. There are so many people I’ve worked with. I’ve written with some contemporary country people, although I’ve never done well with contemporary country - it just doesn’t resonate with me.”

See John Oates in Colorado in February
John’s performing a series of acoustic shows. “I’m playing with an amazing acoustic guitar player from Nashville named Guthrie Trapp - he’s incredible. We’re doing a show at The Wheeler together. The other shows I’m doing with a percussionist from Aspen, who I’ve also played with for many years, John Michel. We’re doing a singer-songwriter show, telling stories behind the songs. Bringing the living room to the stage. Doing the old-timey stuff all the way up to the new stuff and some Hall & Oates.

Visit John Oates’ website and Instagram where you can “watch me plow snow and do snow angels”. And see him on February 24th at the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride, CO and on March 3rd at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, CO. These are makeup shows from COVID. They were canceled twice so he’s calling it “the third time’s the charm” tour.

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