GALLIA COUNTY — If you were asked to name the most famous bass singer in history, the name Richard Sterban may certainly come to mind, but even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, this might — Giddy Up Oom Poppa Oom Poppa Mow Mow.
That catchy little bass solo — of the vocal, not instrumental, variety — is nested in The Oak Ridge Boys’ signature tune, Elvira, and those few syllables sung in his rich, deep register made a name for Sterban when the band recorded and released their version of the song in 1981. Now, Sterban and his bandmates —William Lee Golden, Duane Allen and Joe Bonsall — are making their way to Gallia County to perform at the 2012 Gallia County Fair. The show is slated for 8:30 p.m. Thursday on the Main Stage.
I caught up with Sterban, a well-spoken and charming gentleman, earlier this week to discuss — what else? — the quartet’s timeless sound, staying power and upcoming Gallia County performance.
Filson: Give me a little history lesson. How did you get started in music, and how did you make your way from that start to your longtime position with The Oak Ridge Boys?
Sterban: The first singing I ever did, and it’s hard to believe, I was a soprano in Sunday School, and I was about six years old. I had a high voice up until I was in junior high school, and between seventh and eighth grade, my voice changed. I went from singing first tenor in the Glee Club to singing second bass. Obviously I’ve been there ever since.
After high school, I helped to organize the first group I ever sang with called the Keystone Quartet. While there, I met Joe Bonsall, and we sang in a group called the Keystones. Then I got a call one day from J.D. Sumner, and he offered me a job singing with his group, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, and that involved me moving to Nashville, which I did. And while I was with [Sumner], I ended up singing vocal backup to Elvis, which was kind of interesting.
For about a year and a half, I actually sang with Elvis, and while I was doing that, one day William Lee Golden called me up and offered me a job with The Oak Ridge Boys. So, here I was, singing in the biggest tour in the music business, and then The Oak Ridge Boys called me up and offered me a job. So, I had to make a major decision in my life, and history indicates that I made the correct decision.
I think being a part of the Elvis tour was kind of a learning experience for me. I think it helped prepare me for later on in my career with The Oak Ridge Boys. I played in some of the biggest arenas for Elvis, and just a few years later, I went back to many of the same arenas, and they were just as full for The Oak Ridge Boys. That was way back in 1972 that I joined the Oak Ridge Boys, and we are still doing it 40 years later. We’ve had a pretty amazing career.
Filson: The Oak Ridge Boys are well known for the 1981 release of the song, Elvira, and your bass solo within it has become your calling card. Do you ever just get tired of singing it?
Sterban: It’s still fun. There’s something special about the words, “oom poppa mow mow.” I don’t know what they mean exactly — I don’t know if they mean anything. The song was actually written by a gentleman named Dallas Frazier. It had been written about 17 years before we recorded it, and it had been recorded by about 10 different people before we did it, including Kenny Rogers, I might add.
Somehow, we found the special touch on that song, I guess. I can remember the recording session to this very day. I remember the looks on the musicians’ faces — everybody was smiling and having fun — and we just could tell that we had something special on our hands. But I don’t think we even realized how special it was until the first time we performed the song in person.
We were in Spokane, Washington, and we just stuck that song right in the middle of the show, and when we did it, people just went crazy. They insisted that we encore it — several times — right in the middle of the show! Then, we stuck it on the end of the show again, and at that point we realized that we really did have something special on our hands. Now, 32 years later, Elvira is the song that people expect to hear from The Oak Ridge Boys, and when we come to Gallia County to the fair, we know that people are going to want to hear that song, and we will deliver.
Filson: You’ve been doing this for a long time. Is your voice the same as it ever was? Is it harder or easier to hit those seriously low notes?
Sterban: Well, one thing about singing bass — I’m not happy about getting older, no one is — but getting older actually makes hitting those low notes a little easier.
Filson: I’m curious about the timelessness of the type of music you have chosen to record and perform. The Oak Ridge Boys’ sound has sustained for a very long time. What do you say to that?
Sterban: I agree with you. The music of The Oak Ridge Boys is timeless. Even our hits from many, many years ago, they are still relavent in today’s marketplace. I really do believe that. Another major reason for our longevity is that we have been able to go into the studio periodically and create new music that is relevant to the current marketplace. I think we have reinvented ourselves every now and then. We have not necessarily changed ourselves, I think that is important, but we have traveled down some different roads and have acquired new fans, as a result. So, while our original audience has kind of aged with us, we still see a lot of young people in our audience because we have created new music they can identify with. The creative process is something that we all still enjoy after all these years. New music puts new life and energy into us, and I think that is big part of our longevity. So, when we come to the fair, we are going to bring a balance of old, well-known hits and new music in the vein of country, gospel, Bluegrass and patriotic [genres].
Filson: There’s a certain wholesomeness associated with The Oak Ridge Boys that stands in contrast to much of the music today. Is that something that was planned? Or does it naturally reflect the nature of the members of the band?
Sterban: I think that is just a reflection of who we are. All four of us were raised in good, Christian homes. All four of us were taught right from wrong as young people. We were taught that if you are honest in your dealings and work hard, good things will happen to you. I’m not implying that we are always good and wholesome people, but I think it is a very natural reflection of who we are as a band. We do know right from wrong, and that is reflected in our music. We really aren’t putting on any airs here.
Filson: What can fans expect from The Oak Ridge Boys at Thursday’s Gallia County Fair performance?
Sterban: A great night of good country music and really good family entertainment. We have a very family-oriented show. You’ll hear the hits and the new music and the gospel and the patriotic music — but there’s something there for every member of the family. We would never do anything that we wouldn’t want our own families to hear on stage.
Filson: My mom [Shirley Sayre of Racine] is going to be so excited when she finds out that I spoke to you today! The Oak Ridge Boys was one of the handful of 8-track tapes we had in the car when I was very young. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you. Is there anything at all you’d like to add?
Sterban: I’ve enjoyed talking to you, as well — and please, say ‘hi’ to your mother, from me and all the Oak Ridge Boys.