The Oak Ridge Boys are an American country and gospel vocal quartet. The group was founded in the 1940s as the Oak Ridge Quartet. They became popular in southern gospel during the 1950s. Their name was officially changed to the Oak Ridge Boys in the early 1960s, and they remained a gospel group until the mid-1970s, when they changed their image and concentrated on country music.
The lineup which produced their most well-known country and crossover hits (such as "Elvira", "Bobbie Sue", and "American Made") consists of Duane Allen (lead), Joe Bonsall (tenor), William Lee Golden (baritone), and Richard Sterban (bass). Golden and Allen joined the group in the mid-1960s, and Sterban and Bonsall joined in the early 1970s. Aside from an eight-year gap (1987-95) when Golden left the group and was replaced, this lineup has been together since 1973 and continues to tour and record.
The Oak Ridge Quartet:
The core group that would eventually lead to the Oak Ridge Boys was a country group called Wally Fowler and the Georgia Clodhoppers, formed in 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee. They were requested to perform to staff members and their families restricted during World War II at the nuclear research plant in nearby Oak Ridge, Tennessee. They were asked to sing there so often that eventually they changed their name to the Oak Ridge Quartet. And because their most popular songs were gospel, Fowler decided to focus solely on southern gospel music. At the time, the quartet was made up of Wally Fowler, Lon "Deacon" Freeman, Curly Kinsey, and Johnny New. This group began recording in 1947. Wally Fowler And The Oak Ridge Quartet were members of the Grand Ole Opry in the 1940s. In 1949, the other three men split from Fowler to form a new group, Curley Kinsey and the Tennessee Ridge Runners, so Fowler hired an existing group, the Calvary Quartet, to re-form the Oak Ridge Quartet. In 1957, Fowler sold the rights to the "Oak Ridge Quartet" name to group member Smitty Gatlin in exchange for forgiveness of a debt. As a result of more personnel changes, the group lost its tenor, so they lowered their arrangements and had Gatlin sing tenor while the pianist, Tommy Fairchild, sang lead. They recorded an album for Cadence Records, then in 1958 they hired Willie Wynn to sing the tenor part, Fairchild moved back exclusively to the piano. At this point the group consisted of Fairchild at the piano, Wynn, Gatlin (singing lead), baritone Ron Page, and bass Herman Harper. They recorded an album on the Checker Records label, one on Starday, and three on Skylite. In 1961, Gatlin changed the group's name to "the Oak Ridge Boys" because their producer, Bud Praeger, thought "Oak Ridge Quartet" sounded too old-fashioned for their contemporary sound.
In 1962, Ron Page left, and the group hired Gary McSpadden (who had filled in for Jake Hess in the Statesmen Quartet) as baritone with the understanding from Jake Hess that when he was ready to start a group, he would recruit McSpadden. They recorded another album on Skylite, and then two groundbreaking albums on Warner Brothers. When Hess followed through on that promise, McSpadden quit to join a new group Hess was forming, the Imperials. Jim Hammill (who later became a mainstay in the Kingsmen Quartet) was chosen to be his replacement. They made one album for Festival Records, one for Stateswood (Skylite's budget label), and two more for Skylite. Hammill did not get along with the rest of the group, and a fan named William Lee Golden felt that Hammill was hurting the group and asked the group if he could be Hammil's replacement. After Hammil's retirement from the group in 1964, Golden joined as baritone.
The group recorded another album for Starday and another on Skylite in 1965. In 1966, Gatlin left the group to become a minister of music and, on Golden's recommendation, Duane Allen, formerly of the Southernairs Quartet (and more recently baritone of the Prophets Quartet), was hired to replace him. With Willie Wynn still singing tenor and Herman Harper as bass, the group made another album for Skylite, one for United Artists, and then began recording on the Heart Warming label. Between 1966 and 1973 they made 12 albums with Heart Warming, and the company also released several compilation albums on which they were included during those years. The group also had an album on Vista (Heart Warming's budget label) that included unreleased songs from previous sessions. Harper left the group in 1968 to join the Don Light Talent Agency, before starting his own company, The Harper Agency, which remains one of the most highly-reputable booking agencies in gospel music. Noel Fox, formerly of the Tennesseans and the Harvesters, took over the bass part. In 1970, the Oak Ridge Boys earned their first Grammy award for "Talk About the Good Times".
In late October 1972, Richard Sterban, the bass with J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet left that group and joined the Oak Ridge Boys. This closely followed what was possibly the Stamps Quartet's most famous moment, backing Elvis Presley in his 10 June 1972 concert at Madison Square Garden. The quartet that appeared on "Hee Haw" in 1972 consisted of Willie Wynn, Duane Allen, William Lee Golden, and Richard Sterban. Joe Bonsall, a Philadelphia native who was a member of the Keystone Quartet and recording on Duane Allen's Superior label, joined in October 1973 (coincidentally, both Sterban and Bonsall had been members of the Keystones during the late '60s, recording much of the ORB's material). That same year the Oak Ridge Boys recorded a single with Johnny Cash and the Carter Family, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup", that put them on the country charts for the first time. The group's lineup would remain consistent for the next 15 years.
After opening a series of shows for Roy Clark, the Oak Ridge Boys moved in 1973 to the Columbia label, for whom they made three albums and several singles. In early 1976, they toured Russia for three weeks with Roy Clark. They went from being one of the top acts on Heart Warming to nearly the bottom on Columbia in terms of promotion. Columbia did not service the gospel radio stations like Heart Warming did, leaving the impression that the Oak Ridge Boys were leaving gospel music, which hurt the group's popularity among its core fan demographic. While promoting the single "Heaven Bound", the Oak Ridge Boys made appearances on The Mike Douglas Show and The Merv Griffin Show, both nationally syndicated in the United States and Canada. In 1976, despite having been picked by Paul Simon to sing backup on "Slip Slidin' Away", the group asked to be released from its contract with Columbia after its single, "Family Reunion", was only a lukewarm success. Columbia complied with the request, and the band immediately made a live album that was a mix of gospel and country on their own label.
In 1977 the Oak Ridge Boys fully switched from gospel to country with the release of their first ABC Records (later absorbed by MCA) album, Y'all Come Back Saloon. Two songs from that album reached the top five on the country charts, and their next album, Room Service, in 1978, gave them two more, including their first No. 1 hit, "I'll Be True to You". The Oak Ridge Boys Have Arrived was released in 1979, and Together followed in 1980. A compilation album simply titled Greatest Hits, containing 10 singles from the previous four albums, was released in the fall of 1980. This same year, the Oak Ridge Boys also made a brief cameo appearance on The Dukes of Hazzard (Season 3, Episode 12 "State of the County".)
The group's sixth album, Fancy Free, released early in 1981, contained the Dallas Frazier-penned song "Elvira". This remains the group's most widely known song, and Fancy Free is their best-selling album. "Elvira" had been recorded by other artists, including Frazier himself in the late 1960s and The First Edition in 1970, but the Oak Ridge Boys were the first to have a hit with it. Their version of the song was a No. 1 country hit, and in July 1981 reached No. 5 on the pop charts.
The doo-wop-style title track from Bobbie Sue, their seventh album, was another crossover hit, reaching No. 1 on the country charts and No. 12 on the pop charts. That album also spawned the group's first U.S.-released music video, for the song "So Fine". (A video was made for "Easy", from the Y'All Come Back Saloon album, but was never released in the U.S.) The group also recorded The Oak Ridge Boys Christmas album in 1982.
Their album American Made, released in January 1983, created controversy when the title track became the source of a TV ad for Miller Beer. The original opening lines say:
My baby is American made
Born and bred in the USA
Miller's ads used slightly different words:
Miller's made the American way
Born and brewed in the USA
The Oak Ridge Boys did not want the song used in the ads, but had no part in the decision. The group would not sing it during the commercial's run.
The group made three albums over the next three years. The late-1983 album Deliver provided two No. 1 singles, one of which, "I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes", was written by Randy VanWarmer, who had a hit in 1979 with "Just When I Needed You Most". Their next album was Greatest Hits 2, released in July 1984. Unlike the 1980 Greatest Hits album, this one included two new songs, "Everyday" and "Make My Life With You", both No. 1 country hits. In 1985 they released their 12th album, Step on Out. The title cut was written by ex-Byrd Chris Hillman and former Crawdaddy magazine editor Peter Knobler. The group recorded two albums in 1986, one of which was a second Christmas album, and in 1987 they recorded a single called "Take Pride in America", which was used in television public service announcements about recycling.
In 1987 Where The Fast Lane Ends was released. It was the first with new producer Jimmy Bowen, and was the group's last album before the 1987 departure of William Lee Golden. Golden's departure was preceded by much discussion--both by the public and other members of the group--about his "mountain man" appearance, and lifestyle after he stopped cutting his hair and beard altogether, as well as his cutting solo material for MCA Records, releasing the critically acclaimed 'American Vagabond' in 1986. Golden complained that he felt like the "odd man out". He was replaced by the band's guitarist, Steve Sanders.
The group released four more albums for MCA, including a third Greatest Hits album that contained a previously unreleased single they had recorded for the Take Pride In America campaign. They moved to RCA Records and made three albums there, including Best Of The Oak Ridge Boys which included a single they had made for the My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys movie soundtrack. Unfortunately, the move to RCA did not work out because the person who had signed them there moved to another label shortly thereafter, and his replacement wanted to promote Alabama more than the Oak Ridge Boys. They switched again and signed with Liberty Records, (Capitol's Nashville-based label). They made their third Christmas album there.
Baritone Steve Sanders had been dealing with personal problems (including serious issues with his ex-wife) for some time, and they were increasingly becoming problems for the rest of the group as well. He gave notice in late 1995, but then walked out before fulfilling it and left the group mere hours before a concert without a baritone. The group called Duane Allen's son, Dee, to fly there and fill in; he did so for the remainder of the year, with occasional help from his brother-in-law Paul Martin. (Martin had previously replaced J.P. Pennington as lead singer of Exile in the early 1990s until that band's disbanding.) At midnight on New Year's Day 1996, in Merrillville, Indiana, Golden returned to the group. That year they made a two disc gospel set, "Revival" (their first full gospel album since 1976) with Leon Russell producing. This was sold on TV and later by the Oak Ridge Boys themselves at concerts and through the mail. In 1998 Sanders committed suicide.
Over the next few years, the group collaborated on an album with polka instrumentalist Jimmy Sturr and then made an album for Platinum Records called Voices.
After nearly a decade of dealing with problems such as labels that had little interest in promoting The Oak Ridge boys, studio breakdowns, and sluggish sales, the group's fortunes changed when they signed with Spring Hill Records in 2000. In the first four years of teaming with Dove Award-winning producer Michael Sykes, the quartet released a full-length gospel album (From The Heart), their fourth Christmas album (Inconvenient Christmas), a patriotic album (Colors), a bluegrass album (The Journey), and a quasi-compilation, titled Common Thread, containing newly recorded versions of older gospel songs, as well as material from 2004's The Journey. Another Christmas album, "Christmas Cookies," followed in 2005. In 2006 the group completed the album, Front Row Seats, a return to mainstream country music with modern, aggressive arrangements and song selection. The project spawned a minor top 40 hit with "It's Hard To Be Cool In A Mini-Van."
In 2007 the group appeared on Shooter Jennings' (son of Waylon Jennings) album The Wolf. This pairing would lead to The Boys Are Back, released on May 19, 2009, and named for the title song written by Shooter Jennings. The project debuted at No. 16 on the Billboard Top Country Albums Chart and No. 77 on the Billboard Top 200. The album was produced by Dave Cobb who was introduced to the group by Shooter Jennings. Reviews were mixed, but most praised the cover of "Seven Nation Army" by The White Stripes. 2010 was just as busy including a cameo appearance on the History Channel show Pawn Stars episode "Packing Heat", which aired on December 13, 2010.
During the July 8, 2011 performance of the Friday Night Opry, Little Jimmy Dickens announced that the Oak Ridge Boys will be the newest members of the Grand Ole Opry, effective August 6, 2011.
In September 2011, the quartet released "It's Only Natural" through Cracker Barrel Old Country Store's music label. The album debuted at No. 16 on the Billboard Country albums chart, remaining in the Country top 40 for nearly two months. It contains twelve tracks: five new songs and seven re-recorded hits from the late 1980s. The first single off the album is "What-cha Gonna Do". A special 30th anniversary re-recording of "Elvira" is featured on the album as well.
2012 saw the release of two new studio albums. In May, the group made a return to their southern gospel roots with the release of Back Home Again. Along with gospel standards, the group covered John Denver's "Back Home Again" and Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors". The album, featuring mostly acoustic arrangements, was produced by Ben Isaacs (of The Isaacs). In September of the same year, Christmas Time's A-Coming, the group's sixth Christmas project, was released through Gaither Music Group and was also a featured title at Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores. The project features traditional standards, both secular and spiritual, as well as new material.
2013 found The Oak Ridge Boys celebrating the 40th anniversary of the current lineup of members with a special 40th Anniversary Tour, commemorative CD project, an Oak Ridge Boys-themed cruise, and a network television special.
The Oak Ridge Boys release their first-ever live hits album Boys Night Out in April 2014 through Cleopatra Records. In an interview, Joe Bonsall said, "Here it is live and kicking with the audience singing with us. It's totally updated and different. I think for our real fans, this is going to be a gigantic treat, because our fans have clamored for a live album for years, and for people who don't know us or don't know us as well, to listen to this makes them go, "Oh wow, these guys are still sounding great, holy cow." I think it's going to be a good project for us all around."
On March 26, 2015, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum announced that the Oak Ridge Boys would be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame during the Medallion Ceremony in the fall of the year.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license