Oak Ridge Boys’ Sterban talks about performing with Elvis

By David Yarnell
Special to the News Advocate

All four members of the famed Oak Ridge Boys have led interesting lives. Richard Sterban talks about his life in the book “From Elvis to Elvira: My Life On Stage,” which he wrote with Steven Robinson.

He also talked with the News Advocate several weeks ago in a telephone interview when the Oaks were performing 11 shows in seven days in Laughlin, Nev. The Oaks will be in concert at 8 p.m. on May 12 at Manistee’s Little River Casino Resort.

The quartet’s roots are in gospel music, going back to the early 1940s when the group Wally Fowler and the Georgia Clodhoppers was formed in Knoxville, Tenn. The name was changed to the Oak Ridge Quartet a few years later when they entertained personnel working on the military’s nuclear project at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge Laboratories. Oak Ridge Boys was coined in 1961.

Today the Oak Ridge Boys’ four part harmony is provided by the same quartet as when they started topping the charts in the early 1970s – baritone William Lee Golden, who became an Oak Ridge Boy in 1965, lead singer Duane Allen, who joined in 1966, bass Sterban, 1972, and tenor Joe Bonsall, 1973.

The Oak Ridge Boys will perform at 8 p.m. on May 12 at Little River Casino Resort. (Courtesy photo)

The Oak Ridge Boys will perform at 8 p.m. on May 12 at Little River Casino Resort. (Courtesy photo)

One might guess that they all grew up in the music-rich hills of Tennessee or Kentucky, but it was as a youngster growing up in New Jersey that Sterban cut his teeth on gospel music. Joe Bonsal grew up not far away in Philadelphia, Allen’s roots are in Texas and Golden is a native of Alabama.

Sterban was introduced to gospel music on the Philco radio in the family’s Camden living room. He became totally committed to gospel after he heard the Couriers at his family’s church.

“The way they dressed, their stage presence, and the way their voices blended in that four-part harmony anchored by their bass singer just blew me away,” he said.

Several weeks later the Couriers gave a second performance at the church and the Sterban family invited them home for dinner.

“I was in heaven,” Sterban said. “I couldn’t believe that these singers were actually in my house eating at our kitchen table. It’s common knowledge that the Couriers deserve much of the credit for introducing southern gospel music in the northeast United States and it’s also safe to say they were very instrumental in my becoming a singer.”

Sterban’s future was further cemented when he attended a Blackwood Brothers Quartet concert.

“I talked with JD Sumner across the record table and he was very friendly to me,” he said. “We talked for a long time, and at one point I asked him if he had any tricks of the trade — some secret that would help me nurture my bass voice to be more like his.

“He smiled, looked down at the cup in his hand and after an extended pause raised the cup and said ‘black coffee, son. That’s the secret. you have to drink lots of coffee, always black. it helps the vocal chords and makes your voice lower.’”

Sterban first sang professionally with a group he and three brothers formed in 1962 — the Keystone Quartet — just after enrolling at Trenton State College to study music. The group was successful enough that as Sterban was completing his freshman year, the Keystone Quartet decided to travel and perform full time.

They did well playing at churches and small auditoriums, but by 1965 several members grew tired of life on the road and a small income, so they disbanded.

In a few months Sterban became a member of the Eastmen Quartet, and he supplemented his income by selling clothes at a Gimbel’s department store in northeast Philadelphia. Joe Bonsall, also interested in a professional singing career, had heard Sterban and sought him out at the store.

“I thought he was pretty cool and we became fast friends,” Sterban said. “Here was another kid about my age who loved to talk about gospel music and believe me, that was not an easy thing to find back in those days.

Eventually the Eastmen Quartet went full time, but that only lasted until 1967. Sterban formed a new version of the Keystone Quartet, and in 1968 Bonsall became the group’s lead singer.

In the fall of 1970 Sterban was invited to join The Stamps Quartet when J.D. Sumner wanted to retire as bass singer to spend more time managing the organization. The $225 per week Sterban would make was not a huge salary, but at least it was a steady income for his family that included his wife and three children.

The Stamps Quartet got a huge break a year later when Elvis lost his back-up quartet and they became the replacement. Elvis had also considered the Oak Ridge Boys for the job.

Sterban said he’ll never forget his first performance behind Presley on Nov. 4, 1971, in Minneapolis to a capacity crowd of 17,600. He said he couldn’t imagine any better job in the world, until in October 1972 when he got a call from William Lee Golden. The Oak Ridge Boys had lost their bass singer and wanted him for the job.

“With Elvis, we’d appeared 167 times on stage as a part of the greatest act of all time,” Sterban said. “We had performed for almost 900,000 ticket buyers. That was an amazing two years that prepared me for a future that would soon become mine.”

Sterban immediately enjoyed performing as an Oak Ridge Boy, but financially it was a tough time for the group. He said they probably would have disbanded had it not been for Johnny Cash.

They were the opening act for Cash at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1974 – the same venue where Sterban had performed with Elvis. Cash called them up to his room one afternoon.

Sterban said Cash told them he could see that they were discouraged.

“He said to us, ‘I know there is something special about you guys, and what you’ve got to do is find a way to stay together. If you find a way to do that, I promise you that good things will start happening. You are going to make it in this business and some day a lot of people are going to know how special you are.’”

Sterban said he remembers walking out of Cash’s room and all four of them were holding their heads high.

“We were thinking, if Johnny Cash thinks we’re going to make it, we’re going to make it,” Sterban said. “Just a couple years after that Jim Halsey became our manager, he signed us to our record deal with MCA, and things did start happening.”

Tickets for the Oak Ridge Boys concert May 12 at the Little River Casino Resort are available at startickets.com or by calling 800-585-3737.

The Oak Ridge Boys’ official website is www.oakridgeboys.com.

 

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