A Conversation With A Classic: Richard Sterban Of The Oak Ridge Boys
He’s a Jersey boy who went country, and while that is unusual, it's not the most compelling part of his story. Richard Sterban took a colossal risk and called it the most important decision he has ever made. He left singing backup for the King of Rock and Roll — Elvis Presley — to join the dual-genre band (country and gospel), the Oak Ridge Boys, a group he was always a big fan of.
Some may say he is the epitome of brave because making any decision can be tough but walking away from a singing gig with Elvis, well, that’s up there. Sterban recalls his time with Elvis as very special. He says he was on top of the world singing backup for the King; however, he knew he had other work to do. It seems like leaving Elvis would take more than a leap of faith — I’m thinking five-hundred leaps. Rest easy, Sterban knew what he was doing.
Even though he decided to part ways with Elvis musically, he never chose to abandon music, ever. Music was his do-or-die.
Many were afraid of the singer’s big jump. Sterban, not so much. He trusted his gut. He knew his decision was the right decision, even when the world was telling him otherwise. A 2015 induction into the mecca where country’s best live — the Country Music Hall of Fame — for the Oak Ridge Boys confirmed that parting ways with Elvis to join the Oaks was indeed his fate.
“I think time has proven I made a pretty good decision. It probably culminated when we were inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame with Elvis, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, etc.” The singer calls the induction one he never dreamed of and one that is “beyond words.”
Time has also shown us something different than we thought. See, Sterban never really left Elvis. He ended up right back with him in that hall of fame. Talk about coming full circle.
While it takes fortitude to leave singing backup for Elvis, it also takes fortitude to replace a band member. Sterban was sure he could succeed at both. He never felt like second best being asked to replace a former member of the Oaks when he received the life-changing call from original Oak’s member, William Lee Golden, asking him to join the quartet.
“I never really thought about that, to be honest with you. I just thought it was important to go in there and make a place for myself. I did not try to copy what the other bass singer was doing. I just did things my own way. I don’t think I was second best.”
Sterban may be talented when it comes to singing the songs fans love, but he’s also wise and spreads wisdom like he does melodies.
“Music was always the thing for me. If you’re going to be successful, you have to make a decision, and then you have to work to accomplish your goal. You have to work every day to make yourself better. You can’t be deterred and having something divert your attention from that goal.”
Sterban has other interests that he calls hobbies. He does admit that if he didn’t succeed at music, he would’ve dabbled in sports broadcasting, preferably baseball. Music, though, has always been his number one. And, there’s something to be said about going after your true passion with full force. Maybe that’s the only way we can conquer our dreams, is if we give those dreams our all.
And while he gives his dreams his all, the details of his time with Elvis still piqued my curiosity.
“Being with Elvis was a learning experience for me. I was able to observe Elvis. He was very punctual. He was always on time. We never saw an empty seat when I was working with Elvis. It helped to prepare me with what was to come later in my life.”
Perhaps Elvis was Sterban’s guardian angel. It’s as if the King took Sterban under his wing and set him free so he could sell out the very same seats with the Oak Ridge Boys that he did with Elvis. And he did. And the Oaks did.
Sterban once said his goal was to be in the best vocal group in the world.
“Did you accomplish that goal?”
“I think there’s no doubt about it. It’s probably difficult to say one group is the best, but when I made that decision, I felt the Oaks had a great deal of potential. I don’t even think back then I realized how much potential the Oaks had. We accomplished things I never dreamed.”
For Sterban, reaching heightened success in his career is greatly related to his own personal faith. I mentioned to Sterban that country music has become more pop and wondered if it was hard for him to hold onto that very faith within his music.
“I don't think it's difficult; we all have very strong beliefs as the Oak Boys. We were all raised in Christian homes. We were all taught right from wrong. That has not changed.”
The songster also believes the Oaks are of a different breed, at least compared to today’s musical majority. That’s certainly not a bad thing. “I agree today's country music has become a lot more pop. When I listen to country, I almost understand why we don't fit in anymore; we are considered classic country.”
Being considered classic sure sounds like a compliment all on its own. When I think classic, I think Elvis, old Cadillacs, Lay’s Classic Potato Chips, no wait...Charles Chips, and "I Love Lucy." Classic is the good old stuff we can’t let go of. The stuff we always say isn’t quite like today. So, go with classic, Mr. Sterban. You’re in good hands.
And while Sterban believes the Oaks don’t blend in with contemporary country, he still claps his hands for the trendy artists that represent today’s country music.
Although part of a classic group, Sterban and his tribe may not be as far away from today’s country music as he thinks. A fairly recent collaboration with music producer Dave Cobb explains why. Cobb has produced records for Chris Stapleton and the Zac Brown Band. Sterban admits that working with Cobb on the Oaks' latest album, 17th Avenue Revival, helps the band stay relevant. A combination of classic and relevant equals the longevity that the band represents.
Classic or contemporary, relevant or not relevant, the Oaks continue to make lasting impressions on their fans, and that’s probably all that matters. Sterban mentions the song “A Brand New Star (Up in Heaven Tonight)” from 17th Avenue Revival, offering fans a different way of coping with death. Sterban finds gratification in knowing that the Oaks' music helps fans endure hardships.
Speaking of songs, I asked the bass singer his favorite Oaks song and Elvis song. For the Oaks, instinct would tell him to pick “Elvira.” As he says, that’s the band’s signature song. But, on a more personal note, Sterban would choose “Thank God for Kids.” About this song, Sterban says, “William Lee Golden has a way of interpreting a lyric and then communicating it to the audience.”
As for an Elvis pick, it is “Burning Love.” Sterban pats himself on the back as he chose this one because he was proudly on the record.
Sterban and the Oaks lived through many proud moments. One of their most proud is honoring the promise they made to the late President George H.W. Bush by singing at his funeral. When Bush passed away in 2018, the Oaks, dear friends of the late president and his family, sang at his funeral. Sterban was sure to include this note in our interview without me even asking. The Country Hall of Fame inductee says, “Him and Barbara are the most wonderful people you’d ever want to be around.”
Speaking of wonderful, let’s include one more piece of advice from the musician that fans and well anyone could use. The man of musical prowess explains that we must all walk on our own path, find our own way.
His most significant piece of advice?
Hard work has earned this man and his bandmates' halls of fame inductions (one in the same house as Elvis), the honor to sing for a president, countless awards, hit records, and sold out audiences, to name just a few.
Richard Sterban and his boys are examples that hard work will get you far, keep you on stage regardless of when you started, and that some risks take you right where you need to be. The Oak Ridge Boys will be performing at the Lorain Palace Theater on August 17.
I have a feeling Elvis will be looking down with pride.
This interview was condensed for brevity.
Felicia Naoum is a celebrity and inspirational writer who grew up in Parma, Ohio.