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Members include Duane Allen (born on April 29, 1943, in Taylortown, TX; joined group, 1966), baritone vocals; Joe Bonsall (born on May 18, 1948, in Philadelphia, PA; joined group, 1973), tenor vocals; William Lee Golden (born on January 12, 1939, in Brewton, AL; joined group, 1964; left group, 1987; re-joined group, 1995); Steve Sanders (born on September 17, 1952, in Richland, GA; died on June 10, 1998, in Lee County, Florida; joined group, 1987; left group, 1995), baritone vocals; Richard Sterban (born on April 24, 1943, in Camden, NJ; joined group, 1972), bass vocals. Addresses: Fan club--329 Rockland Rd., Hendersonville, TN 37075.
Describing the re-emergence of perennial crowd-pleasers the Oak Ridge Boys, Jack Hurst of the Chicago Tribune wrote, "The pop-country and former gospel aggregation thus demonstrated yet again that it has more lives than a yardful of cats. And now it seems that the new configuration's real rebirth hasn't even occurred yet." Rooted in the gospel traditions of Tennessee, the Oak Ridge Boys are a prime example of the preeminence of musical harmony in country music; their richly textured bass, baritone, and tenor voices have graced the band for more than four decades. Enlisted to sing gospel music to staff members restricted during World War II to a nuclear research plant at Oak Ridge, near Knoxville, Tennessee, the group originated as the Country Cut-Ups. Although none of its earliest members are represented among today's Oak Ridge Boys---Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall, Steve Sanders, and Richard Sterban---the permanence of the gospel, country, pop, Cajun, and blues group as a whole remains assured by their dynamic sound.
The Oak Ridge Boys first came to national attention when they left gospel singing to record secular music. Until the pivotal 1977 album Y'All Come Back Saloon, the ever-changing ensemble lived hand-to-mouth on the white gospel circuit. Called the Oak Ridge Quartet during the late 1950s, the group changed its name to the Oak Ridge Boys around 1960. Although the Oak Ridge Boys earned several Dove and Grammy Awards in the gospel category, financial success eluded them. Members were ready to disband the group during the mid-1970s. "We had reached the height of gospel success," former Oak Ridge baritone William Lee Golden commented to Dolly Carlisle in People. Golden sought to preserve the group by persuading his colleagues to enter the lucrative country-pop market. The Oaks, who already sported long hair and beards, did not fit the image of gospel singers, nor did their rock drummer meet with approval. They began the crossover from religious to secular music---dubbed the "Nashville Syndrome"---during the late 1970s. Their only real competition in the area at the time were the highly popular Statler Brothers.
The transition to both a financially and artistically successful career for Oaks' members Golden, Allen, Bonsall, and Sterban was aided by country legend Johnny Cash; he made the quartet a loan and hired them to open his Vegas nightclub act. When singer-songwriter Paul Simon used the group as backup singers on his single "Slip Slidin' Away," the Oaks became full-fledged members of the pop market. By the end of the decade they had produced five straight number one country hits, including "Y'All Come Back Saloon" and "You're the One." Golden revealed to People's Carlisle, "We've learned one thing through this change. A change of style doesn't cancel off fans. They stay with you and new fans pile up. Inevitably our music will cross all borders and all labels."
During the early 1980s the Oaks found their niche in country music with "catchy and commercial" songs like the material described in Stereo Review from the album Bobbie Sue. "There's a fairly good mixture of songs, if you don't require that the songs be very deep, and most of the performances have a certain amount of zest. ... This is a fair sampler of the Oak Ridge Boys' activities---a bouncy little record for your bouncy little moods." In 1983 People contributor Cheryl McCall reported, "The band has to its credit 10 No. 1 country hits, seven gold and two platinum LPs, and such spectacular pop breakthroughs as the singles 'Elvira' and 'Bobbie Sue.'" The Oaks' lead singer Duane Allen told McCall, "We don't do any cheatin' or drinkin' songs," indicating that the group has been able to hold on to their principles without sacrificing popularity. In fact, the Oaks have refused opportunities to do cigarette and beer commercials as well as movie appearances they considered racy, including one in the film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Bass singer Richard Sterban divulged to McCall, "We don't want to do anything that's going to offend our audience."
Of one mind about music, the Oaks were less united on other matters. When Golden---then the longest-standing member of the group---donned beaded buckskin and grew hair and beard similar to that of his fellows in the American Mountain Man Association, the rest of the Oaks became concerned. Rumors abounded that Golden was leaving the group to pursue a solo career during the recording of the gold record American Made. In partnership for 17 years by 1983, Golden and Allen landed in the middle of a legal confrontation, and Golden was instructed through a "letter of reprimand" to conform to the Oaks' standards of appearance. "He doesn't have to change, but the Oak Ridge Boys have an identity that we must keep up," noted Allen in People. "If Golden's personal tastes are stronger than his commitment to his job, then he can dress or look however he wants---but the Oak Ridge Boys won't go on." A few months later, though, Golden, Allen, and the rest of the group were back on speaking terms. In 1984 the Oak Ridge Boys released another gold record, Deliver, and Stereo Review glowingly called the album "the most diversified LP they've ever done," with "more emphasis on music than hits." The split had seemingly been repaired.
That year's Greatest Hits Two added another platinum award to the Oaks' previous million-sellers, Greatest Hits and Fancy Free. With the appearance of 1986's Seasons, People called the ensemble "one of country music's most durable groups." But the real test of the Oaks' durability came a year later when William Lee Golden filed suit to dissolve the group. Replaced by Steve Sanders, who had been a member of the Oaks Band during the previous five years, Golden sought millions in monetary compensation after the Oaks voted him out of the group in the spring of 1987. Allen recounted to the Chicago Tribune's Hurst, "I feel we chose the way we wanted to go and that, in one way or another, he did, too."
In late 1990 Country Music's Rich Kienzle reported that Golden "and the Oaks recently reached a legal settlement which involved, among other things, William Lee forfeiting all future royalties on recordings made during his time with the group." Kienzle quoted Golden as saying, disappointment creeping into his voice, "Things happen like that sometimes. When greed takes over, sometimes it can mess up a good team." Of his ouster, Golden went on to reveal, "I didn't even know what was going on for awhile. So all I knew is what I was readin' every day [in the papers] when it all went down."
Golden's appearance on the Oaks' 1987 album Where the Fast Lane Ends was one of his last with the group. Oaks' record sales were already on the decline when Stereo Review called the album "hardly the stuff to make you sit up and take notice. Unless you're just enthralled with the blend of the Oaks' voices---which, admittedly, accounts for whatever spark there is here---you might want to wait 'til they get their energy back."
During the four years following Golden's departure the quartet did not produce a single gold or platinum album. In 1991 the ensemble made the decision to leave MCA and join RCA. They also changed musical direction, returning to the up-tempo melodies that had marked earlier Oak Ridge Boys' records. "Although the group's style has always leaned toward the pop side of the country spectrum," wrote Hurst, "Allen, Bonsall and Sterban preferred to remain under the Nashville field's broad and friendly umbrella, where they had carved out a name. The disagreement with Golden degenerated into lack of communication, after which the rest of the group finally divorced itself from Golden, hired Sanders and went back on the country concert trail."
After recovering from his break with the group he had helped lead for nearly a quarter century, Golden embarked on a solo career. He began recording with Polygram Records and went on the road with his band; appropriately named the Goldens, the support ensemble features Golden's oldest son, Randy, on piano, and his youngest, Chris, on drums. Despite the unpleasantness with the Oaks, Golden remains rightly proud of the band's impressive history. He told Kienzle, "We did things no other group has done before or since. As young singers we went to the top of three fields. In gospel music we won a Grammy, then went to the top of country music and also had two crossover Top Five pop records. That's kind of hard for any country musician or singer to do."
The new Oak Ridge Boys, too, eventually picked up the pieces and moved on. Reviewing the Oaks' 1991 release, Unstoppable, Hurst characterized the album as "full of the kind of gospel-hot melodies, Middle-American lyrics and pop-ish instrumentation that first took the Oaks to the top of the country charts and into the pop charts beginning in the late 1970's.... Lyrically, the new album's material seems well above the group's norm in recent years, and musically it is supercharged with the heat, harmony and below-the-belt bass notes of the old Oaks." When Michael Bane interviewed the Oaks in Country Music after the release of Unstoppable, he called their success "legendary.... The Oak Ridge Boys---Joe Bonsall, Duane Allen, Richard Sterban and newest member Steve Sanders---have set the standard for vocal groups, crossing over not only into country, but pop as well."
Accompanying the success of Unstoppable was an improved relationship with former partner Golden. Allen revealed to Hurst, "We don't talk often, but when we do it's good. There's no bitterness in our tones of voice now. There still is bitterness there in all of us, I'm sure, if we want to cultivate it. But I choose to go forward from here."
Although the Oak Ridge Boys found only sporadic chart success in the 1990s, the band continued to perform as many as 170 concerts per year. "Besides the gorgeous harmony singing," wrote Jack Leaver in the Grand Rapids Press, "what makes The Oak Ridge Boys so endearing and distinctive is the onstage presence of its members." The band released a second album on RCA, The Long Haul, in 1992, before returning to MCA the same year. In 1995 the group released Christmas With the Oak Ridge Boys, the band's fifth holiday album.
In 1995 Sanders, citing personal problems, quit the group, and the group re-united with William Lee Golden at the band's New Years Eve show. Tragically, Sanders committed suicide in 1998. The classic lineup of Golden, Allen, Bonsall, and Sterban continued to tour frequently, mixing past hits with gospel and new material. The Oak Ridge Boys also performed at Branson, Missouri, leading to the release of Branson City Limits in 1999. In 2001 the Oak Ridge Boys recorded From the Heart, the band's first gospel album in over two decades. The album reached number 49 on the Top Country Albums chart, and renewed the band's commitment to its roots. In 2003 Noel Fox, a former Oak Ridge Boy and manager of the band's publishing company, died.
In 2004 the Oak Ridge Boys headlined at the Florida Strawberry Festival, appeared at the Tulip Time festival in Holland, Michigan, and, toward the end of the year, completed a Christmas tour. The Oak Ridge Boys also continued to record, releasing The Journey on Spring Hill Records in 2004. "We're all in good health." Bonsall told Rich Berry in the Grand Rapids Press. "When I was 30, I said I wouldn't be doing this when I was 40. Now I'm in my 50s and we're still going. We'll see how long we can go."
by Marjorie Burgess and Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr
The Oak Ridge Boys's Career
Originally gospel performers; group descended from the Country Cut-Ups, late 1940s, and their offspring, the Oak Ridge Quartet, late 1950s; group renamed the Oak Ridge Boys, c. 1960; crossed over to country-pop market with hit single "Y'All Come Back Saloon," 1977; secular country music group, 1977--; have appeared at festivals and performance halls, including Switzerland's Montreux International Jazz Fest, New York City's Carnegie Hall, and London's Royal Albert Hall; performed at President George Bush's inaugural gala and at other command performances for American presidents and European royalty; signed with RCA and released Unstoppable, 1991; re-signed to MCA and released This Crazy Love, 1992; released Christmas With the Oak Ridge Boys, 1995; signed with Spring Hill Records and released From the Heart, 2001; Colors, 2003; and The Journey, 2004.
The Oak Ridge Boys's Awards
Numerous gold and platinum albums; 12 Dove Awards, 1969-73; four Grammy Awards, 1971-81; cited by the Academy of Country Music as Best Vocal Group, 1977 and 1979, for Best Album, Y'All Come Back Saloon, 1977, and for single of the year, "Elvira," 1981; four Country Music Association Awards, 1978-86; two American Music Awards, 1982 and 1985.
- Selected discography
- Sky High Columbia.
- Oak Ridge Boys Columbia.
- Old Fashioned Music Columbia.
- Super Gospel Hits two volumes, Columbia.
- The Sensational Oak Ridge Boys Starday.
- The Oak Ridge Boys Power Pak.
- Old Fashioned, Down Home, Hand Clappin', Foot Stompin' Southern Style, Gospel Quartet Music Columbia.
- Y'All Come Back Saloon MCA, 1977.
- Room Service MCA, 1978.
- Oak Ridge Boys Have Arrived MCA, 1979.
- Together MCA, 1980.
- Greatest Hits MCA, 1980.
- Fancy Free MCA, 1981.
- Bobbie Sue MCA, 1982.
- Oak Ridge Boys Christmas MCA, 1982.
- American Made MCA, 1983.
- Deliver MCA, 1984.
- Greatest Hits Two MCA, 1984.
- Step On Out MCA, 1985.
- Seasons MCA, 1986.
- Christmas Again MCA, 1986.
- Where the Fast Lane Ends MCA, 1987.
- Heartbeat MCA, 1987.
- Monongahela MCA, 1988.
- Greatest Hits Volume Three MCA, 1989.
- American Dreams MCA, 1989.
- Unstoppable RCA, 1991.
- The Long Haul RCA, 1992.
- This Crazy Love MCA, 1992.
- You're the One MCA, 1992.
- Christmas With the Oak Ridge Boys MCA, 1995.
- Branson City Limits Unison, 1999.
- From the Heart Spring Hill, 2001.
- Colors Spring Hill, 2003.
- The Journey Spring Hill, 2004.
October 4, 2005: The Oak Ridge Boys' album, Day of Rejoicing, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_3/index.jsp, October 7, 2005.
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
- Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, St. Martin's, 1983.
- Widner, Ellis, and Walter Carter, The Oak Ridge Boys: Our Story, Contemporary, 1987.
- Chicago Tribune, January 27, 1991.
- Country Music, November/December 1990; May/June 1991.
- Grand Rapids Press, May 2, 2004, p. B7; May 10, 2004, p. B2.
- Library Journal, July 1987.
- People, May 28, 1979; April 4, 1983; April 25, 1983; June 9, 1986.
- Stereo Review, July 1982; April 1984; October 1987.
- Variety, May 13, 1987.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from a Kathy Gangwisch & Associates, Inc., press packet, 1991.
The Oak Ridge Boys Lyrics
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