The Oak Ridge Boys might be the most widely known group in country music history.
Everyone (regardless of their feelings about country music) knows the band’s hit “Elvira” and everyone recognizes singer William Lee Golden on sight, even if they can’t name him.
Golden is the one with that long, white, Gandalfesque hair.
You might think that there’s nothing you could learn about the Oak Ridge Boys that could surprise you at this point.
How about this? The Oak Ridge Boys are one of the oldest still-extant American music groups.
Connected to the Atom Bomb
The group formed in 1943 and initially went by the name the Georgia Clodhoppers.
Richard Sterban, member of the group since 1972, recalled a magazine list of oldest bands still in existence and the Oak Ridge Boys came in second behind the Blind Boys of Alabama, which formed in 1939.
Another possibly astonishing fact is that the group owes its name change to the Manhattan Project.
“They would go to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and they would entertain the people there who were working on the development of the atomic bomb,” Sterban said in a phone interview. “They could not leave for security reasons. The Georgia Clodhoppers had security clearance so they could go in and entertain these people.”
As a result of their frequent travels to Oak Ridge, Sterban said, the band became known as the Oak Ridge Quartet and then the Oak Ridge Boys.
Eight Christmas Albums
One thing that probably won’t surprise you about the Oak Ridge Boys is that they perform a lot of Christmas music.
They will perform some of it at the Honeywell Center in Wabash on Dec. 14.
The band has released eight Christmas albums, Sterban said, and has been doing Christmastime tours for 30 years.
The latest Christmas-themed release, Down Home Christmas, is something of a departure. Hot Nashville producer Dave Cobb commissioned a handful of Nashville songwriters to craft new Christmas songs for the Oak Ridge Boys.
“So while there are a few traditional things on this project,” Sterban said, “a lot of it is brand-new Christmas music.”
To most people alive today, the Oak Ridge Boys are a country band.
But if you fell in love with the band during the first three decades of its existence, you knew the Oak Ridge Boys as a gospel group.
In the early 1970s, Sterban was touring as a backup singer to Elvis Presley.
He was a fan of the gospel iteration of the Oak Ridge Boys and when a bass singing opportunity with the band opened up, he had a decision to make.
“I was singing with Elvis, apparently on top of the world,” he said. “Elvis was the biggest star in the world at the time. His tour was the biggest tour in the music business.”
Against the advice of almost everyone in his life, Sterban decided to leave the famous Presley and join the relatively obscure Oak Ridge Boys.
The reason he made the change had something to do with Elvis being the biggest star in the world at the time. He cast a large and long shadow.
Sterban wanted to climb out from under it.
“I felt like the Oak Ridge Boys had a great deal of potential and I wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “I really believed in my heart I was doing the right thing. And now, 50 years later, I can look back and say, ‘I think I made the right decision.’”
Success did not come right away. Flirtations with country music infuriated the band’s gospel base.
An appearance on the Paul Simon hit “Slip Slidin’ Away” did nothing to help things, especially since Simon didn’t give the band any credit.
The Oak Ridge Boys left Columbia for ABC Records and the band recorded its first full-fledged county album.
The hits started coming right away. A cover of Dallas Frazier’s “Elvira” was the band’s first crossover hit in 1981.
“I remember Ron Chancey, who was our producer in those days. I remember sitting in his office listening to songs for our upcoming project and he played us Dallas Frazier’s version of that song,” Sterban recalled. “We all looked at each other and said, ‘Wow. This is the song we’ve been looking for.’”
Sterban borrowed the “Giddy up oom-papa oom-papa mow-mow” from Frazier’s version although Frazier sang it in the alto range.
Kudos to the manager
The band has weathered a lot of changes in country music and the music business since then. Sterban gives all the credit for the band’s enduring popularity to its longtime manager Jim Halsey.
Hasley, 89, has managed the Oak Ridge Boys for 50 years.
“He’s guided our steps along the way,” Sterban said. “He always put us with the right people.”
People like Chancey and Cobb, he said.
Despite the band’s association with some hot, young talents, no one in the Oak Ridge Boys resents being identified with Christmas music, Sterban insisted.
“We do not get sick of it,” he said. “We love it. It’s become the biggest part of our year. It’s in such demand…it’s not even Thanksgiving yet (at the time of the interview) and we’ve already done 12 Christmas shows.”
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