The Oak Ridge Boys' Richard Sterban on Elvis and making music


Richard Sterban and The Oak Ridge Boys

The Oak Ridge Boys are a country and gospel vocal quartet that originated in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The group was founded in the 1940s as the Oak Ridge Quartet and became popular in Southern gospel during the 50s. Their name was changed to the Oak Ridge Boys in the early 60s, and they remained a gospel group until the mid-1970s, when they changed their image and concentrated on country music. The band produced some incredible country and crossover hits – the biggest of which was 1981’s Elvira  – which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Richard Sterban is the bassman with the Oak Ridge Boys, best known for the immortal lyric: “oom-pa-pa-oom-pa-pa-mow-mow.” He’s the guy who gives “Elvira” its deep-voiced juice. Sterban has been part of the band since 1972 with Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall and William Lee Golden.

The Oak Ridge Boys have been together nearly five decades. They are in the Country Music Hall of Fame and have sold millions of records. But there was a time, in the early 1970s, when Sterban had a choice to make – the Oaks or Elvis. He not only made the choice to go with the Oaks but he had to make it a second time, when Elvis asked him back. 

To sing with Elvis or The Oak Ridge Boys?

That’s Richard Sterban, far left, photographed when he was a back up singer for Elvis Presley during the early 1970’s.

79 year old Richard Sterban grew up in New Jersey and sang with various groups. Eventually, he wound up singing gospel with J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet. They used to back up Elvis on his concerts during the early 1970s. In 1972, Sterban got a call from William Lee Golden to join the Oak Ridge Boys.

“Here I was, singing with Elvis and I had to make a tough decision,” Sterban told me. “A lot of people say: ‘How could you leave Elvis?’ It wasn’t easy, but I wanted to be part of the Oak Ridge Boys.”

After joining the Oak Ridge Boys, the group was playing Las Vegas while Elvis was performing there. “The guys in the group wanted to meet Elvis, so I called and he said we could come over,” Sterban said, adding that Elvis met them in a dressing room before the show. “The other guys were blown away, just meeting him,” Sterban said. “But, later, Elvis pulled me aside. He asked me: ‘What would it take for me to get you back?’ “I’m telling you, and I told Elvis, I consider that one of the greatest compliments of my life. I just couldn’t leave the Oak Ridge Boys. I wanted to be part of the group. So many good things have happened to me in my life. I know I made the right decision.”

The Oak Ridge Boys and President Bush

Sterban details the story about singing with Elvis and many others in his new biography, “From Elvis to Elvira: My Life On Stage.” Elvis wasn’t the only American icon in his life – Sterban and the Oaks were extremely close to late President George H.W. Bush and his family. Like Elvis, Bush was a fan of gospel and country music. The Oak Ridge Boys even sang for the late President at his funeral.

President Bush died in 2018 in Houston. Bush had followed the Oaks for years and even wrote a blurb for Sterban’s book. “Richard’s path to stardom (is told) in this delightfully written story of his life,” Bush wrote. “I knew about ‘Elvira,’ of course, but not about Elvis!”  “Not too long before he died, President Bush asked us if we would sing ‘Amazing Grace’ at his funeral,” Sterban said. “We were honored to do so.”

The Oak Ridge Boys continue to flourish. Their past hits include: “Bobbie Sue,” “American Made,” “Thank God For Kids,” “Dream On,” “I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes” and “Come On In”

Richard Sterban’s book is full of terrific stories. One that really struck me was about the support that singing star Johnny Cash offered him along the way.

Johnny Cash believed in The Oak Ridge Boys

Richard Sterban recounted a time when Cash called the Quartet in his room.Though still employed and doing tours with established artists, the boys were in low spirits. Had it not been for Cash booking them in his Vegas show, they would have disbanded early. The boys were feeling dejected about their career’s direction and wanted to call it quits. But Johnny Cash, having seen the Oak Ridge Boys potential, rallied them. Ever the visionary, Cash encouraged them not to give up and to find a way to stick together. With just a few words enlightenment from the Man in Black, the Boys were fired up. Sterban, in particular, thought that if Johnny Cash believes in them and thinks they’ll make it big – then someday, somehow they surely will! Turns out both he and Johnny Cash were right.

Watch my interview with Richard Sterban here

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