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In 1972, Richard Sterban had a choice he could continue singing backup for Elvis Presley, or he could join a gospel quartet called the Oak Ridge Boys.
It was a no-brainer for Sterban. He said goodbye to the King and joined Duane Allen, William Golden, and, eventually, Joe Bonsall in making a little bit of musical history.
My personal aspirations were beyond being a backup singer, Sterban says. I believed in the Oak Ridge Boys and the potential of the group. I didn t realize it d be as successful as it became, of course. Obviously, I think I made a pretty good decision.
Thirty-six years later, Sterban is still singing bass for one of the most recognizable groups in musical history. They will be at the Stranahan Tuesday night as part of their Christmas Cookies tour.
This is our 19th annual Christmas tour. It seems like it gets bigger every year. Our Christmas show is really one of the biggest things we do, he says.
The show will open with about 45 minutes of Oak Ridge Boys favorites, including Elvira and Y All Come Back Saloon. That will be followed by a secular portion of the show focusing on Santa Claus and favorites like Silver Bells, Jingle Bells, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. They ll finish the show with religiously themed Christmas songs and a recitation of the Christmas story from the Bible.
Even in this age of political correctness, we still feel our fans want us to sing about what we feel is the true meaning of Christmas the birth of Jesus, Sterban says.
Lifelong fans know the group s history, but newer fans may not realize that the Oak Ridge Boys actually began as a gospel group, long before Sterban, Allen, Golden, and Bonsall came along.
The group s origins go back to the World War II era, when Wally Fowler recorded and toured with the Oak Ridge Quartet. Smitty Gatlin changed the name to the Oak Ridge Boys in 1961, and several different people came into the group in the years that followed. Golden joined in 1965; Allen came aboard in 1966. Sterban was singing with Elvis backup group, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, when Golden called him and asked him to take a chance on the Boys. A couple of months later, they got Bonsall to leave the Keystone Quartet.
After that, the current quartet performed for nearly four more years as a gospel group before making the switch to country music when they landed a recording contract with MCA Records.
We wanted to reach more people with our music. Y All Come Back Saloon kind of changed things for us. We had 10 No. 1 hits from 1977 to 81, then we had Elvira. That really changed things. Not only was it a No. 1 country hit, it was No. 1 on the pop charts. It made us a household name, Sterban says. It s weird that we can be singing Silent Night, and someone will yell out Do Elvira.
Even though they left their gospel roots, the Oak Ridge Boys continue to live by the philosophy that they won t sing stereotypical country songs.
We want to do good, wholesome, positive music that affects people in a good way. There s enough of the getting drunk and cheating songs in country music. We ve chosen to sing about long-lasting relationships, family-oriented songs.
We re not goody two-shoes, Sterban says, but we ve chosen to stay on the positive side. That s important to our fans and our families too.
That philosophy has also paid off commercially. The Oak Ridge Boys have hit the top of the charts with 17 singles, including I ll Be True to You, Fancy Free, Bobbie Sue, and American Made. They ve sung at the World Series,
All-Star games, at the White House, and for six U.S. presidents. They ve even flown on Air Force One a couple of times because of their friendship with George H.W. Bush.
We got to know him when he was vice president. Ronald Reagan invited us to sing at the White House, and we found out he [Bush] was a big fan of ours, and he still is, Sterban says. We used go up to [the Bush family home in] Kennebunkport every other summer. Our wives would go with us, and we d hang out for three or four days. We d sit up and sing in President Bush s living room to entertain him. They are wonderful people.
After being together almost 40 years, the Boys remain in heavy demand. They are still on the road for 150 to 160 dates a year.
We enjoy what we do. We enjoy working and going out there and doing it. As far as the future, our health is the key.
We re not the youngest kids on the block, but we re all still feeling good, Sterban says. Retirement is something we don t think about. We re going to have to at some point because nothing lasts forever, but we re having a good time and hope to be singing for several more years.
Besides meeting their fans as they tour, their work in the studio keeps them fresh. They ve released 24 studio albums and a number of other compilation albums. In March, they will release a new disc produced by Dave Cobb, Shooter Jennings producer. He brought the Oak Ridge Boys into the studio to sing on Slow Train, a track on Jennings The Wolf album, and the professional connection was immediate.
We did a showcase with Shooter, and all the young kids who were there to see him knew our sings and were singing along. Dave saw that and decided to produce us. It s the most different thing we ve done in a long time. It s not that typical Nashville sound, Sterban says. He got us out of our comfort zone. He challenged us and made us do things differently than what we ve been doing.
Jennings wrote a song for the album, The Boys are Back, and they expect to open their Toledo show with it.
We re anxious to bring our music to Toledo. We haven t been there in a while, Sterban says. The Christmas show is a great show. It s a family show, and we encourage families to bring their kids, grandmas and grandpas, and we encourage them to have a good time because we re going to have a good time.
The Oak Ridge Boys will be in concert at the Stranahan Theater on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. A limited number of tickets remain in the balcony for $35.50. They can be purchased at the box office, online at ticketmaster.com, or by calling 419-474-1333.
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