Outside of the Carter family members still releasing music, there may not be a more remarkable country music legacy than that of the Oak Ridge Boys. The vocal quartet’s roots go back to recording gospel music in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in 1945.
2023 will find the current iteration of the group – Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban – celebrating more than four decades together. Gathering at the Grand Ole Opry to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Joe Bonsall and Richard Sterban’s time with the act, the foursome enthusiastically discussed their pivotal relationship with country music and the value of its legacy.
The foursome will also perform next month at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center for their annual “Christmas in Tennessee” dinner show. Tickets to see the Grammy and Country Music Hall of Fame-winning Opry members’ 120-minute family concert from November 23 to December 1. 25 are $49.99-$94.99 and are available through the Gaylord Opryland website at www.tickets.gaylordopryland.com.
Bonsall quickly offers The Tennessean that it is the magic of harmonies that defines the “musical brotherhood” from gospel to country to rock made up of two Northerners (Bonsall’s of Philadelphia, Sterban of Camden, NJ) and two Southerners (Allen of Taylor Town, Texas, Golden with roots in Brewton, Alabama).
The Oaks’ unique ability to capitalize on the national to global boom at the intersection of gospel and rock and roll still unites them.
“When we get on that stage, regardless of our differences, the fact that we share the proud history of being an Oak Ridge boy is more important than anything else.”
The road to ‘Elvira’ and stardom
Her main crossover moment via the 1981 hit “Elvira” ties into a longer story about creating a look, sound and style with the widest possible appeal.
For 35 years, The Oak Ridge Boys achieved excellence as a Southern gospel quartet with soulful leanings. However, by the mid-1970s, the widespread popularity of country music allowed space for its top acts to invite the artists most familiar with the genre’s roots to the stages and to acclaim.
Around this time, The Oak Ridge Boys, dressed in suits by Hollywood fashion designer Harvey Krantz and prompted by then-pianist Garland Craft, began to place an emphasis on “entertainment” over preaching to create a cosmopolitan current ready for pop and GQ style. country act. Through this change, they were able to be favored as touring support for acts like Roy Clark and Kenny Rogers.
Before being recorded for the Oak Ridge Boys’ “Fancy Free” album, “Elvira” was a cleverly crafted country song with a long tradition.
In addition to being one of the most renowned country music songwriters in history, Dallas Frazier, born in Oklahoma and raised in Bakersfield, California, was the writer of the prototype Hollywood R&B-heavy bass-baritone pop hit Argyles released in 1957″ Alley Oops.” “A decade later, he resided in Nashville and wrote “Elvira,” which reached the bottom of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was covered in the 1970s by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition and Rodney Crowell.
Allen remembers hearing “Elvira” in 1966 when Frazier played it on Nashville’s WSM radio.
“I heard it once and never forgot it,” he says. “That’s when you know a song is a hit.”
Fifteen years later, while producing the song, MCA Records Nashville A&R Ron Chancey had an idea. He asked Oak Ridge Boys member Richard Sterban, who had previously sang bass on tour with Elvis Presley as a member of JD Sumner and The Stamps, to sing a part of the bass line as “oom papa oom papa oom papa mow mow”.
The reason speaks to the incredible staying power of the marketability of the act.
“We wanted ‘Elvira’ to be a summer record for families of four (two kids, a mom and a dad) on vacation in a car, listening to the radio,” says Allen. “Mom’s singing the verses, the kids are singing the ‘giddy up’ hook, and dad comes in with the ‘oom papa’ chorus. It’s the best planning we’ve ever done.”
For Sterban, the legacy of his iconic voice comes through when the Oak Ridge Boys perform live and sees a crowd full of men leaning in to their wives singing to them.
“Just a week ago, there was a guy in the front row saying ‘oom papa mow mow’ into his wife’s ear,” Bonsall quips.
Achieve and preserve the legacy of Oak Ridge Boys
In 2022, the Oak Ridge Boys are older and may not retain what many classic country fans remember of their performance from their peak stardom days. However, William Lee Golden still has his now-iconic, and also snow-white, beard that extends from his chin to his waist as he sits and talks to The Tennessean in Studio A at the Grand Ole Opry.
Golden describes being “clean” or maintaining a five o’clock shadow until the group’s streak of 14 Top 10 Billboard Country singles began with 1977’s “Y’all Come Back Saloon.” to achieve greater success. Golden decided to go camping with “some scruffier looking guys”, which precipitated him not cutting his beard. Months later, he began to look in the mirror and was “startled” by the man he saw looking back.
In that era, their GQ style with added country flair led to a solid touring schedule plus countless television appearances, including “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, plus specials with Jerry Lee Lewis, Loretta Lynn, Minnie Pearl and Rogers.
Allen adds that touring with Rogers while he was experiencing the height of his mainstream pop moment helped the Oak Ridge Boys ensure their continued success.
“Kenny didn’t just teach us about concerts. He taught us how and when to release records, how to work them on radio, how to work with the label to make the records work well, and when we needed to release records as well.” .”
In 1989, the Oak Ridge Boys released two Christmas albums simultaneously. They opened for Rogers at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles alongside a rising country star with a No. 1 single off his debut album: Garth Brooks.
The Oak Ridge Boys will speak to The Tennessean in 2022 as they prepare for their third consecutive Christmas residency at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center.
Three decades later, Rogers’ lessons continue to pay impressive dividends.
“From eight-track players to streaming, we’ve been passed down from generation to generation like an old T-shirt,” Bonsall quips. “Families who love country music, from grandparents to parents to children, everyone loves the Oak Ridge Boys.”
faith and the future
In 1978, at the “World’s Greatest Indoor Country Music Show,” broadcast on NBC from Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome, the Oak Ridge Boys appeared alongside Rogers, Pearl, Dottie West and many others.
They sang hits like “Y’All Come Back Saloon” along with traditional gospel music like Cleavant Derricks’ “Just A Little Talk With Jesus.”
“We were in front of a national audience and 60,000 people running all over the stage singing country music and then we put that big gospel finale on it. It was a feeling like no other I had felt up to that point.” Bonsall says.
Four decades later, Sterban notes that the Oaks’ gospel roots are beloved by its current producer, Dave Cobb. Familiar with his work with Chris Stapleton, the renowned bassist calls Cobb “the most popular producer in [Nashville].”
“We want you to open [the Oak Ridge Boys] even some of the [newer] he’s working on,” Sterban continues. “Dave tells us no every time because he says no one else who walks through the doors of RCA Studio A [the legendary space Cobb calls his production home] can do what you do with that gospel influence.”
When asked what allows the act to endure, Duane Allen offers a brief but comprehensive note.
“We’re artists first, with a rock and roll attitude and energy,” says Allen. “We allow our fans to be good people while having fun. People should feel better after seeing us than when they sat down at the beginning of our show. It’s about entertainment, God and feeling good.”