When your career spans as many decades as Oak Ridge Boys, you get to see a lot of history. When your career is as successful as Oak Ridge Boys, you get to see some of it up close and personal.
The four illustrious singers you know from all their hits are still touring and witnessing history.
They’ll be bringing their unique combination of legendary country harmony and traditional gospel to Honeywell Center in Wabash on Friday, Nov. 24, as part of their American Made Farewell Christmas Tour.
Look behind Iron Curtain
Oak Ridge Boys
7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 24
275 W. Market St., Fort Wayne
$29-$79 · (260) 563-1102
Richard Sterban is their virtuoso bass singer who delivers the familiar “oom papa” lyric in their signature song “Elvira.” He took a break from hanging out with Nashville, Tennessee, media to talk with Whatzup about the band’s history and farewell tour.
Oak Ridge Boys began as a gospel quartet performing for military families at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1943.
Following a few lineup changes, the best-known version is the current one of Sterban, Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall, and William Lee Golden. They transitioned into popular country music in 1973.
They were an immediate hit and soon had opportunities that many performers never dreamed. I asked Sterban about a groundbreaking tour to the former Soviet Union in 1976.
“This was all arranged by our manager Jim Halsey. He set up a cultural exchange trip to the Soviet Union for us and Roy Clark,” Sterban said. “Before we left, we met with the State Department for a briefing about what we could and couldn’t do.
“It was an amazing experience. We went to Latvia, Leningrad, and Moscow. We had a ‘tour guide’ with us all along that fed us a pretty steady diet of propaganda. But we got to see what life was like in a place that didn’t have the freedom we take for granted. It was a real eye-opener and a learning experience.
“I had never taken the time to register to vote before that trip. I did that the first thing when I got back, and I’ve never missed an election since. That trip made me a better American.”
Oak Ridge Boys continued to have great success, including a break into pop music with the 1981’s No. 1 song “Elvira.” That popularity brought them to the White House to play at a barbecue for President Ronald Reagan. It was there that the band began its long friendship with Reagan’s vice president, George H. W. Bush.
“We were doing a soundcheck when Vice President Bush came across the lawn and introduced himself,” Sterban said. “He told us he was a big fan but couldn’t make the concert that day. He asked us to play a few songs and we quickly realized from the song requests that he was familiar with our work and really was a fan. We played a few songs for him and gave him a little mini-concert.”
That meeting established a friendship that lasted throughout Bush’s life. Oak Ridge Boys played multiple times in Bush’s White House and did a regular private concert every summer at the Bush compound in Maine.
That friendship was enshrined when Oak Ridge Boys honored the former president’s request to sing his favorite song at his funeral.
“Every time we played for Bush, he asked us for his favorite song, ‘Amazing Grace,’ ” Sterban said. “Once he asked us if we would perform it at his funeral, and we agreed. When the time came, we were in Spokane (Washington) for a show. A friend arranged for a private jet, and we left for Houston right after the show. We sang ‘Amazing Grace,’ and it was a very emotional appearance.
“We didn’t want to disappoint our fans, so we headed back to Washington state right afterwards. We didn’t miss a show, and we kept our promise.”
Taking care of their fans is what this tour is all about.
They’re calling it the Farewell Tour, but they’re not retiring. They’re also not announcing the end of the tour, because they haven’t decided.
“We’re not retiring, but we’re definitely slowing down,” Sterban said. “We’ve had a great career and we wanted the chance to tour the country and thank all our fans who have supported us for so long. We’re touring with our Christmas show, which we’ve been known for lately.
“It’s a real family show. We’ll do some old songs, some new songs. We’ll sit in rocking chairs and tell stories. Yes, you will hear ‘American Made’ and you will hear ‘Elvira.’ We’re really excited about it.”
When asked about advice he had for young musicians, he responded with great advice for anyone, not just musicians.
“Make a decision as to your calling,” he said. “Ask yourself, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ Once you decide, you have to work at your craft. Become the best you possibly can.
“If you’re a musician, play music at every opportunity, whenever you can. It’s a very competitive business, and the percent that make it is very small compared to those who try. You never know when your break is going to come.
“In music as with any walk of life, there’s no substitute for hard work.”
After 50 years with Oak Ridge Boys, Sterban and his bandmates have seen some history, and they have put in the work. And they continue to follow Sterban’s advice — performing whenever they can.
Someday they won’t be able to, but for now they want their fans to hear “Elvira” one more time. They want their fans to hear them express their gratitude.
Seems like a pretty good farewell to a musical institution.