Oak Ridge Boys bring the gospel of country to State Theatre
When the Oak Ridge Boys got back together, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
“We sat down face-to-face and did it individually and we decided as a first step, let’s renew our friendship, And we did,” says Richard Sterban, The Oaks’ bass singer.
“We asked each other for forgiveness. And we did. We got together and sang one day and I’ll tell you, there was not a dry eye among the four of us.”
The Oak Ridge Boys, with one of the most distinctive and recognizable sounds in music, performs at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 8, State Theatre for the Arts, Easton.
“We realized this was the way The Oak Ridge Boys was supposed to be,” Sterban continues in a recent phone interview. “This is the what the good Lord intended. There is something special about our foursome.”
The quartet, including Sterban, bass; Joe Bonsall, tenor; William Lee Golden, baritone, and Duane Allen, lead vocals, harmonizes upbeat songs that have spawned dozens of country and gospel hits that resulted in Grammy, Dove, and Academy of Country Music awards. In 2008, the group was awarded the Academy of Country Music Pioneer Award.
The group has had 12 gold, three platinum and one double platinum album as well as one double platinum album, with more than 30 Top 10 hits, including the country and pop charts topper, “Elvira,” as well as “Bobbie Sue,” “Dream On,” “Thank God For Kids,” “American Made,” “I Guess It Never Hurts To Hurt Someone,” “Fancy Free,” and “Gonna Take A Lot Of River.”
When the Oaks perform before an audience, they bring four decades of charted singles and 50 years of tradition to a show widely acknowledged as one of the most exciting anywhere.
In early 2014, 41 years after first appearing on stage, they celebrated selling 41 million RIAA certified records by signing a new record deal with Los Angeles based Cleopatra Records. The group’s first release on Cleopatra, “Boys Night Out,” its first live CD, has 14 songs, including “Elvira” and most of their biggest hits.
The Oaks, one of the longest-running groups in country music, was first nationally-known as a gospel quartet. Their existence dates back to World War II, circa 1942, when Wally Fowler, “Mr. Gospel Music,” changed the name of the Georgia Clodhoppers to the Oak Ridge Quartet. The group was named after Oak Ridge, home of the atomic bomb research facility.
The group appeared at the Grand Ole Opry in 1945.
In 1957, Fowler sold the rights to the Oak Ridge Quartet name and in 1962 the group began experimenting with calling themselves the Oak Ridge Boys. In 1966, William Lee Golden joined the group. The following year came Duane Allen. In 1972, Richard Sterban joined and, the following year, Joe Bensall completed the lineup. After moving into country, the group’s sound remains deeply rooted in gospel music.
“We were all raised in church,” says Sterban. “The first singing we all did was in Sunday school. We all became fans of the gospel quartets. It was a natural thing.
“We each bring something very different to the table. We have learned over the years to respect that difference and have become the very best of friends. We all realized a long time ago that we need each other and we pull together as a team, a true brotherhood. It’s why we’ve been able to experience longevity.”
In 1987, the band had a personnel change when guitarist, Steve Sanders, replaced William Lee as baritone. In late 1995, Sanders resigned and Lee rejoined the group, bringing them back to the original four.
“We had our differences with Lee [Golden], but we got together after several years and got to thinking: Is there a way to get this back together? And we couldn’t even remember what upset us so much.”
Elvis and Cash
Sterban got his start in the music business with none other than the King of Rock himself, Elvis Presley.
“There are two people in my life that I met, Elvis and Johnny Cash, who, when they walked into the room, you could feel them walk into the room. They had such charisma and magnetism.”
Prior to The Oak Ridge Boys, Sterban sang backup for Presley in the early 1970s and was in the J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet. He sang with Presley every night on stage, recorded with him and appeared in one of his movies, “Elvis on Tour.” In 1972, The Oak Ridge Boys asked Sterban to join their band as their bass singer and Sterban jumped at the opportunity.
Sterban treasured the time he spent with Presley, recounted in “From Elvis to Elvira: My Life On Stage,” co-written by Steven Robinson.
“It was very exciting to be a part of Elvis’s group and entourage. He was the biggest star out there. Standing on the stage as a young man in my 20s, I had no idea that one day I would be in the Country Music Hall of Fame with Elvis. That’s pretty special.
“I am so glad that I had the privilege to work with Elvis, but there would not be The Oak Ridge Boys if it were not for Johnny Cash. We were a struggling act and he made us a part of his tour. He paid us more money than we were worth and he tipped us, always more than the agreed amount.
“He helped us financially, but much more important were his words of encouragement. One time in Las Vegas, he could tell that we were discouraged. We were booked with Johnny Cash, but we had no other bookings after that show.
“He called us and told us to come up to his room. He said, ‘I can tell you fellas are discouraged. Your heads are hanging. I can tell you are looking to call it quits. But I can tell there is something very special about the four of you.’
“‘If you quit now, no one else will know how special you are. I promise you, if you stay together good things are going to happen to you. Stay together and you’re going to realize your dreams.’
“Our heads, instead of hanging, rose high, and we said, ‘If Johnny Cash thinks we can make, then we can.’ Shortly after, good things came to us. Our manager, Jim Halsey, who is still our manager today, got us there.”
The Oak Ridge Boys have appeared before five presidents, many times on late-night television’s “The Tonight Show,” and performs some 150 dates each year at theater, fairs and festivals across the United States and Canada.
Halls of fame
In 2015, the Oaks were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn., by Kenny Rogers. They were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Grand Ole Opry in 2011. They are one of six acts that have been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, joining Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton.
“We have had a long, long successful career and have done many great things. We have seen a lot of awards, but we were inducted a few years ago and that stands out. Being a member of the Grand Ole Opry is very, very, special. There is no doubt about it. It’s a very special place.
“Coming at the top of the list, though, would be the induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. That definitely stands out. It happened two years ago and we all have a difficult time using the right words to describe how special is it and what a tremendous honor it is.
“We look at the people who are enshrined there and we go there and look at all the faces there that are in bronze, including ours. It’s so special to be a part of that family. It’s a life-long dream come true. By far, it is the greatest thing that ever happened to us. The Gospel Hall of Fame, too.”
The Oak Ridge Boys are involved in many charities, civic causes and are tireless advocates for the Boy Scouts of America, the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse (Prevent Child Abuse America), Feed the Children, and the National Anthem Project.
“We were all taught right from wrong and all learned from our parents. We learned the right way to live and were able to carry that into our adult lives.
“We discovered a long time ago that when you are successful in life there is a responsibility you have. When you are blessed with a lot of good in life it is important and necessary to share with those that are less fortunate than you.
“The more you do that the more it returns to you. We learned at an early age that you are supposed to do the right thing, which is another reason we have been able to have a long and successful career. We have conducted our business in a very ethical way and when you abide the law and do things right way it is returned to you.”
The Oak Ridge Boys high-energy stage show remains the heart and soul of what they do best. The State Theatre concert will feature gospel, country and patriotic music.
“Every night that we are on the road we look forward to taking our music live to our fans. We do not plan on retiring any time soon because we truly love doing this and believe it or not we are still having fun. We are looking forward to coming your way.
“We have a gospel music background and we are very patriotic guys so we are going to do songs that honor our country and our veterans. It’s kid-friendly, so we encourage families to come out and spend some time with The Oak Ridge Boys.
Then, Sterban adds, “There is a new exciting project coming out in 2018, but I can’t go into details. It’s a surprise.”
Tickets: State Theatre Box Office, 453 Northampton St., Easton; statetheatre.org, 1-800-999-STATE, 610-252-3132