On the Record with Richard Sterban

DeKALB – If you’re familiar with The Oak Ridge Boys’ song “Elvira,” Richard Sterban is the bass singer, with the low voice in the group. He sings the bridge of the song, “Giddy up, oom poppa, omm poppa, mow mow.”

But Sterban hasn’t always been a member of The Oak Ridge Boys. Before he joined the quartet, he was a backup singer for Elvis Presley.

Sterban has been the bass singer with the iconic country and gospel music quartet The Oak Ridge Boys since 1972. Sterban, who is originally from New Jersey, traveled to Memphis and toured with J.D. Sumner & The Stamps Quartet, who sang backup for Elvis.

In 1972, Sterban decided to leave the Elvis gig and joined The Oak Ridge Boys.

The quartet has featured the same singers since 1973: lead singer Duane Allen, tenor Joe Bonsall, baritone William Lee Golden and bass Richard Sterban.

Their hits include the country-pop chart-topper “Elvira,” as well as “Bobbie Sue,” “Dream On,” “Thank God for Kids,” “American Made,” “I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes,” “Fancy Free,” “Gonna Take a Lot of River” and many others. The group has scored 12 gold, three platinum, and one double platinum album – plus one double platinum single – and had more than a dozen national No. 1 singles and over 30 Top 10 hits.

The Oak Ridge Boys will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 30, at the Egyptian Theatre, 135 N. Second St. in DeKalb. Ticket prices range from $45 to $75 and can be purchased online at https://egyptiantheatre.org, at the box office from 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays or by calling 815-758-1215.

Sterban spoke to MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton from the back of the band’s bus, as he was traveling on The Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira 40 Tour,” which celebrates the hit song’s 40th anniversary.

Milton: Tell me about your singing career.

Sterban: I joined The Oak Ridge Boys in 1972, and for two years prior to that I sang in a group called J.D. Sumner & The Stamps Quartet. I actually sang with the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis. I happened to be in the right place in the right place.

Milton: How did you wind up singing backup for Elvis?

Sterban: They were friends, J.D. and Elvis, and Elvis was looking to hire a new backup group. He hired J.D. & The Stamps. I happened to be in the group. I found myself a young guy in my 20s all of a sudden on stage with the biggest star in the world. It was very exciting to be a part of it. I have some very fond memories. I got to know Elvis just a little bit, and it was a very special time in my life. Many years have passed, and I am very glad I was able to experience that.

Milton: How did you join The Oak Ridge Boys?

Sterban: This is a great story, too. I was singing with Elvis and just out of the clear blue sky one day, I got a phone call from William Lee Golden, a member of our group. He’s the guy with the long beard. He called me up in 1972, and back then, he did not have the long beard. He was Mr. GQ all the way. He called me and told me the bass singer in The Oak Ridge Boys was getting out of the group and didn’t want to travel anymore. They wondered if I was interested in the job. I was on top of the world singing with Elvis. I had to make a decision about what to do.

Milton: What made you decide to join The Oak Ridge Boys?

Sterban: I was a big fan of The Oak Ridge Boys. I loved the music they were making, and I wanted to be a part of it. I made the decision back in 1972 to leave Elvis and join The Oak Ridge Boys. Back then, a lot of people questioned my decision, leaving Elvis. I followed my heart. And almost 50 years later, when I look back, I think I made a pretty good decision. Standing in the dark doing background vocals, nobody cared who I was back then. I believed I was doing the right thing. Now 50 years later, there have been a lot of great things that happened in our career. We’re in the same Hall of Fame as Elvis. You see our four faces in bronze and you see Elvis, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, some of the biggest names of country music.

Milton: What are some experiences you’ve had touring with the band?

Sterban: We have had so many great experiences. One thing that sticks out in my mind was getting to know several presidents of the United States, included George Bush Sr. A highlight of our career was actually singing at his funeral. We got to meet George Bush when he was the vice president of the United States. Ronald Regan was president at the time, and he invited The Oak Ridge Boys to perform at the congressional barbecue on the lawn of the White House. We were doing a rehearsal, a sound check, and while we were doing that, a tall gentleman crossed the lawn, came up on stage and introduced himself as Vice President George Bush. He let us know that he was a big fan of country music and of us, but he wouldn’t be able to attend the show tonight. He asked us if we would be willing to play a few songs. He started listing deep tracks, album cuts, he was not naming the hits. We realized that he was familiar with our music. He was telling us the truth when he said he was a big fan. That afternoon, we held a mini concert right there, and that day we established a friendship with him that lasted until his death.

Milton: Tell me more about your friendship with George Bush.

Sterban: Through the years, we also got to know his wife Barbara Bush, and we sang many times for him while he was president. They are two of the greatest people you’ll ever meet, politics aside. It was a special thing. We sang for him and his family many times, even after he left the White House. He always requested his favorite song, which was “Amazing Grace.” He loved that hymn. Not too long before he died, he asked us if we would sing “Amazing Grace” at his funeral and we promised him that we would.

Milton: Were you able to keep that promise?

Sterban: When he died, we were in Spokane, Washington, during the middle of our Christmas show. We got on a private jet, flew to Houston, and we got there early, early in the morning, just in time to go to the hotel, take a shower and go to the church. We were able to be there to sing “Amazing Grace” at his funeral. It was a very emotional experience. We then took that same private jet and flew back to Kennewick, Washington, and did another Christmas show. We did it all in 24 hours without getting any sleep. We were able to keep our promise.

Milton: Tell me more about the song “Elvira.”

Sterban: This year is the 40th anniversary of our song “Elvira.” Yes, it’s a special song, our signature song. It’s the song everyone hopes to hear at our concerts. The song was written by Dallas Frasier. … He wrote the song 17 years even before we recorded it. I remember being in the studio the day we were recording the song. It felt really good, like it would be a hit. The song went down very easily and we got it in two or three takes. I don’t think we realized how big of a record it was going to be until the very first time we performed the song in person. I mentioned Spokane, Washington, a little while ago. We were performing at the opera house there, and right in the middle of the show, we decided to try “Elvira” out on the audience to see what kind of reaction we would get. They would not stop cheering and clapping. We had to encore two or three times in the middle of the show. We later added it to the end of the show, and they encored it again and again. We knew had a special song on our hands and we had to get that song out. Recorded it in 1981, and it became the largest record that year and one of the largest records of country music.

Milton: Tell me about your new music.

Sterban: Our latest album is “Front Porch Singin’,” not singing with a g, it’s singin’. There’s a difference. The recording studio is now open, we just have to abide by the protocols. [Producer] Dave Cobb said to us, “What I want to do is record a project that sounds like four guys just kind of gathering on a front porch singing in a very informal way, with very little structure to it.” We found some great songs for this project. We hadn’t seen each other in several months and came up with a project that turned out very, very well. The new album has some old songs, familiar songs everyone can sing along to, as well as some brand new songs. I think the most important thing is that it’s very meaningful. It’s the kind of songs I think we need to hear today. Working with a guy like Dave Cobb, even though we’re classic country, allows us to keep up with the times.

Katrina Milton

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.