John Oates could be described as a true renaissance man. A jack of many trades, a music collector, nurse and part of the inspiration for Philly AIDS Thrift, he kept busy.
Oates died Oct. 2 at age 52.
His partner of 32 years, Tom Brennan, said Oates was “brilliant at one million things.” Oates was a registered nurse but he also held certifications in several other areas, including wastewater management, respiratory therapy and paralegal.
“It was a past time,” Brennan said of his partner’s numerous certifications.
“He was the most disciplined, hardworking guy you could ever imagine,” Brennan added. “He would work 100-hour weeks and not even think about it.”
While Brennan said Oates was “the last person in the world to get a cell phone,” that did not stop him from being tech-savvy, especially when it came to his two calico cats, Patches and Scratches.
“Just in the last year when he was traveling — he hardly texted at all but the only texts were, ‘How are the cats?’”
Brennan said Oates was “funny and crazy” and loved studying, school and learning. He even received scholarships to Valley Forge Military Academy & College and the University of Pennsylvania, the latter of which he left after one year as a student.
“He was a wild child. He just wanted to do his own thing,” Brennan said.
Oates also loved music and black-and-white movies.
His passion for music extended into his hobbies. Brennan called Oates a “world-league record collector” with a collection spanning from his early childhood.
“There aren’t many people in the world that have a larger record collection than him. His knowledge of American popular music was infinite and beyond your wildest dreams.”
Among Oates’ favorite artists were Lena Horne, Fran Warren, June Christy, Jo Stafford, Dakota Staton and Connie Haines.
“Fifteen years ago, he had 1,000 copies of a CD made of rare Connie Haines vinyl because he felt she was neglected and nothing was available of her on CD — a labor of love,” Brennan said. “He probably broke even at best but that wasn’t the point. He just wanted to preserve a mostly forgotten artist.”
In addition to his private music collection, Oates took his love for music into the public. Brennan said Oates had “hundreds” of friends at various bars who would remember him for his “shows.”
“Any piano bar in town, John would be there,” Brennan said. “John knew the lyrics to every popular song from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. He knew popular music up until the day he died — all of the showtunes. He had a deep, booming voice and he was not the best singer in the world but he was certainly the most enthusiastic and passionate singer you could ever meet.”
Oates would also interact with the audience during these performances.
“He would literally [stand up] and say, ‘What song do you want to hear?’ And he would sing it out loud, every lyric. He would even go up to the person who [requested the song], kneel down in front of them and sing right to them.”
Oates’ appetite for music brought him to thrift stores, which ultimately inspired Brennan’s love for second-hand shops. Brennan went on to cofound and manage Philly AIDS Thrift.
“This store wouldn’t exist without John, or at least I wouldn’t have been part of it,” Brennan said. “He had that influence on me.”
Brennan also noted that one of the shop’s rooms, the John Calvin Oates Music and Movies Room, was named after his late partner in honor of his love for thrift stores and popular culture.
“John was definitely larger than life,” Brennan said.
In addition to Brennan, Oates is survived by hundreds of friends.
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