A chat with the Oak Ridge Boy with the distinctive bass voice
When young people ask Richard Sterban of the Oak Ridge Boys for advice about breaking into the music industry, he reaches into his memory to recall the first time he performed solo. Although he was only six years old, Sterban remembers nervously standing in front of his church’s congregation when he received a calling.
“Something came over me that day that this was what I should do with my life,” Sterban said during a telephone interview this week.
The Oak Ridge Boys will be in concert on Friday, Sept. 24, 8:30 p.m. at the Ameristar Casino and Hotel in the Northland. Tickets are available at ticketmaster.com.
Since the day he was called, Sterban said, he has used every opportunity to refine his craft and he tells those he’s mentoring to do the same.
“Decide what your calling is in life and what you’re good at and work hard toward that goal,” he said he tells them. If that calling is entertainment, “perform every chance you get,” he said. “You never know who’s going to be listening.”
The 78-year-old said he has lived according to his own advice. He graduated from church performances to singing in the middle school choir. The summer between his seventh and eighth grade year left him with a change so drastic that it later would define his distinctive sound–he transformed from a soprano to his booming bass. That sound is what he’s known for today.
His notable voice is the one you hear in the group’s hit song Elvira, singing the line “oom poppa, omm poppa, mow mow.”
That distinctive deep voice is what led Sterban to the biggest break of his career. He was performing with Elvis Presley, in his back-up group, enjoying the chance to work with the most important performer of the day, when a call from William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys further propelled his career to its pinnacle-he was invited to sing bass after the member who had performed that role left the group.
Although some doubted his decision to leave performing with Presley, he accepted the offer and has never doubted his 1972 decision. He has spent the past half-century harmonizing with the same three members-Golden (baritone), Joe Bonsall (tenor) and Duane Allen (lead).
Sterban quickly credits their distinctive style to the group’s predecessors-in-harmony, the Statler Brothers, who popularized the sound before retiring in 2002. The Oak Ridge Boys are truly a cross-over group, and have been described as country, gospel and pop and have led the way for those with a similar sound, such as Alabama and Rascal Flats, Sterban said.
While many successful musical groups are fraught with in-fighting, the Oak Ridge Boys have mostly avoided such conflict, Sterban said.
“Singing in harmony is one thing, but living in harmony is more important,” he said and added, “Don’t get me wrong. We’ve had our difficulties,” but maturity that comes with age has taught the men that we’re “too old to let little things bother us.”
The group is lucky, said the father who has five children with his wife, Donna (as well as grandchildren and great grandchildren), to be produced by Dave Cobb, who is a “master” at conceptualizing themes and how the group speaks to their fans’ struggles. For instance, the group’s latest release, “Front Porch Singin’,” is meant to depict a down-home, earthy approach to four guys casually harmonizing while sitting in rocking chairs, as they appear on the album’s cover.
Cobb is well-known in Nashville, where the group is based, and uses the iconic RCA recording studio when working with The Oak Ridge Boys and other groups he produces. The pandemic production is just what the country needs to help inspire positive healing and comfort. He said the album provides “a nice mix of old and new songs” and is meant to be therapeutic for those who may be dealing with tough times.
The quartet continues to perform the iconic “Elvira,” which they first sang in 1981 and reached number five on the pop charts while their most requested song is the tear-jerker “Thank God for Kids.”
The Oak Ridge Boys’ “fan mail,” which now takes a more social media platform, also proves the group is addressing its audience.
“We are older now,” Sterban said, and more likely to be dealing with new challenges, such as the loss of loved ones. That leaves audiences needing the comfort and healing offered by spirituals, such as “Amazing Grace,” a gospel standard the boys are known for harmonizing.
The group performed at the White House several times for several different administrations, but especially were close to Barbara and George H.W. Bush. The group and their families joined the Bushes at the president’s summer home in Maine. In what was one of his career highlights, Sterban said the group performed ” Amazing Grace” at the former president’s funeral, as Bush earlier had requested.
Other career highlights include the group’s recording of “Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup,” in 1973, with Johnny Cash and the Carter family, their induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame and awards from the Academy of Country Music and Grammys.
Sterban addressed the inevitable question of the future.
“We don’t plan to retire anytime soon,” he said, although, realistically, they know “it cannot last forever.” He said, “As long as the good Lord above keeps blessing us, we’re going to keep doing what we love.”