By A.C. Kruse-Ross
The Oak Ridge Boys pull their sleigh into Green Bay for two festive shows at the Weidner Center on December 22. An “Oak Ridge Boys Christmas” promises to be the areas premier event to ring in the holidays. Speaking with us in support of the Christmas show is none other than Oak Ridge Boy bass Richard Sterban. Sterban has lived a long and storied career in show business. He’s toured with Elvis Presley as a member of J.D. Sumner and The Stamps, even singing backup for the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, is a member of the Grand Ole Opry and has performed at a U.S. Presidential Inauguration.
We were honored to visit with Sterban to speak about the Christmas show, the Oak Ridge Boys 40th anniversary and Sterban’s new book entitled “From Elvis to Elvira My Life on Stage.”
Scene: Let’s start with the Christmas album, very impressive! My wife and I were very impressed. It’s a strong album, and we’ve been listening to it for the last couple of days. Is this your sixth Christmas album?
Richard Sterban: Yes! You’re absolutely correct. Over the course of our career, we’ve recorded a total of six Christmas albums. We’ve become known for our Christmas music because the Christmas tours that we do along with the albums have become the biggest part of our touring year. The Christmas tour is in demand; we take it all over the country.
Scene: I’ve got to ask you about the new album, ‘Christmas Time’s a Coming.’ In listening to it, it’s a really great mix of emotion and feeling. You’ve got the jovial, and the lighthearted Christmas songs. Then there’s a couple of the classics, but we also have some very serious, sentimental, and spiritual songs on the album. You also have the country rocker with the ‘Peterbilt Sleigh.’ Do you approach a Christmas album differently than you do your more traditional albums? I imagine, there’s a lot of responsibility when working with Christmas; it’s a big deal.
RS: You’re absolutely right. First of all, Christmas is a big deal. Christmas is something that’s very important to us. What have we’ve tried to do with all of our Christmas CDs is, and we try to do the same thing with our Christmas shows, we try to find a nice balance of traditional songs. Songs that are familiar to people, and that they love to hear at Christmas, along with songs that take you back to your childhood. We like to include songs by contemporary writers as well. Songs that tell the Christmas story in a new and more contemporary way. We try to find a nice balance. Then, we try to find a nice balance between singing about the secular side, the fun side of Christmas, and the spiritual side of Christmas. We feel like there’s a real and true meaning to Christmas, and that, of course, is the birth of Jesus. We like to include songs that talk about that subject. It is the same thing with our show. Christmas is a great time, and there’s a lot of great music out there. We try to find a nice mixture by doing a mixture of traditional, those familiar songs and the newer songs.
Scene: I think you’ve done a phenomenal job because the album does just that. It’s very well done.
RS: Thank you so much! That’s a great compliment. And allow me to be a little commercial right here; the album is available at Cracker Barrel! You can buy the album at their restaurants and old country stores. Over the years, we’ve established a great relationship with them, and they do carry our cd, ‘Christmas Time’s a Coming.’
Scene: You’ve had so many accomplishments, yet another one — Cracker Barrel had a survey where they asked customers, ‘Which artist would you like to see here?’ The Oak Ridge Boys ranked atop of that list!
RS: Yes! That’s one of the main reasons that we’ve been able to establish a relationship with Cracker Barrel, because of that survey!
Scene: It’s astonishing, I don’t know where that ranks on your list of achievements, but it’s a great accomplishment.
RS: Well, thank you. I think it’s important to be innovative in this day and age. We are not the hot kids in town any more. We’re not the new kids on the block, they’re really not playing our records on the radio like they used to. So you have to be innovative, you have to find other ways to sell your product. This relationship with Cracker Barrel has proven to be just that. Cracker Barrel is a great restaurant, but besides being a great restaurant, they make music a big part of what they do, especially country music. They’ve been especially good to the Oak Ridge Boys.
Scene: I hear from some of the newer artists on the block, they’re really confused with the current economic situation. This is a crazy time. People aren’t buying albums any more. You’re right; you have to find other ways of moving your music.
RS: You know, Cracker Barrel just moved in, and they filled that niche a little bit. A lot of our fans still like to physically buy and hold a CD in their hands, and you can still do that at Cracker Barrel. If you go into one of their restaurants and look around, and you look at their customers, their customers look an awful lot like our audience. They really do! So it’s been a great relationship, we had a CD with them a couple years ago called ‘It’s Only Natural.’ And the title is so appropriate because it’s a natural association between Cracker Barrel and the Oak Ridge Boys working together.
Scene: I’ve gotta ask you a more specific question about the album, this touches on your book which we’ll get to later. In your book, you mention that ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ as being one of your favorite songs. You were hopeful that it would make the set list for the tour.
RS: I can tell you, it is on the set list. It will be on the show! When we do our Christmas show, we try to cover every aspect of Christmas, including the ability to be romantic. If there ever was a romantic song, it is that one! Listen to the lyrics . . . ‘I want to wrap you up and take you home!’ Ay-yah! You can’t get more personal than that! (laughs).
Scene: Oh! Ho! Ho! Ho! (more laughter)
RS: The song doesn’t say it, but the song implies that once I get you home, then I want to unwrap you! (more laughter)
Scene: It’s great! Again, you are introducing songs that people won’t be familiar with at all. In doing these Christmas albums, you’ve got this chance to be in another part of history and be responsible for being associated with a Christmas song.
RS: Like I said earlier, that’s what we try to do. We know that Christmas is a special time of year. And we know that people love to hear familiar Christmas songs. I enjoy the traditional songs myself. One of my favorite songs on this album is ‘Joy to the World.’ I’ve been singing that song since I was a kid. People like to hear that. But then, it’s nice also to have the opportunity to enter in some new stuff. New songs that tell the Christmas story in a new and different, even a more contemporary way.
Scene: Sure. You touched briefly on the set list. With that extensive history of Christmas songs that you’ve performed in the Christmas segment of your show, are you focusing just on ‘Christmas Time’s a Coming,’ or are you going back to some of the older songs as well?
RS: We’re featuring all the songs of the ‘Christmas Time’s a Coming’ CD, but we’re also going back and doing some more popular songs from years past. The very first Christmas CD that we ever released is a CD that a lot of people grew up on, and they’ve been listening to that. We’re doing a few songs from that particular CD as well. Like ‘Happy Christmas Eve,’ for example, another very romantic Christmas song. That will be on the set list as well.
Scene: With the tour, you do one set that is your 40th anniversary greatest hits, and then you take a break and come out and do the Christmas numbers. Is that difficult for you and the band to switch gears like that?
RS: We feel that even though it’s a Christmas show, and it’s Christmas time, people still want to hear some of our regular music as well, so we try to do both. I think the Christmas show is a real bargain. It’s really two shows for the price of one. You get to hear all of our hits; you get Elvira, of course, and a lot of the songs that you’d expect to hear from the Oak Ridge Boys. And after that, it’s kind of like a mini version of what we’ve been doing from the normal part of the year. After the intermission, we come back out and do a complete Christmas show and we cover just about every aspect of Christmas. We do the fun side, we have a great Santa segment where Santa Claus comes out on stage and we do several songs with Santa. He actually goes out into the audience and interacts with the kids in the crowd. It’s a lot of fun!
We started a segment a couple years ago, it’s become a favorite on the tour, and we call it the ‘rocking chair’ segment. I mentioned Cracker Barrel restaurant, they have provided us with four rocking chairs, and we sit right in the center of the stage around a fireplace, it’s a fake fireplace, of course, (laughter) and the four Oak Ridge Boys talk about childhood Christmas memories. We talk about what it was like growing up singing Christmas music with our families, and it’s a great time for the audience to get to know the four Oak Ridge Boys just a little bit. It’s become a very important part of our show. And we use that rocking chair segment to segway into the final part of the show, which is the sacred part. We definitely want to sing about what we consider the true meaning of Christmas, and that, of course, is the birth of Jesus. That’s something that’s very important to us, and we know it is to our audience as well.
So the whole thing is really a total package, our regular music at the beginning, our hits, and then just about every aspect of Christmas. There’s something for every member of the family. The show is kid-friendly, we encourage parents to bring their kids to the show, and kids love it! The kids love our Santa Claus! It’s a great time, and a great way for families to spend time together at Christmas. When we come to Green Bay, it’s going to be December 22nd, so come out and spend some time with the Oak Ridge Boys and celebrate with us!
Scene: Before we close, I’ve got to ask you, what keeps a group, four decades old, together and going strong? Why do you keep doing this? You must absolutely love what you’re doing, right?
RS: We do! You answered the question right there! We love what we’re doing! After 40 years, we still look forward to getting on stage, and taking our music live to our audiences, it’s what we live for! We’re still having fun doing it; we really are, even 40 years later! If you’d asked us years ago if we thought we’d still be doing this today, I’m not sure any of would have believed it. But, here we are, still going strong, still having a great time. We love everything about being an Oak Ridge Boy. One thing is the fact that we love the creative process, going into the recording studio and recording new music. That new music is satiety to us, and that helps keep us going. And when we put that new music in the show, it makes the show more exciting. We always want to do the hits because we feel that’s important, but we like to do the new music as well. We periodically have reinvented ourselves just a little bit, and that’s another thing that’s kept us going. We still have recorded music that’s relevant to the current marketplace, and I feel that a lot of our fans do appreciate that.
Scene: You mention reinvention. You joined the Oak Ridge Boys in 1972. Right around that time, the group was changing to a more country format. Was that one of the reinventions?
RS: When I first joined the group, we were singing strictly gospel music and we still do a lot of gospel music. We believe in the message of the gospel, but we wanted to expand our horizons. We wanted to have a bigger outreach, and that’s why we switched it to country music — our manager, Jim Halsey, helped tremendously with that. He’s still our manager today, which is unbelievable. He signed us to our first recording contract with ABC Records, which later became MCA. Later, we acquired the services of Ron Chancey who became our producer and he produced most of our major hit songs. We feel very fortunate and very blessed to have a great career and 40 years later still going strong.
Scene: Moving on to your book, I wanted to ask about your decision to write about your accounts. What prompted that? I’m amazed by what you’ve accomplished; that ride. Do you to say to yourself, ‘Wow look at what I’ve done, I need to put this on paper?’ Because at the same time, you seem like a very humble person and not the sort who’s like, ‘I need some money, I need to put a book out there.’ You’re so reserved.
There are parts in your book with Elvis, parts with Sammy Davis that are very moving. You’re so even keeled about it. Can you tell me about your decision about putting your history down on paper?
RS: Prior to joining the Oak Ridge Boys 41 years ago, I sang with a group called J. D. Sumner & The Stamps Quartet. For about a year and a half, I sang with the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, I sang with Elvis. For over 40 years, people have continually asked me about Elvis. ‘What was it like to sing with Elvis? What kind of guy was Elvis? Tell me some Elvis stories.’ And so I’d been talking about it for so long, I decided, I’d better write some of this down. I am not a writer, and I don’t pretend to be. But I got together with a very good friend of mine, Steven Robinson; he’s about the best Elvis historian I know. He’s a great writer and he and I spent about a year just talking about this book. I spent hours with him, doing interviews, talking into his recorder, and just doing hours and hours of interviews. I spent time just trying to remember everything that happened in the past, sometimes it was a little difficult to pull those memories out, but I think it turned out pretty good.
My original intention was to write a book about Elvis, but once we got into the project, I realized that there was a lot more to talk about then just my experiences with Elvis. So while it is a book about Elvis, it’s much more than just an Elvis book. If you’re an Elvis fan, you’re going to find some great stories in there. If you an Oak Ridge Boys fan, you’re gonna read some great Oak Ridge stories. You’re gonna read about the major decision I made in my life to leave the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and join the Oak Ridge Boys. That decision changed my life. There are a lot of Elvis books out there, and a lot of people that have worked with Elvis, but this book is really my story. It really is.
Scene: It is, and that’s what’s really interesting. The Elvis stories are fantastic, but it doesn’t read as simply another Elvis story. It’s so much more than that.
RS: Well, thank you!
Scene: All your time with so many great performers, is there one in particular, one lesson that you could encapsulate that you’ve learned from one of these great performers that you’ve worked with?
RS: I think it would be our relationship with Johnny Cash probably sticks out the most. There would probably not be an Oak Ridge Boys today if it wasn’t for Johnny Cash and June Carter. The two of them took us under their wings; so to speak, they really helped us during a period of time when we really needed help. We were really struggling along, our heads were hanging, and Johnny made us a part of his show. You could tell we were a little discouraged and I talk about it in the book. One day he called us up to his room for a meeting. It really ended up being more of a pep talk than anything else. He said, ‘Fellas I can tell that you guys are discouraged. But I can also tell that there’s something very special about the four of you. Between the four of you, there’s magic. I can feel it, and you guys know it’s there, too. But if you give up, no one’s ever going to know about it. You’ve got to find a way to stay together. I can promise you, if you find a way to stay together, great things are about to start happening to you guys.’
Johnny Cash was absolutely right. We walked out of that meeting with our heads held high. We thought, ‘We are going to make it. If Johnny Cash thinks that we’re going to make it, we’re are going to make it.’ And sure enough, a few years later, we signed our first record deal, and we had hit records happening. And I do remember when we won our first Country Music Award for Vocal Group of the Year, we ran up on that stage. Johnny was hosting that show, and we didn’t run up to the podium to accept the award. Instead, we ran to where Johnny was standing and we all hugged his neck. And he said, ‘Fellas, see I told you, if you stayed together, it’s gonna happen.’
So we’re indebted to Johnny Cash. We were dear, dear friends. There would not be an Oak Ridge Boys today without Johnny Cash.
Scene: I have a million more questions, but I know you don’t have that kind of time. Is there anything you’d like to say that I haven’t asked you?
RS: The Christmas show is a great show, and we’ve always done a great business in Green Bay. We’re excited about coming back! It will be our final Christmas show, so after this show; we’ll be going home to celebrate our own Christmas. It’s a great family show, and it’s a great time! Enjoy the Oak Ridge Boys at ‘Christmas Time’s a Coming’!
Catch the Oak Ridge Boys for two shows at the Weidner Center — 3 p.m. & 7 p.m. on Dec. 22.
Tickets available at weidnercenter.com.
To purchase a copy of Sterban’s book or other Oak Ridge Boys’ merchandise including ‘A Christmas Time’s a Coming’ visit oakridgeboys.com.