Richard Sterban on singing with Elvis and his 50 years with The Oak Ridge Boys

The Oak Ridge Boys; Richard Sterban at far right.

The Oak Ridge Boys; Richard Sterban at far right.

It’s been 50 years since Richard Sterban left a spot touring with Elvis Presley to join The Oak Ridge Boys.
Looking back, Sterban says he made the right call.

He and the other Oak Ridge Boys (William Lee Golden, Joe Bonsall and Duane Allen) will be heading to the Rivers Casino and Resort on Sunday, in support of “Front Porch Singin,’” the band’s latest album.

The Boys are known for a blend of country and gospel songs and have released more than two dozen albums over the years, garnering Grammy, Dove, ACM and CMA awards along the way. The band also had a longtime relationship with President George Bush and performed at his funeral a few years ago.

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Shortly before he arrived in the Electric City, The Gazette spoke with the deep-voiced Sterban about where he got his start and what it’s been like to get back out on the road during the pandemic.

Q: How did you even become interested in music? What set you off on that path?

A: When you listen to my voice now, you may have a hard time believing this, but the first singing that I ever did was as a boy soprano [when] I was about 6 years old. It was actually in Sunday school. I remember being in front of the congregation singing and I don’t even remember the song that I sang but I can still remember that experience and I can still picture it in my mind. I felt somehow impressed that day while I was singing that this is what I was meant to do with my life. I was meant to sing in front of people.
I kind of followed my heart, followed my dream and I continued singing with a high voice until I got into junior high school. In seventh grade, I was still singing tenor, in what we called the Glee Club and over the summer, between seventh grade and eighth grade, my voice made a drastic change and I went back in the eighth-grade year and the choir teacher ended up putting me in the bass section. And I’ve been there ever since.
At one time I wanted to be a baseball player. But it didn’t take me very long to realize I did not have the talent to do that. So I pursued my dream of singing. I was singing every chance I could get. I helped organize my first group [the Keystone Quartet], and one thing led to another and now I find myself in The Oak Ridge Boys. I’ve been here for 50 years, which is mind-boggling. It’s hard to believe sometimes.

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Q: How did you get started working with Elvis?

A: Well, that’s a good question. I was working with the Keystone Quartet . . . I got a phone call one day — from [J.D. Sumner’s] son-in-law, and he said that J.D. Sumner wanted to get off of the road and devote time to his publishing companies and whatever businesses he had on the side, and he wanted to hire a younger bass singer to take his place. But in order to take that job, it involved me having to move to Nashville. I took the job with J.D. Sumner in the Stamps Quartet and I moved to Nashville.
I happened to be in the right place at the right time when J.D. Sumner got a phone call from Elvis. Elvis was looking to hire a new backup group because the group he had, called the Imperials, couldn’t [join] him [on] an upcoming tour. Elvis and J.D. Sumner were friends; they’re both from Memphis, and to make a long story short, he hired J.D. Sumner and The Stamps Quartet. And as a young man in my 20s, I [found] myself on stage with the biggest star in the world back then, on the stage with Elvis. It was a pretty amazing experience. I look back on that experience and I’m glad that I was fortunate enough to experience that because Elvis’ tour was the biggest tour in the music business back then and to be a part of it was very, very exciting.
I have some great memories of the times that I spent with Elvis and it was a very special time.
But I have to admit, while I was singing with Elvis . . . I got another phone call that really changed my life and it was from William Lee Golden. He’s the guy in The Oak Ridge Boys with a long beard. But back then, he did not have that long beard. He was Mr. GQ. He called me and told me that the bass singer in The Oak Ridge Boys was leaving the group and The Oak Ridge Boys wanted to know if I would be interested in taking the job. So here I was, apparently on top of the world singing with Elvis, but I had to make a decision, what do I do? I was a big fan of The Oak Ridge Boys. I loved the music that they were making back then. I collected their records. I felt like the group had a great deal of potential and I really wanted to be a part of it. So in 1972, which is just about 50 years ago, I made the decision to leave Elvis and to join The Oak Ridge Boys and back then a lot of people questioned that decision. How could you do that? Leave Elvis and join The Oak Ridge Boys? But I really believed in my heart I was doing the right thing. Fifty years later, I look back on the great career that we’ve had as The Oak Ridge Boys, I think that back then I made a pretty good decision.

Q: Tell me about your songwriting [or recording] process.

A: The fact is we have written very few of our own songs. We live in a place where there are some great songwriters. We live in Nashville and we have always recorded songs by the best writers here in Nashville over the course of our career. For many years we had a gentleman named Ron Chancey He was our producer, he produced most of the number one hits of The Oak Ridge Boys. He was a great song man; he could recognize a great song, and he listened to demos all the time. He’s the one that helped pick most of our number one records out.
In recent years, we’ve been working with a producer named Dave Cobb. He’s very much in demand and he has a [group] of writers that work with him. He produces his records out of RCA Studio A, which is probably the most historic recording studio here in Nashville. On the top floor of that studio building, they have what they call a writers room with these young guys who gather and write hit songs for some of today’s biggest artists. They have actually written songs for us.
Our latest album called “Front Porch Singin’ ” is a nice balance of familiar songs [and] some brand new songs written by some of these new young songwriters . . . . There’s a nice mixture of old gospel songs, old country songs, and then some new country songs but they’re all very meaningful, very healing in nature. And I think that’s what we need to hear right now.

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Q: When were you finally able to get back out on the road and touring again?

A: Well, it’s kind of interesting. During the pandemic, the only performing that we did was at the Grand Ole Opry. We’re members of the Grand Ole Opry and the Opry had shows during the pandemic for TV only, no live audiences. I remember walking into the Grand Ole Opry and walking onto the stage with no one in the audience and I can tell you, that was a strange feeling. I think we realized then how important an audience is to a show.
I do remember, we were booked on the Opry the first time they allowed 100% capacity in the audience, walking out on stage that night and looking at that full house after seeing empty seats, and boy, what a great feeling. That was pretty special and then our agency started finding promoters and buyers that would be willing to take a chance on us. We started playing dates on our own after that and we started seeing people coming out.
See, I think people want to hear live music because live music is very, very healing in nature. Now we have a full schedule of updates. We’re gonna probably play 150 days this year on the road. We’re going to be very, very busy and people are coming out in large numbers to see us. We love that because while we missed performing, during the pandemic, what we missed more than the actual performing was the feedback that we get from our fans. To be able to feel that again . . . it makes us feel like we’re accomplishing something like we’re helping people with our music, which is really what we want to do as The Oak Ridge Boys.

Q: Was it tough to get back into the swing of touring again after not having been able to do it?

A: There’s definitely some mixed emotions about it. I almost felt like I was retired there for a while; we all did. But being people that have spent most of our lives away from home, it was nice to be home for a while to get reacquainted with our families, if I could put it that way, and spend time with our families; that part of it was very good. But we missed what we love to do, and that’s performing.

Q: What are some of your absolute favorite songs to play live?

A: Well, obviously, our signature song is ‘Elvira,’ there’s no question about that. That’s the song that people recognize The Oak Ridge Boys by and you can count on the fact when we come to town, we’re going to do ‘Elvira.’ You will hear me do ‘Giddy Up Oom Poppa Omm Poppa Mow Mow.’ That is the law.
We’re going to do several of our hits, we feel like people want to hear our hit songs. ‘Y’all come back Saloon’ will definitely be on the show and [it] may be the most requested song we have. ‘Thank God for Kids,’ that’s probably a highlight of an Oak Ridge Boys show. William Lee Golden sings the lead vocal on that song and he has a way of interpreting that lyric and then communicating it to the audience. When he’s singing that song and when we are performing that song, you can look out and you can tell that it’s touching people. It’s moving people; people are holding hands. People are hugging their kids, tears in people’s eyes, you can tell it touches people. If you wanted me to pick one song that’s special on The Oak Ridge Boys show, I would have to say ‘Thank God for Kids.’

Q: Are you also working on another album too while you’re on the road?

A: Well, we certainly hope that there’s going to be [one] down the road. Right now we’re busy just getting back into touring.

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Q: Touring definitely will keep you busy for a while.

A: Oh, there’s no doubt about it. Our schedule for the rest of this year’s pretty much gangbusters. We’re back into full swing again, that’s what we enjoy doing. Taking our music live to our fans. When we come to town, you’re going to see four guys that are chomping at the bit to get out there. Because we’re so happy to have the opportunity to be able to do it again. We’re not kids any longer but we do not plan to retire. As long as the good Lord above will allow for The Oak Ridge Boys to experience good health we’re gonna keep doing this because this is what we love doing.

Q: How did the band’s relationship with former President Bush start?

A: Well, it’s an interesting story. We first met George Bush when he was the vice president. Ronald Reagan was the president at the time and Ronald Reagan invited The Oak Ridge Boys to the Congressional barbecue on the lawn of the White House . . . while we were running some songs, this tall gentleman came walking across the lawn of the White House, came up on stage and introduced himself as Vice President George Bush. He did not have to do that. We recognized him immediately, of course. But he proceeded to tell us that he was a big fan. He loved our music. And he said . . . ‘I can’t be at the show tonight. But would you guys be willing to do a few songs for me?’ We said ‘Sure. Mr. Vice President, what would you like to hear?’ We realized that he was telling us the truth that he was a big fan because he started naming album cuts, what the kids call deep cuts, songs that are really not hits. So we knew he was familiar with our music. Right there on the lawn of the White House that day, we proceeded to give him a little mini-concert. And that day, we established a friendship with him that lasted until he passed away.

The Oak Ridge Boys

WHEN: 8 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Event Center at Rivers Casino and Resort
TICKETS: $40-65

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