“Giddy up oom poppa, mow mow.”
The above lyric, for lack of a better word, is probably not the most artistic composition ever written. But promotional material for the upcoming Oak Ridge Boys Christmas Show at the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts in Portsmouth described it as “one of music’s most recognized sing-alongs on an international scale.”
If you haven’t guessed, it’s the bass line in the chorus of the Oak Ridge Boys titanic hit “Elvira.” If you can’t now hear it in your head, you are probably well below a certain age.
At the time he agreed to speak with the Daily Times in early October, Richard Sterban was celebrating his 45th year as an Oak Ridge Boy. As he is the group’s bass singer, Sterban has sung that above line many, many times. He claims to never get tired of it.
Sterban will be singing the line during the group’s Nov. 17 concert. It is roughly the 15th year the Oak Ridge Boys will make a holiday trip to Portsmouth. Sterban said that as usual, the group will put on a regular Oak Ridge Boys show including “Elvira,” of course, but also presumably, other hits such as “Bobbie Sue,” “Thank God for Kids,” and “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.” They also will undoubtedly perform some songs from their new CD “17th Avenue Revival,” a recording about which Sterban seems exceptionally excited.
Once they are done crooning 50 or so years of hits and gospel recordings, Sterban said they will take a break and come back to finish the show with nothing but holiday music.
Even prior to joining the Oak Ridge Boys, Sterban had a pretty good career going. He was a member of a group known as J. D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet. Their main claim to fame was a pretty big one. For several years, the quartet were the backup singers for Elvis Presley.
“I got to sing with Elvis, I got to sing with the king of rock ‘n’ roll,” Sterban said.
Somewhat incidentally, for his part, Sumner had another claim to fame. He is in the Guinness Book of World Records as having sung the lowest bass note ever recorded. Sumner wanted to get off the road, Sterban said, and offered him the opportunity to take his place. Sterban moved from Buffalo N.Y., to Nashville, Tenn., to make that happen. “It was well worth it,” he said.
Six months after the move, the Stamps Quartet got the Elvis gig.
“Back then, I think, no question, Elvis was the biggest act in the world,” Sterban said. “Being a part of that was very exciting.”
While Sterban was singing backup for Elvis, he again caught a break when yet another bass singer decided he wanted to get off the road. As you might expect, that singer was the original bass singer for the Oak Ridge Boys.
“And I was an Oak Ridge Boys fan,” Sterban said. But he also admitted to somewhat having the time of his life touring with Elvis.
“All of a sudden, I had a decision to make… I felt like the Oak Ridge Boys had a great deal of potential and I wanted to be part of the group. A lot of people back then questioned my decision. I really believed I was doing the right thing and sure enough, time has proven me correct… In the last 45 years, so many amazing things have happened to me.”
In Sterban’s mind, the whole thing culminated about three years ago when the group was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He talked about the thrill of joining such people as his long-ago boss Elvis, Johnny Cash and many others.
Sterban spent a little bit of time talking about modern country music. He said in listening to contemporary country on the radio or watching awards shows, he understands maybe the Oak Ridge Boys aren’t entirely part of that picture anymore. That’s okay with him.
“Times change,” he said. “We are now considered ‘classic country.’” Sterban added he doesn’t really have a problem with the new sound of country or where the Oak Ridge boys fit in the scheme of things. “We’re hanging in there pretty good,” he said. “We were lucky enough to have made a big enough name for ourselves.”
Sterban further credited today’s country music stars with raising the genre to heights it never reached previously, bringing in droves upon droves of new, young fans.
“Those new guys, it’s different, I’ll be the first to admit that, but I tip my hat to them,” he said.
Sterban claims the Oak Ridge Boys genuinely look forward to coming to Portsmouth but added the annual show almost didn’t happened this year. Sterban said this is the 29th annual Oak Ridge Boys Christmas tour and he described it as the biggest thing the group does annually.
“We have very fond memories of coming to Portsmouth. It would not be our Christmas tour at this point now if we did not come to Portsmouth. It has become a tradition for us. It really has… The people there treat us so very well,” Sterban said.
Sterban added he believes the concert here has become a genuine holiday tradition for many residents in Portsmouth and the surrounding area. He said the band doesn’t like doing Christmas shows prior to Thanksgiving but there was no other way to bring the show to Portsmouth this year.
“We wanted to come back so much this year, we had to work to find a date, but we did it.”