Not many musical groups can boast a member who recorded and toured with Elvis Presley. Then again, not many groups are the Oak Ridge Boys.
The celebrated country-gospel vocal outfit — they belong to small group of acts inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame — will perform at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre as part of their Christmas Celebration Tour.
Known for their four-part harmonies, the quartet comprised of lead singer Duane Allen, tenor Joe Bonsall, baritone William Lee Golden and bass Richard Sterban has reached gold, platinum and double platinum status with its records, charted over a dozen No. 1 singles, and earned five Grammy Awards.
Their hits include “Bobbie Sue,” “Y’all Come Back Saloon,” “Thank God For Kids” and “American Made,” but the Oak Ridge Boys are best known for their pop-crossover smash “Elvira,” which earned them their first Grammy and a slew of other awards.
And with all their successes, the holiday season has become as major a component of the Oaks’ lives as their other creative endeavors.
“Christmas has become a very big part of what we do,” Sterban said in a recent phone interview. “This is our 29th annual Christmas tour. It’s in demand. We start in mid-November … and we’ll get home this year on (Dec. 23). It’s what we love doing. We love singing Christmas music.”
Sterban, who backed Elvis for a year and a half as a member of J.D. Sumner and The Stamps, joined the Oak Ridge Boys in 1972, and is recognized for his booming, low-register vocal — particularly his signature “oom pawpaw mowmow” on “Elvira.”
“We got the idea (for a Christmas tour) from Kenny Rodgers,” Sterban said. “When we were just an up-and-coming act, Kenny took us under his wing. We watched what Kenny was doing, and we learned from him.”
The Oaks would go on to release a Christmas album shortly after “Elvira” became their biggest hit, and the album, Sterban said, was the 13th ever holiday record to reach gold status.
Through the years, the group has shown diversity, waxing poppy as much as bouncing between country and gospel. In 2009, they recorded an album with Nashville producer Dan Cobb and released an arrangement of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” Last year, the Oaks recorded “Doing It to Country Songs,” with Blake Shelton, which led to a memorable performance on the CMAs and an animated video for the tune.
That sense of diversity and penchant for engaging new music is apparent throughout the the Oaks’ holiday routine. Sterban said all of the group’s Christmas CDs and shows seek a balance between traditional yuletide songs, like “White Christmas” and “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire,” and more recent compositions.
“We like to keep up with the times,” Sterban said. “We search writers and publishers in Nashville to tell the Christmas story in a contemporary way.
The performance features an appearance by Santa Claus and a segment during which the Oaks come out on stage without their typical big backing band to perform a few stripped-down songs.
“We call it our rocking chair segment,” Sterban said. “Each Oak Ridge Boy takes turns talking about childhood Christmas memories. We talk about how important Christmas is and sing songs in front of a fireplace in rocking chairs. It’s a chance for fans to get to know each Oak Ridge Boy.”
Throughout the show, fans can expect songs that reflect the fun, secular and romantic sides of Christmas, Sterban said.
“We say, ‘Here are the songs that make you feel comfortable about Christmas, like ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Joy To The World,’” Sterban said. “We also have some great Christmas love songs we’ve recorded over the years. Then, of course, we always talk about the true meaning of Christmas. That’s very, very important to the Oak Ridge Boys, and we know it’s important to the audience as well. There’s a lot of bad in the world today; a little Jesus is not going to hurt anyone.”
Invariably, Sterban said, fans want to know if they’re going to hear “Elvira.”
“Yes, you will,” he said. “You will hear me ‘oom pawpaw mowmow.’”
In fact, the Oaks do a 40- to 45-minute set of originals before they get into the holiday tunes. During the rocking chair segment, Sterban said, the group plans to debut a song from their upcoming second record with Cobb, which is due out in March.
“It’s very traditional and retro in nature,” Sterban said of the album that was recorded at RCA studio A in the heart of Nashville’s Music Row. “It was four Oak Ridge Boys standing around one microphone in the studio and Dave Cobb playing his guitar. It’ll be something new and special for fans to hear.”
Sterban said the Oaks, who have no plans of slowing down just yet, love the process of going into the studio and creating new music.
“(Cobb) took us down roads we’d never been,” Sterban said. “Our association with Blake (Shelton) allowed us to touch younger country music fans. It’s an example of the Oak Ridge Boys staying abreast of what’s going on in country.”
Forty five years after joining the Oak Ridge Boys, Sterban has perspective that reaches back to his year and a half with Elvis, and his decision to leave the icon to perform with the Oaks.
“I’m so happy to have experienced that,” he said. “It was an honor and a privilege to get to know the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. A lot of people questioned my decision, but I felt I was doing the right thing. I was a big fan of the Oak Ridge Boys, and I felt it had a great deal of potential, and I wanted to be a part of it. Some great things have happened to me personally as well as all four Oak Ridge Boys in the last 45 years. It all culminated two years ago when we were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. I would say I made a good decision.”