- - Thursday, November 19, 2015

With millions of records sold, the Oak Ridge Boys are a household name to fans of both country and pop music alike. Everyone knows their 1980s number 1 hit”Elvira.” (Heck, you’re probably singing “Giddy Up Omm Poppa Mow Mow” as you are reading this.)

The singing quarter of Joe Bonsall, Duane Allen, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban have been together since 1973 and continue to thrill audiences. Lead singer Mr. Bonsall checked in to discuss the band’s storied history, how “Elvira” went “el-viral” to become a megahit and their upcoming “Christmas Night Out” tour, which plays Newport News Sunday.

Question: The current lineup has been together since the early ‘70s, but how is it that the history of the group goes all the way back to 1943?

Answer: The original Oak Ridge Quartet was out of Knoxville, Tennessee, and they used to perform during World War II at the secret installation where the Manhattan Project was being worked on — the atomic bomb. There were thousands sequestered there: military personal, scientists, their families. And they would allow this little bluegrass band in to sing on Saturday nights.

When the war was over the group goes to Nashville, Tennessee, and hosted the Friday night gospel singing convention on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium. They would have the Opry on the Saturday and the gospel singing on Friday. Through the ‘50s they went through a lot of different changes. To avoid confusion with the original Oak Ridge Quartet, they started calling themselves the Oak Ridge Boys.

Q: How long have the current members been in the group?

A: William Lee Golden joined in 1965. He’s been here 50 years. Duane Allen joined the next year. And the bass man Richard Sterbin joined in 1972. And I am actually celebrating 42 years this month. I joined in October of 1973.

So much water under so many bridges. So many songs, so many miles, the incredible history and legacy that the four of us carry that is the Oak Ridge Boys. It is a pretty amazing thing.

I’ve got a new book out called “On The Road With The Oak Ridge Boys” that tales some great stories.

Q: How did you end of joining the group?

A: I was a Philadelphia rock ‘n’ roller. A little teenager just loving all the music that was coming out of Philly. Some kids turned me on to Southern gospel. I became a big fan, even as a young teenager. I kind of charted my course that someday I was gonna sing in a group like this. I was singing in a group, and my path crossed with the Oak Ridge Boys, and we became good friends. They kinda liked me and liked what I did. When it came time for them to make a change, they called me. I couldn’t believe it.

Q: The voices always blended so beautifully. Did the personalities?

A: Like any other family we have our ups and downs. The one thing we have learned over the years is that if there is a problem, solve it quickly. Then get back to the business of making the Oak Ridge Boys happen. Part of our success is that all four guys are forward-thinking good, honest men that you would trust your family with. You dream about traveling around the world with guys like this. Everybody wants to keep the Oak Ridge Boys alive and thriving.

Q: Why do you think of all the songs and albums you released that “Elvira” became such a huge hit?

A: You can’t call that. If you could you would have one every time out. I have a chapter in my book called “Elvira-l” because “Elvira” went viral in 1982 before there was such a thing. All I remember is Ronnie, a song plugger, heard a bar band singing this song in Texas and came back to our producer. He said, “They ought to try this song. I know it’s been done before, but with their unique harmonies and with a bass singer they could make it cool.” Our producer thought so. We did too.

We went in the studio, cut it, had fun doing it. Didn’t really think much about it until we took it on the road.

Q: What happened then?

A: We were in the Pacific Northwest in the winter of 1981. We said, “We’ve just recorded a new album called “Fancy Free,” and here’s a couple of new songs from it.” We sang “Elvira,” and the audience acted like we gave each of them a free condo in Montserrat. They went crazy!

This continued to happen the whole tour. We came back to our label and said, “We’ve got something happening here. We better release this thing.” It sold a million singles right off the bat. It went number 1 [on the country charts] in no time. Then in July it crossed over into the pop market. From July to September the whole country that summer was singing “Omm Poppa Mow Mow” with the Oak Ridge Boys. That became the biggest-selling single for us.

Q: Some people thought “Elvira” was about “Elvira Mistress of the Dark,” but it’s actually about a street?

A: When that song was written there was no “Elvira Mistress of the Dark.” The great songwriter Dallas Frazier wrote “Elvira” in 1964 about a street in Madison, Tennessee, right outside of Nashville.

Q: What can people expect when they come out to see the Oak Ridge Boys Christmas show?

A: This is our 26th annual Christmas show. We’ve got a whole new stage look this year. We do 40 minutes of hits. Then you’ve got an hour-and-15-minute Christmas show that covers a lot of Christmas ground. Everything from snow to presents to Santa Claus to the real meaning of Christmas: the birth of Jesus. It’s a family show.

Oak Ridge Boys play Ferguson Center For The Arts in Newport News, Virginia, on Sunday. Tickets are Starting at $37 and can be purchased at RergusonCenter.org.

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