‘I don’t think we’d be around’: The behind-the-scenes figure who helped shape Hall and Oates’ career

Hall and Oates enters the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year with their credentials in order. A series of huge 1980s-era hits have, in fact, made them part of the culture. But it wasn’t always that way.

In fact, there was a long period of experimentation between their initial folk-focused albums and the commercial breakthrough of 1980′s Voices. Arif Mardin, a behind-the-scenes figure at the Ahmet Ertegun-run Atlantic Records, was a key figure in that transformation. He not only produced the duo’s first two albums, he encouraged Hall and Oates to try out different sounds, different approaches, different personas.

“Arif was really the guy,” Oates tells Music Business Radio. “Arif produced Aretha Franklin, he produced Bette Midler, he produced so many people — the Rascals, on and on into later years and Norah Jones. Arif, as far as I was concerned, was one of the greatest producers of all time. He passed away a few years ago, but it was him really who shepherded us through that whole thing. He allowed us to make the creative mistakes that allowed us to find ourselves musically.”

The advent of the 1980s coincided with the duo’s decision to begin producing themselves, after a series of collaborative experiences into the late ’70s. “That’s when the tremendous run of hits started,” Oates adds. Still, he says, without Mardin’s encouragement, Hall and Oates might never have found the perfect mixture of influences that finally framed their legend.

“I think for me, personally, the greatest difference between the music business of today, and the music business of yesterday is the fact that artists were sometimes allowed to make those creative mistakes which allowed them to grow and have a career,” Oates adds. “I don’t think we’d be around. If the Hall and Oates of 1970 was thrust into today’s music business, we probably would have gotten to make one album, and that would have been it.”

The Mardin-produced 1973 album Abandoned Luncheonette was Hall and Oates’ only platinum-selling album of the 1970s. Every album the duo released in the following decade went at least platinum, with 1982′s H2O and 1984′s Big Bam Boom going multi-platinum.

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