The Hippo


May 27, 2020








Oak Ridge Boys. Courtesy photo.

Oak Ridge Boys Celebration Tour                                         

When: Saturday, May 20, 8 p.m.
Where: New Tupelo Music Hall, 10 A Street, Derry
Tickets: $55-$65 at

American band
Oak Ridge Boys celebrate 50 years together at Tupelo show

By Michael Witthaus

 Waves of red, white and blue emanate from the phone as Richard Sterban describes what fans can expect when the Oak Ridge Boys take the stage at New Tupelo Music Hall.

“The hits — ‘Elvira’ of course — and we’ll do a little gospel,” he said. “We’re patriotic guys, so we will do a few songs to honor the country that’s so important to us. … Most of all, it’s good  country music; family entertainment, for Grandma and Grandpa all the way down to young kids.” 
Sterban is the group’s bass vocalist — the “oom papa mow mow” chorus on “Elvira” is his — and from an early age, he wanted nothing more than to sing low. Prior to joining the Oak Ridge Boys, he toured the Northeast gospel circuit, then joined JD Sumner & the Stamps. The vocal group backed Elvis Presley on tour, and contributed to the sessions for the King’s last hit  single, “Burning Love.” 
Presley’s approach in the studio was unique. 
“Elvis really did not know what he was going to record — an A&R man played him song after song, most of which he did not like,” Sterban said. “After what seemed like an eternity, he played ‘Burning Love’ and wow! All of a sudden Elvis said, ‘That’s it!’ — and he wanted to record that song.” 
Sterban said the process “went down very, very easy,” though Presley was an “engineer’s nightmare. … He recorded like no one else I have ever seen; no isolation booth for him, no locked up in a little cubicle. He used a handheld microphone and walked around the studio. ... He recorded like he sang live on stage and that’s how it came up on the record.”
Sterban joined the Oak Ridge Boys in 1972, at a time when they were transitioning from gospel to country music, often to their fans’ consternation; mass walkouts during shows were common. It was a challenging time, and Sterban said Johnny Cash was a big reason the group carried on.  Cash helped out financially, inviting the Oaks on tour, and often overpaying them; but Cash’s moral support meant more.
One night after a show in Las Vegas. Cash summoned them to his hotel suite. 
“He told us, ‘This is going to be something, and I will support you, but you gotta believe in yourselves … give up, and you will never realize your dreams,’” Sterban said. “We walked out of that room with our heads held high. Johnny Cash thinks we’re going to make it, so we are going to make it. Sure enough, we found a way to do what he said [and] stay together.”
In short order, they found a business leader, Jim Halsey, who is still their manager, and producer Ron Chancey, so integral to their success that he’s referred to as “the fifth Oak Ridge Boy.”  Chancey found their first hit, “Y’all Come Back Saloon.” and later heard a Texas honky-tonk band playing what would become their signature song, 
“Elvira” was recorded by several artists, but the Dallas Frazier-written song didn’t break through until the Oaks turned into what Sterban called “one of the largest-selling singles ever recorded in Nashville.” This happened due to Chancey’s special touches, like having Sterban’s bass refrain more out front than on Frazier’s original and an earlier Kenny Rogers version.
In the studio, it felt like the smash that manager Halsey would go on about in pep talks. 
“He’d always tell us, you’re three minutes away from being a major act; by that he meant a hit single,” Sterban said. “We felt like we had something special in our hands, and we did, but didn’t realize how special until the first time we performed the song in person.”
During a tour stop in Spokane, Washington, they dropped it into the middle of a set. 
“The place went crazy; they wouldn’t have been happier if we gave them a million dollars,” Sterban said.  
They played the song over and over; each time,  the crowd begged to hear it again.  
“We called the record label and told them, we gotta get this thing out, and we did. To this very day ... you can count on the fact when we come to town, we are going to do ‘Elvira’ — it is the law. Even in church, we’ve done it.” 

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