January 23, 2020
BY TOM NETHERLAND | SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER
Country’s Oak Ridge Boys own a history as deep as Richard Sterban’s bass voice.
The Oaks began as The Georgia Clodhoppers, became gospel’s Oak Ridge Quartet in the 1940s and eventually country’s Oak Ridge Boys — members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Long legendary in the worlds of country and gospel music, The Oak Ridge Boys encamp for two nights at the stellar Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee. Their name emblazoned on the Paramount’s dazzling marquee, the Oaks appear tonight and Friday.
“I don’t know if we have ever played in Bristol,” said Sterban, The Oak Ridge Boys’ longtime bass singer, “but this will be our first time in the Paramount.”
Established during World War II, The Oak Ridge Quartet quickly gravitated to the top of America’s gospel music mountain.
“They became regulars on the Friday Night Opry show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville,” Sterban said by phone from his home near Nashville. “In the 1950s, they disbanded. They reformed in the 1960s as The Oak Ridge Boys.”
William Lee Golden, the popular prodigious-bearded baritone, joined The Oaks in 1965.
“Out of all four of us, there’s no one who can interpret a song and communicate that song to an audience like William Lee can,” Sterban said. “When he sings ‘Thank God for Kids,’ you can look into our audience. It touches people. They have tears in their eyes. He’s a master at that.”
Duane Allen, who sings lead on most of their hits, joined in 1966.
“Mister Calm,” Sterban said. “Probably one of the best singers you’ll hear anywhere. He’s got that smooth voice that we’re built around. We depend on his voice.”
Tenor Joe Bonsall completed the current lineup in 1973.
“Mister Energy,” Sterban said. “He’s the spark. I don’t think we’d be The Oak Ridge Boys without him.”
Sterban, who sang with Elvis Presley as a member of J.D. Sumner & The Stamps, came aboard in 1972. As The Oak Ridge Boys’ bass singer, he provides a foundation for the harmonies-driven vocal group.
“We are noted for our four-part harmony,” Sterban said. “To be that, you have to have that low part, that low voice. I don’t sing a lot of the lead vocals, but that’s not my role.”
The Oak Ridge Boys earned their first four of five Grammys as a gospel group. With 1977’s LP and single, “Y’all Come Back Saloon,” the quartet switched to country music.
Faster than a Charlie Daniels fiddle break, hits flowed from The Oak Ridge Boys. No. 1 singles included 1978’s ballad “I’ll be True to You” and the Cajun-injected “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.”
Then came a gal named “Elvira.” Dallas Frazier wrote it in the1960s as inspired by… a road in East Nashville, Tennessee, named Elvira Avenue.
“There were chug holes on Elvira Avenue, which is where Dallas got the ‘Oom poppa oom poppa mow mow’ from. He wrote that first,” Sterban said. “He wrote the rest when he got home, wrote it about a woman. But not a lot of people know that story, that ‘Elvira’ was based on a street in East Nashville.”
Released in 1981, “Elvira” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s country singles chart, crossed over to hit No. 5 on Billboard’s pop chart and nabbed The Oaks their fifth Grammy.
As if astride a Chuck Yeager speed-of-sound flight, The Oak Ridge Boys’ career soared thereafter.
“No doubt about that,” Sterban said. “We quickly became a household name. It bought all four of us new houses. It’s like Charley Pride’s ‘Kiss An Angel Good Mornin.” It’s our signature song. When I sing that line, ‘oom poppa oom poppa mow mow,’ people go crazy.”
Yet take note. As evidenced by their recent Dave Cobb-produced albums including 2017’s “17th Avenue Revival” and December’s “Down Home Christmas,” The Oak Ridge Boys are not a group of relics. Their voices, solid as in ’77. Their new albums, captivating as 40 years ago.
“Thank you very much,” Sterban said. “We are going back into the studio this year. Dave Cobb has agreed to work with us again. He calls us his crazy uncles.”
Crazy uncles or not, The Oak Ridge Boys earned their legendary status. And yet they sing as if hungry, perform like there’s no tomorrow and act as in days of youth.
“We do not plan to retire anytime soon,” Sterban said. “We’re not on cruise control.”