By SCOTT WEISSER firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — Richard Sterban had an major decision to make. Forty-plus years later, he’s confident he made the right one.
Sterban had been singing with J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, and that group performed with no less than Elvis Presley. Then Sterban got the call from William Lee Golden to join the Oak Ridge Boys.
“I did not hesitate,” Sterban said in a phone interview last week with The Goshen News. “...I felt like the group had a great deal of potential, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
“Not too many people can say they sang with the King of Rock and Roll and then went on to have a bigger and better career with the Oak Ridge Boys,” he later added.
On June 13, the Oaks’ career arc will include a stop in Shipshewana. The country and gospel quartet will perform at the Shipshewana Event Center as part of the Blue Gate Theater concert series.
The origin of the group dates back to the 1940s, when it was known as the Oak Ridge Quartet. Suffice it to say there were membership changes over the decades. Regarding the best-known line-up, Golden joined in 1965, Duane Allen in 1966, Sterban in 1972 and Joe Bonsall in 1973. Sterban said the singers were all fans of the Oaks before they joined and wanted to be part of the group.
“For all four of us, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time when a membership change was made,” he said.
The Oaks have enjoyed considerable success over the years. The group has won Grammy, Dove, Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music awards. Oak Ridge Boys hits include “Elvira,” (Sterban has the distinctive “oom-papa, oom-papa, mau, mau” part), “Bobbie Sue,” “Thank God for Kids,” “American Made” and “I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes.”
Success, however, wasn’t immediate for the combo. There were lean times for the Oaks — at one point, they wondered if the group would survive. They received some much needed help from a certain Man in Black.
Johnny Cash put the Oak Ridge Boys on the concert bill with him and, according to Sterban, “paid us more money than we were worth.”
“He actually gave us more than the contracts specified,” Sterban said. “He knew we were struggling along and he wanted to try to help us.”
More important than Cash’s financial help were his words of encouragement, according to Sterban. He recalled Cash calling a meeting with the Oak Ridge Boys when they were playing with him in Las Vegas.
“He said, ‘I can tell your heads are hanging, but there’s something very special about the four of you guys,’” Sterban said. “‘I can sense it, you guys can sense it. If you give up at this point, you’ll never realize your dream. You’ve got to find a way to stay together, and then everyone is going to realize it as well that you guys are very special.’”
Cash promised the Oaks that if they could do that, good things would start happening for them.
“We walked out of that meeting with our heads held high,” Sterban said. And soon enough, the Oaks would be standing taller, career-wise.
The Oak Ridge Boys met Jim Halsey, who found them gigs and a record deal; Halsey is the Oaks’ manager to this day. Producer Ron Chancey also came on board and found hit songs for the singers.
A few years after the Oak Ridge Boys’ pivotal conference with Cash, the group won its first CMA Vocal Group of the Year award. Cash was hosting the ceremony, and the Oaks ran up to him when the win was announced.
“And we hugged his neck, and he said, ‘See, fellas, I told you so,’” Sterban recalled.
The Oak Ridge Boys also benefited from the mentorship of Jimmy Dean. Sterban said another big influence was Kenny Rogers, with whom the group maintains a friendship to this day. From Rogers the Oak Ridge Boys learned the importance of a hit song. Sterban said Rogers also taught them to be on time and professional in every circumstance.
In a professional capacity, the Oak Ridge Boys continue to carry on. Gospel music is part of the group’s musical DNA, and the Oaks plan to head into the studio in mid-August to work on a gospel album. The group also recently released “Boys Night Out,” the four singers’ first-ever live album.
“It’s something I think our fans have been asking for for quite some time,” Sterban said.
Sterban also talked about the Oaks’ willingness to try something new. Case in point: The group’s 2009 cover of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”
“There’s nothing that we have recorded in recent years that’s gotten us more attention than that one song,” he said.
“Army,” in Sterban’s view, is a great example of the Oak Ridge Boys going into the recording studio and reinventing themselves a bit.
“We still stay true to ourselves, but we just travel down some roads musically differently, in a different way,” he said.
The intent on that cover was to stay true to the Oak Ridge Boys as a vocal group. Sterban said many of the instrumental components in “Seven Nation Army” were done with voices. Sterban himself vocalized the riff.
“It made for an interesting sound,” he said of the Oaks’ “Army.” “It still sounded like ‘Seven Nation Army,’ but it also still sounded like the Oak Ridge Boys.”
As for how the Oak Ridge Boys are sounding circa 2014, count Sterban as a fan.
“Believe it or not — and this sounds like I’m bragging on us — but I think we’re singing better than we’ve ever sung,” he said. “...We’re still having fun doing this, and I think that’s important. We still look forward to getting up on stage every night, taking our music live to our audiences.”
If you want to go The Oak Ridge Boys are scheduled to perform at the Shipshewana Event Center, 780 S. Van Buren St., June 13. Shows are scheduled for 1 and 7 p.m. For ticket or other information, visit the website www.riegsecker.com or call 260-768-4725 or 888-447-4725.