One On One Interview With Richard Sterban Of The Oak Ridge Boys

One On One Interview With Richard Sterban Of The Oak Ridge Boys

Richard Sterban has been a fixture in the Oak Ridge Boys for decades. As the wonderful, deep bass voice featured in iconic Oak Ridge Boys classics like, “Elvira,” he helps to round out their unique and trendsetting sound. Now a published author, in our interview with Richard Sterban, we discuss his decision to leave Elvis to join the Oak Ridge Boys, the band’s partnership with Dave Cobb and their enduring friendship with President George Bush.

One On One Interview With Richard Sterban Of The Oak Ridge Boys

On The Oak Ridge Boys History & Longevity

EPR: You guys have a pretty full tour schedule this year, don’t you?

Richard Sterban: We are a group that traditionally works a lot. We average about 150 days a year, every year. And this year is no exception. In fact, when it’s all said and done, we are probably going to end up with more than 150 this year.

EPR: Tonight you are going to be in concert with Alabama in Salem, Va. They have been touring for 50 years and the Oak Ridge Boys have been touring a similar amount of time. How do you compare?

Richard Sterban: We have a very long and fascinating history. Believe it or not, it actually dates back to the 2nd World War. There was a group back during the war called the Georgia Clodhoppers. That’s a fact. That name actually did exist.

They would go to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and they would entertain the people there that were actually working on the development of the atomic bomb. It was called the Manhattan Project. These guys would go to Oak Ridge on a regular basis because the people there could not leave because what they were working on was very top secret stuff.

So, going to Oak Ridge all the time, they then became known as the Oak Ridge Quartet. And that group continued singing from the end of the war until the middle of the 1950s as the Oak Ridge Quartet. It was then disbanded and reorganized in the later 1950s as the Oak Ridge Boys. None of us are from that group either, I would also like to report. 

William Lee Golden, the guy in our group with the long beard, he’s the first guy who joined the group, in 1965. Then our lead singer, Duane Allen, came 1 year later, in 1966. I joined the Oak Ridge Boys in 1972. I was singing with Elvis. I was actually singing with the King of Rock and Roll. One year later Joe Bonsall joined in 1973. 

So we have been together like this, this foursome, for 46, almost 47 years now. But Duane Allen and William Lee Golden have been in this group for over 50 years. So we have established some longevity in the music business as well. There’s no doubt about it. 

EPR: That’s awesome because so many groups have internal fights and disagreements and they just can’t get along or stay together that long.

Richard Sterban: Well, you are right about that, you know? And I have to be very honest with you. There have been times when we have had our differences and disagreements. But I think over the course of the years we have developed a friendship that I think is second to none.

Each guy in the group is different and each guy brings something different to the table. But I think that is part of our appeal. And I think that over the course of the years we have learned to respect that difference between the four of us. I think as we have gotten older, we now get along better really. I think we all realized a long time ago that we need each other so we pulled together as a team. We are a true brotherhood. And now that we are older, I think that we get along better than we did when we were younger. I think we are too old now to let little things bother us.

One On One Interview With Richard Sterban Of The Oak Ridge Boys

On Leaving Elvis To Join The Oak Ridge Boys

EPR: You mentioned Elvis a minute ago. You have a book out, “From Elvis To Elvira.” Tell us a little about that.

Richard Sterban: First, I love the title, “From Elvis To Elvira.” The title says it all basically. For about two years. prior to joining the Oak Ridge Boys, I sang in a group called JD Sumner and the Stamps Quartet. For about a year and a half of that time I actually sang with the king of rock and roll, with Elvis. And back then, he was the biggest star in the world. His tour was the biggest tour in the music business, no doubt about it. And so I was a part of it. It was very, very exciting to be part of it.

I have some very fond memories of the times I spent with Elvis and I did get to know him just a little bit. It was a very special time in my life. And now that many years have passed, I have a chance to look back on that, I am really very glad. I am very thankful I had a chance to experience that and get to know one of the biggest stars in the world ever.

Quite often I think, “Who is out there today, 40 years after they pass away, that will still be as big as Elvis is today?” I don’t know that there is anyone out there today that has what Elvis had back in those days. He was certainly one of a kind. He was a special person. Forty years after his passing, he’s still a big star worldwide.

The fact that I was able to be part of his tour for a while and get to know him just a little bit was certainly very special for me personally. It really was.

And one thing that is kind of interesting, I think it’s one of the most important parts of my book, is a major decision that I made. I was singing with Elvis, apparently on top of the world. I got a phone call one day from William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys. Back then he didn’t have that long beard [that he has now]. He was Mr GQ back then. He had short hair, dressed in the latest fashion of the day. He was a pretty hip guy. He is still today, I think, but anyway, he was totally different back then. He called me up and he said that the bass singer in the Oak Ridge Boys wanted to leave the group and get off the road and the Oak Ridge Boys wanted to know if I would be interested in joining the group.

So here I was, singing with Elvis, but I had to make a decision. So what do I do? At the same time, I was a big fan of the Oak Ridge Boys. I believed that the Oak Ridge Boys had a great deal of potential. So I really wanted to be a part of the group. So I made the decision to leave Elvis, leave the king of rock and roll, and to join the Oak Ridge Boys.

So back then when I made that decision, several people said “How in the world can you leave Elvis to join the Oak Ridge Boys?” But I really believed I was doing the right thing. And I think time has proven that I made a pretty good decision. That was in 1972 and I will never regret that decision because so many great things have happened to us as a group.

We’ve been very fortunate and we’ve had a great career and it all culminated about 3 and a half years ago when we were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. What a tremendous honor. It’s difficult to find just the right words to describe how special that is. I never dreamed years ago, when I was singing with Elvis, that someday I would be in the same hall of fame with him. Now I am in the same Country Music Hall of Fame, with Elvis, with Johnny Cash, who was also very instrumental in the early days of the Oak Ridge Boys, with George Jones and Dolly Parton, and our friends Alabama, they are in the Country Music Hall of Fame as well. So it’s a very unique family of artists and for the Oak Ridge Boys to be part of that is beyond words and a tremendous honor. So in the last almost 50 years, a lot of great things have happened to us but the greatest is probably being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

One On One Interview With Richard Sterban Of The Oak Ridge Boys

On Being Pioneers, Elvira & William Lee Golden’s Beard

EPR: The Oak Ridge Boys also got the ACM Pioneer Award. Tell me more about what that means.

Richard Sterban: That is awarded by the Academy of Country Music. It’s a pioneer award, basically. It’s for an act that kind of blazes the trail and makes what is happening today in country music possible because of what we did years ago. So we were awarded as pioneers in country music and that is awarded by your peers. So that is a special award as well to say the least.

EPR: It’s definitely an honor when your peers recognize you. We talked about “Elvira” a minute ago. Speaking of “Elvira,” how often do people approach you and ask you to do your signature bass lines in the song?

Richard Sterban: The answer to your question is probably an obvious answer. Yes. Very few days go by when somebody doesn’t ask me to do that. And I do a lot of the interviews for the Oak Ridge Boys, just like I’m doing with you right now. Especially radio guys, not so much newspaper people. But radio guys always want to hear a sample, you know, “Giddyup oom papa oom papa mow mow.” And I usually oblige because people want to hear it. If I had such a thing as a claim to fame, it would probably be that line.

We recorded that record in 1981 and to this day it is still one of the largest selling single records to ever be recorded in Nashville so that’s something that we are proud of. And you can count on the fact when we come to Salem, Va., that “Elvira” is definitely going to be on the show and you are definitely going to hear me do, “Giddyup oom papa oom papa mow mow.”

EPR: On a different note, how long did it take William to grow that beard?

Richard Sterban: The only thing that I can tell you is that it has been many, many years since he has shaved. At this point it’s been so long, I don’t remember him hardly ever not having it, if that makes any sense. He threw his razor away many years ago. And he could fill you in on this better than I can but several years ago a razor company or someone offered him a substantial amount of money to do a commercial and to shave that beard and he turned them down and refused. That is his trademark, it really is. It’s the thing that probably makes him the most recognizable of all the Oak Ridge Boys.

Sometimes when you are in a group, when you get away from the other members, you can become anonymous, to a point. But it’s more difficult for him. Even when he is somewhere by himself, people spot him. They know he is somebody. There is no doubt about it. He has a unique look and it’s part of what makes the Oak Ridge Boys the Oak Ridge Boys. I don’t know that we would be the Oak Ridge Boys without William Lee Golden. He is certainly a very special person.

One On One Interview With Richard Sterban Of The Oak Ridge Boys

On Working With Dave Cobb & “17th Avenue Revival”

EPR: Tell me about your new album and what it was like working with Dave Cobb.

Richard Sterban: I could spend hours talking about Dave Cobb and the relationship that the Oak Ridge Boys have with him. He is a special person. If you know anything at all about the music scene in Nashville, he is hot right now. He is probably the most in demand producer. He has now produced two different projects on the Oak Ridge Boys. We worked with him for the very first time about 12 years ago on a project called, “The Boys Are Back.”

We got to know Dave Cobb through Shooter Jennings, Waylon Jenning’s son. Shooter is an artist now in his own right and he called us up about 12 years ago and asked us to sing on a song with him and we obviously agreed. We knew Waylon very well and we remembered Shooter when he was just a little boy. So we go to the studio and Dave Cobb is producing Shooter Jennings.

And we hit it off and [Cobb] agreed to do a project on us and it was called, “The Boys Are Back.” The title song was written for us by Shooter Jennings. And it was a very much critically acclaimed project and he took us down some roads, musically, that we had never traveled before. For example, we did a cover of the White Stripes’, “Seven Nation Army.” That’s something that we would never have dreamed about doing on our own. But Dave Cobb said, “Trust me on this fellows, this is going to be a great song for you.” And sure enough, it got us more attention probably than anything we have done in years. Another song we did on that project was Johnny Lee Hooker’s “Boom, Boom.” I did the lead vocal on that and it’s something I would have never thought about doing but Dave Cobb kind of insisted that we do it and he was right. We are still doing that song and we’ll probably do it when we come to Salem.

So anyway, we remembered working with Cobb 12 years ago, so after our induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame a few years ago, we talked amongst ourselves. We decided that we would like to do something special to commemorate the fact that we are now in the Country Music Hall of Fame and we decided that maybe Dave Cobb would agree to work with us again. We knew it was a long shot because, since those days, he has moved to Nashville, and he is one of the hottest producers.

So we got in touch with him and he agreed to work with us again. He said, “Sure, I feel like the Oak Ridge Boys are family.” He refers to us as his older uncles. We had to wait our turn because he is in such demand. So it took a little while to get it together but he finally called us and he said, “I’m ready to work.”

I remember, we had lunch with him at a restaurant right on Music Row and I will never forget, his very first words were, “What I want you guys to do, I want you to think of Elvis, maybe Jerry Lee Lewis, that old rockabilly kind of sound, maybe some old blues. Think of Ray Charles, and maybe even some of the old black gospel, spiritual type things. What was it about those artists that made them so special? It’s the same thing that makes you guys special. The very first singing that they ever did was in church. It was gospel music.” So he said, “What I want to do on this project, it doesn’t have to be an all gospel project, a lot of it will be, but the most important thing is I want to go back to church. I want to tap into that feeling of going to an old time revival.”

And Dave Cobb knows something about that because his mother was a Pentecostal preacher and he has been to his share of revival meetings. So he knew exactly what he was talking about and he knew that all of us had experienced that as well. So recording this project at RCA Studio A, the most historic recording studio in Nashville, was like going to church. It was almost a religious experience.

And it’s not all gospel, a lot of it is the old hymns that we were assigned as kids in church and in Sunday school. But, also, some of today’s contemporary country song writers are represented on this project. Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, two of the hottest writers in Nashville, they have a song on this project. Vince Gill and our good friend Jamey Johnson has a song. So it’s a nice mixture, it’s a nice balance of today’s modern country writers, along with some old fashioned gospel. And one black spiritual on there was so old that Dave Cobb had to actually go to the Smithsonian to get the lyrics.

He took old rockabilly and he married it with gospel and today’s country music. And the final result is something that we are so proud of and the music is very meaningful. It’s music that’s touching people’s lives. So we will include some of the music from 17th Avenue Revival, along with all of our hits, I already told you that we are going to do “Elvira,” in Salem.

The title, “17th Avenue Revival” is an interesting title. It represents the revival of that old, historic recording studio, RCA Studio A, right in the heart of music row. They were going to tear it down about 5 years ago. Developers tried to buy that property and build high rise condos. But investors and many people in the music business got together and we were able to save that studio. So recording this album there represents a revival of that old, historic recording studio. Chet Atkins developed the original Nashville Sound right there in that studio.

Dave Cobb has now moved into Chet Atkins’ old office and does all of his stuff there. He does all of Chris Stapleton’s stuff there. And the Zac Brown Band. The list goes on and on. Now he’s recorded the Oak Ridge Boys there. I could talk for hours about how great it was to work with Dave Cobb. He really is a special guy.

One On One Interview With Richard Sterban Of The Oak Ridge Boys

On Their Enduring Friendship With President Bush

EPR: Tell us about your long lasting friendship with President George Bush.

Richard Sterban: Back in December, we had an amazing honor. We sang “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of President George Bush. I told you that being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame was the greatest honor that the Oak Ridge Boys have ever experienced. Singing at President Bush’s funeral was also a tremendous honor.

We established a friendship with President Bush many years ago. We first met him when he was the Vice President under President Ronald Reagan. President Reagan invited us to sing on the lawn of the White House at the Congressional Barbecue while he was president. I remember that day, we went there and we were doing a sound check on the lawn of the White House. They had set up a stage there. While we were doing the sound check, in the middle of the afternoon, we notice this entourage of men walking across the White House lawn towards the stage. The guys came up on the stage and right in the middle was this tall, lanky gentleman and he introduced himself as Vice President George Bush. He did not have to do that. Of course we recognized him immediately. But he proceeded to tell us that he was a big fan. He said that he could not be at the concert that night, he had to fly to China, I believe, on some official Vice Presidential business. But he asked “Would you guys be willing to do a few songs for me, right here and now?” We said, “Sure, Mr Vice President. What would you like to hear?”

We realized at that moment that he really was a big fan because he started naming album cuts, not hits, but obscure album cuts that he wanted to hear, so we realized that he really was a big fan. And we gave him a little mini concert that afternoon, right there on the lawn of the White House, and on that day, that started the friendship with him that lasted for many years. And not just with him, but with his wonderful wife, Barbara Bush. We maintained that friendship for many years, even after they left the White House. Many times we would go to Kennebunkport in the summertime, the four of us and our four wives, and hang out with them. And we would give private concerts, right there in his living room. And he would invite the neighbors over and it was a very informal kind of a thing. We always sang for him right there in his living room and one song that he always wanted to hear, and we always included, was his favorite song, “Amazing Grace.” We did it for him many times over the course of the years.

Not too long before he passed away, he asked us if we would sing “Amazing Grace” at his funeral. And we promised him that we would do it. We told him, “You can count on us, regardless of wherever we are, we will be there.” It just so happened that he passed away in December while we were in the middle of our Christmas tour. We were in a place called Spokane, Washington. We could not have been much further away, really. After the concert, we did our Christmas show, which is about 2 and a half hours, we went right to the airport, got on a private plane that was donated to us by a very dear friend of ours, and we flew to Houston. We got there at 5 o’clock in the morning, no time to get any sleep. We went to the hotel and had like an 8 or 8:30 call at the church. There we talked to George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, the former Governor of Florida, and they thanked us so much for doing this for their father. We went to the church and we sang, “Amazing Grace,” at the funeral. What a tremendous honor and a very emotional experience. After the funeral, we went back to the airport, flew on the airplane back to a place called Kennewick, Washington, did another Christmas show that night, all of that without any sleep. We did not miss a show but the most important thing is we were able to keep our promise to President Bush.

See the Oak Ridge Boys in Salem, Va, with Alabama TONIGHT and check out the rest of their tour schedule here.

Photos courtesy of Oak Ridge Boys via Facebook and RichardSterban.com.

One On One Interview With Richard Sterban Of The Oak Ridge Boys

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