The Oak Ridge Boys on half a century of success, ‘Elvira’ and more

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.

The Oak Ridge Boys perform during this year's annual Christmas lighting ceremony. "So.  Much.  Christmas." at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center on November 13, 2020.

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.

Oak Ridge Boys members Duane Allen, left, Joe Bonsall, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban, right, along with host Ronnie Milsap, second from right, are celebrating their single of the year award for "Elvira" during the nationally televised 15th annual CMA Awards from the Grand Ole Opry House on October 12, 1981.

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.

The Oak Ridge Boys, reunited on the stage of the Polk Theater at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center on April 23, 1981, announce that they will give a benefit performance at Jackson Hall on June 2 to help the center.  Duane Allen, William Lee Golden, Jon Bonsall and Richard Sterban, who pledged to defray costs and donate all proceeds to help reduce the center's debt.

“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”.

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