The Oak Ridge Boys
'(Still) American Made'
The Oak Ridge Boys are an American country and gospel vocal quartet.
The group was founded in the 1940s as the Oak Ridge Quartet. They became popular in southern gospel during the 1950s. Their name was officially changed to the Oak Ridge Boys in the early 1960s, and they remained a gospel-oriented group until the mid-1970s, when they changed their image and concentrated on country music.
The lineup which produced their most well-known country and crossover hits (such as "Elvira", "Bobbie Sue", and "American Made") consists of Duane Allen (lead), Joe Bonsall (tenor), William Lee Golden (baritone), and Richard Sterban (bass). Golden and Allen joined the group in the mid-1960s, and Sterban and Bonsall joined in the early 1970s. Aside from a seven-year gap (1987–1995) when Golden left the group and was replaced, this lineup has been together since 1973.
Continuing to tour and record through to this very day, the band has even just released a 40th Anniversary CD and a brand new Christmas CD (Christmas Time's A-Coming). And they have also hit the road for the 24th year in a row to showcase their incredible Christmas Tour.
Chatting recently with Richard Sterban in his hotel room at the La Quinta Inn, Branson, Missouri, and having started their Christmas tour a few days before in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, I first wondered if over the 24 years on road with their Christmas Tour if there had been times when just sitting at home over the holiday period had sounded less stressful?! “Well, I think over the years we have become known for our Christmas music. And we have now recorded six Christmas CDs. The latest one was last year, Christmas Time’s A-Coming. Which, by the way, and not to sound overly commercial, but that CD is available at Cracker Barrel restaurants. We have a great relationship with Cracker Barrel. They are not only an excellent restaurant but they are very involved in the music industry and they make music a big part of what they do. Especially country music. So they’ve been very good to the Oak Ridge Boys. We’ve had a couple of CDs in with them now and they’ve done very, very well. Cracker Barrel has this way of moving a lot of product so it’s been a very good relationship."
And you have just released a new Christmas CD “Yeah, it’s our latest album, it’s called Christmas Time’s A Comin’ and this Christmas tour is kinda based on that CD. We perform music from our other CDs, but we primarily feature the music from the latest CD, Christmas Time’s A Comin.’ It really is a great show. We all love Christmas music. Christmas music is very special to all four of us. And this really is a great show. It’s actually two shows almost for the price of one. Because what we do is we come out in the very beginning and for about 45 minutes we do our regular music. We do what we have done for the course of the rest of the year. We do our hits, like ‘Elvira,’ of course. A lot of people always ask, ‘If it’s a Christmas show are we still gonna hear ‘Elvira’?’ Well, the answer to that is yes, you will hear ‘Elvira.’ And you’ll hear a lot more of our hit songs, like ‘Thank God For Kids,’ for example. We’ve spent a lot of time in the studio over the recent years recording new music and reinventing ourselves a little bit so we may include a new song or two.”
“And so after 45 minutes of that we take an intermission and then we come back and do a complete Christmas show. And we cover just about every aspect of Christmas, just like our CD there’s a nice balance, a nice mixture of traditional familiar Christmas songs, circular Christmas songs , contemporary Christmas songs that tell the story, and we also do some sacred Christmas songs as well. Which, again, is something that’s very important to us. We cover the romantic side of Christmas, the fun side of Christmas, and we have a great Santa segment! Santa Claus comes out on stage for three or four songs and so we have a lot of fun with him. He actually goes out into the audience and interacts with the kids. So it’s a lot of fun.”
“And then we have a segment that we just started a couple of years ago called our Rocking Chair Segment. Cracker Barrel has provided us with four Cracker Barrel rocking chairs. And what we do is we set the four rocking chairs up in front of the fireplace built into our Christmas set and the four Oak Ridge Boys talk about childhood and Christmas memories. We talk about what Christmas means to us individually, why we love singing Christmas music and it’s a great segment which allows the audience to a get to know the four Oak Ridge Boys just a little bit better.”
“And then we use that rocking chair segment to segue way into the final section of the show which is the sacred part. We sing songs that have been very important to us through the years. So we like to sing about what we consider to be the real true meaning of Christmas. It’s important to us and we know it’s important to most our fans as well. So we end our Christmas show on a very inspirational note. So, the whole thing, which goes back to the very beginning, starts off with our hits and then after intermission just about every aspect of Christmas is covered. A total package. It’s a really great family show. There’s something for every member of the family. The show is kids-friendly. It’s just a great way for families to spend some time around Christmas time.”
Is it true that you were in Elvis Presley’s backing band when he filmed and recorded his infamous Live In Madison Square Garden album in 1972?! “Yes, you’re right. I was performing with Elvis around two years prior to joining the Oak Ridge Boys. I sang in a band called JD Sumner & The Stamps Quartet and I did sing with Elvis. I sang with the King of Rock ‘N Roll. And it was a pretty amazing experience. I was a part of the biggest tour in the music business and it was very exciting. And yes, I am on that Live From Madison Square Garden album. If you really pay close attention with everything that is going on you can definitely hear me; because I’m on there for sure. Yeah, it was very exciting. Elvis introduced me personally so yes, it was all pretty exciting.”
Being that this is your 40th anniversary as a band, and with all original members also, what keeps you all going still today? “Well, that’s a good question and I think there are several answers to your question. There are several reasons as to why we are still around forty years later. I think foremost, the utmost reason is the fact that after forty years we still love doing what we do. We still genuinely look forward to getting on that stage every night and taking our music lives to our fans and to our audience. And it’s something that really hasn’t gotten old after forty years. We are actually, believe it or not, still having fun doing this and I think that’s important as well.”
“But there are other factors too. I think periodically we’ve been able to go into the recording studio and reinvent ourselves a little bit. I think that we’ve been able to record music that’s relevant to the current marketplace. And I think that has helped as well, this reinvention. I think it’s important that while we have reinvented ourselves we have not changed ourselves. And I think there is a difference there. We have traveled down some different roads musically, but we’re still the Oak Ridge Boys. We still tour, and we still have that solid four-part harmony that is characteristic of the Oak Ridge Boys. So, I think that’s a big factor the reinvention of ourselves. And, of course, the new music puts new life and new energy into the four of us. And it pits new life and new energy into the shows as well. But the most important thing is we love doing what we do. That’s the ultimate reason, there’s no question about that.”
So, being that there is nothing new on the brand new 40th Anniversary CD, what was the reasoning behind bringing out another hits album? “Well, I think we just wanted to release something for our 40th Anniversary. First of all, begin together for forty years is a BIG deal, I really think it is. I think it’s very special and in some ways it’s also very mind-boggling! So this whole year we’ve been celebrating our history and I think this CD does that. It’s a great example of some of our country hits and also some of our gospel music that we’ve done over the years. We’re very patriotic guys and so it’s a great example of some of the patriotic music that we love to do as well.”
“So I think that it’s a great compilation of what we have done over the years, but it is mainly designed to celebrate our forty years of being in the music business. There’s nothing new on this CD, as you say, so it’s just a celebration of our history, basically. And I think it’s very important that we celebrate that, I really do.”
And you also have a new book out, yes? “Well yes, and you know, I’m very fortunate with everything that I’ve done. It’s called ‘Elvis to Elvira’ and I think it’s a very cool title,” he gently laughs. “It tells my story and there’s great Elvis stories in my book too. But one of the things that I talk about in the book which is so important is the fact that I made a major, major decision in my life. I got a call one day from Liam Legoman from the Oak Ridge Boys offering me a job. He said their bass singer was leaving and even though I was singing with Elvis he wanted to know if I would be interested in taking the job. And I jumped at the chance, I really did. I was a big fan of the Oak Ridge Boys well before I joined the group and really wanted to be part of it.”
“And a lot of people questioned my move at the time, asking how I could dare leave Elvis? How could you leave the King of Rock ‘N Roll? But I think history has dictated that I actually made a pretty smart decision. Because I was singing with the King of Rock ‘N Roll one minute, but then I went on to bigger and better things with the Oak Ridge Boys. And we’ve had a wonderful career here 40 years later. We’re still going strong. And I want to quickly point out that this may well be out 40th anniversary tour but it is by no means our farewell tour. We do not plan to retire. As long as the good Lord above keeps blessing us with good health we’re gonna keep doing this. We really love what we do, we really do.”
OK, so what is next for the Oak Ridge Boys? “We’ve just finished working on a new project. One thing that we’ve never released in our career is a live album. And so we have just now finished work on a new release that will be coming out after the first of the year and it will be a live CD. And what we have done is we recorded several of our shows live. And then we listened to all of it and we then took the best songs from each show and put it all together and made one really good live show.”
“But then, after we did that there was even more of a process because we had to go into the recording studio and we had to tweak it a little. And when I say tweak it we had to fix any parts that needed to be fixed. If the guitar player, for example played a note that was not quite right we had to go in and fix it. If one of sang a note that was a little off we had to go in and fix that. So we spent a lot of time in the studio tweaking this, but we tried to find a happy medium, a balance between making sure we fixed everything but making sure we kept that live feeling. And I think it turned out really, really, really well.”
And what will it be called? “It’s called The Boys Night Out and it will be coming out after the first of the year. And it is our very first live album ever.”
Anything else? “Yes, one other thing we have coming up next year in February - the 22nd thru March 1st - we will be doing the second Oak Ridge Boys Rally At Sea. And basically what it is is a cruise. We did our first cruise ever this past year and it was such a huge success that we’re now going to do it again. We just did a four-day cruise this past year and it went so well this coming year we’ll be doing a seven-day cruise. We sail out of Miami and we stop in San Juan then we have another stop in St. Thomas. Then we have a day at sea and then we have another stop in St. Martin and after another day at sea we’re back to Miami.”
“So we spend seven day in the beautiful Caribbean and we interact with our fans and all the people that come along with us. It’s just been a great time. We do a lot of singing, we have question and answer periods were all four of the Oak Ridge Boys have a chance to talk and answer questions. Our backing band has a jam session one night. It’s just a lot of fun and we are stopping at some beautiful places. It’s going to be a great time so we’re all really looking forward to it.”
Back in 1977 you were a successful gospel band, but then decided to go country. What kind of a conversation was that between you all? “We were happy doing what we were doing. We were a very, very, very successful gospel group, but we just wanted to expand on our horizons. We wanted to increase our audience and reach more people with our music. And we felt that to be able to do that we had to make a few changes. And so we decided to go into country. We got together with a gentleman named Jim Halsey, who became our manager; and Jim is still our manager to this very day. And he helped lead and direct us and guide us through all those changes. And he also signed us up to our first recording contract with ABC Records; which later became MCA Records. We then acquired the services of a gentleman named Ron Chancey and he became our producer. And Ron started to find great hit songs for us and soon we started to have number one country records. And it changed our career. We still enjoy singing gospel music, one of our latest CDs is a gospel project, so we still enjoy dong that. But we’ve been able to increase our horizons so much more.”
On a personal note, I see you are a huge fan of baseball “You are absolutely correct, I am a huge baseball fan, yes. I love baseball at every level, I really do. We have Vanderbilt University in Nashville and the Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin and I have become very good friends. And I’ve actually sat in with the broadcaster and do some co-commentary because I love it so much. And also for 30 years I was part owner of a minor league team that we have in Nashville, called the Nashville Sounds. So I’d go to batting practice, hang out with the coaches and it is something that I still very much enjoy. And, of course, I love MLB too. I just love baseball at every level, I really do.”
Is there something about the ORB as a whole you can reveal for the first time here today, perhaps? “Well, I don’t know if I can reveal anything for the first time, something that I’ve never talked about. But I think the most important thing that people may not realize is that we are the best of friends. Over 40 years we have developed a friendship that is second to none. We’re actually closer to each other than we are to some of our family,” he laughs. “Because we spend a lot more time around each other than we do a lot of members of our family. So the friendship we have between the four of us is second to none. Nd along with that friendship we have also developed a respect for each other. And I think that’s very important. We respect each other as men, as talents and I think we all realized a long time ago that we need each other. And that we are a true team. And that’s why we’re still around after 40 years because it takes team work to do what we’ve done over the course of our career.”
Finally, we here at Exclusive Magazine love penguins - do you have any love for them also, perhaps? “Now you’re asking me a difficult question,” he laughs, “because as much as I don’t dislike penguins in any way I’ve just never been especially fond of them! I’ve been to the Zoo and I’ve seen penguins there, but I don’t really know that much about them, to be very, very, very honest with you. You can probably tell that I’ve done a lot of interviews and so I can talk about a lot of things, but I’m a little bit lost for words here on this question,” he again laughs.
Well, if you did have a penguin as a pet what would you name it? “Oh, how about Barney … Barney the Penguin? And that just came into my because it just does not sound like a name that you would use for a penguin, but I would call my penguin Barney,” he chuckles.
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
Christmas Time's A-Coming CD Purchase Link
40th Anniversary CD Purchase Link
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The Oak Ridge Boys Christmas Time’s-A-Comin’ Tour Dates:
11/5-7 – Branson, Mo.
11/12-14 – Branson, Mo.
11/16 – Wisconsin Dells, Wis.
11/19-21 – Branson, Mo.
11/25 – Portsmouth, Ohio
11/29 – Sioux Falls, S.D.
11/30 – Des Moines, Iowa
12/1 – Cheyenne, Wyo.
12/2 – Salt Lake City, Utah
123 – Cedar City, Utah
12/5 – Billings, Mont.
12/6 – Boise, Idaho
12/7 – Kennewick, Wash.
12/8 – Lewiston, Idaho
12/9 – Spokane, Wash.
12/10 – Eugene, Ore.
12/11 – Redding, Calif.
12/12 – Yountville, Calif.
12/13 – Northridge, Calif.
12/14 – Coachella, Calif.
12/15 – Tucson, Ariz.
12/16 – Amarillo, Texas
12/17 – Topeka, Kan.
12/18 – Cedar Rapids, Iowa
12/19 – Wabash, Ind.
12/20 – Akron, Ohio
12/21 – Toledo, Ohio
12/22 – Green Bay, Wisc.