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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Book by Oak Ridge Boys singer provides window on show world

The popular quartet will return Sunday to the Weidner Center.
Richard Sterban
Richard Sterban

PHOTO: The Oak Ridge Boys are, from left, William Lee Golden, Joe Bonsall, Richard Sterban and Duane Allen.

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Richard Sterban recalls, “He hugged me and then we shook hands. I still remember looking into his eyes for the first time. The magnetism was indescribable. I couldn’t believe that he knew my name and knew that I was the bass singer. I don’t know how we gathered ourselves well enough to sing at that rehearsal, but apparently we did. I just kept thinking over and over that there was Elvis Presley, and here we were singing with him. It was a feeling that could continue every night; it never got old to me.”

The remembrance is from Sterban’s book, “From Elvis to Elvira: My Life on Stage,” which details his career that spans his singing as a boy soprano to the “oom poppa mau mau” bass singer with the hit-making Oak Ridge Boys.

The Oak Ridge Boys return Sunday, Dec. 22, for two shows at Green Bay’s Weidner Center for the Performing Arts. Info: www.weidnercenter.com.

The first time the Oak Ridge Boys walked into Cofrin Family Hall, the main theater at the Weidner, tenor Joe Bonsall told me he looked out and said, “Opera!” Bonsall said he liked singing in quality theaters (amid a crazy-quilt array of venues traveling groups face).

Sunday’s show will be split between Oak Ridge Boys hits (“Bobbie Sue,” “Dream On,” “Thank God for Kids,” “American Made” and “Elvira”) and Christmas songs from four Christmas albums.

The Oak Ridge Boys have been around for 40 years, and Sterban’s book provides insights into the highs and lows for the group and him as an individual.

While not covered in the book, some of the group’s trips to Green Bay have been notable. The group was set to perform a weekend of sold-out shows at the Carlton West when fire destroyed the illustrious showplace on the morning of Jan. 6, 1986. Earlier gigs at the 1,000-seat Las Vegas-style showroom were important for the Oak Ridge Boys, Joe Bonsall said, because they proved to the group that it had a large audience outside of its core territory.

Sterban’s memoir details the dynamics of being a singer with a clearly identifiable deep, deep voice. Sterban sang in multiple groups in the gospel field as he inched toward a full-time career. The upward climb came in fits and starts, with an important stint in The Stamps, a gospel group that backed gospel-loving Elvis Presley on tour over two years in the early 1970s. Sterban writes that the tours consisted of “46 shows and two Las Vegas engagements of 121 more shows for a total of 167 times on stage with the greatest act of all time. With him, we had performed for almost 900,000 ticket buyers.”

Sterban’s gig with The Stamps opened the door for his way into the Oak Ridge Boys, which was a gospel group when he joined. Sterban writes that he was asked to join by William Lee Golden, who sings with the group today but for a time was voted out of the group. That’s one example of the book shedding light on how weird show business is at times.

This confession by Sterban is another example: “Every possible version of sin presented itself to us. Virtually any woman we could have wanted, any drug that existed, any situation that we could imagine (and many that we could have never imagined) were all there for the taking. It part, it had to do with the times – the free-wheeling, get rich, greedy, excess 1980s – and, in part, it was the result of the wild success we were experiencing. That we survived to live to tell about it is more a testament to God’s grace than anything else. We found it sufficient to cover any appetites that could have destroyed us.”
The book also covers plenty of glories – the awards, rubbing shoulders with presidents, baseball team ownership, playing famous places, pleasing throngs. The good things provided the individuals in the Oak Ridge Boys platforms for other things. For one, Bonsall writes, too, with this his notable creation: “G.I. Joe and Lillie: Remembering a Life of Love and Loyalty.”

As Bonsall does in his remembrance of his parents, Sterban strikes a chord in this section from his book’s acknowledgements: “Writing a memoir is a daunting task. Living a life is a wonderful, sometimes difficult and exciting adventure. Reliving it, remembering every high and every low, and committing them to written words on a page for anyone to see, is both exhilarating and sobering. The good fortune and heartache, the love and loss, the victories and defeats that come our way as the days and the years fly by, are the lyrics and the melody to the songs that become our lives.”

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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