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The Oak Ridge Boys

One of the longest-running groups in country music, the Oak Ridge Boys started life as a gospel quartet before gradually modernizing their style and moving into secular country-pop. Yet even at the height of their popularity in the late '70s and early '80s -- when they were big enough to cross over to the pop charts -- their sound always remained deeply rooted in country gospel harmony. Their existence dates all the way back to World War II, circa 1942-1943, when a Knoxville, TN, group began performing gospel songs in nearby Oak Ridge, the home of an atomic bomb research facility. The group's members also performed in a larger aggregation called Wally Fowler & the Georgia Clodhoppers, which recorded for Capitol. However, lead singer Fowler decided to focus on gospel music in 1945. Dubbed the Oak Ridge Quartet, the group first appeared at the Grand Ole Opry that year and made their first recordings in 1947 with a lineup of Fowler, Lon "Deacon" Freeman, Curly Kinsey, and Johnny New.

Numerous personnel shifts ensued over the next few years, particularly in 1949, when the entire group split from Fowler; at that point, he hired a completely different group, the Bob Weber-led Calvary Quartet, to assume the Oak Ridge name. With a core of Fowler and Weber, plus a revolving-door cast of supporting vocalists, the group became one of the top draws on the Southern gospel circuit, continuing up to the end of 1956. At that point, Fowler disbanded the quartet and sold the name to group member Smitty Gatlin, who organized a new lineup in early 1957. In 1961, Gatlin changed their name to the Oak Ridge Boys, made them a full-time professional act, and started to modernize their sound on record with fuller arrangements and elements of country and folk. Future mainstay William Lee Golden joined as the group's baritone vocalist in 1964, and when Gatlin retired to become a full-time minister two years later, the group, acting on Golden's recommendation, hired ex-Southernairs singer Duane Allen as his replacement on lead vocals.

With bass singer Noel Fox and tenor singer Willie Wynn, the Oak Ridge Boys continued to broaden their appeal by adapting their sound to the times, adding a drummer to their backing band and incorporating bits of pop and even rock into their country gospel style. As a result, they grew into one of the most popular gospel acts of the late '60s, despite purist criticism over their secular influences and increasingly long-haired image. They even won their first Grammy in 1970 for "Talk About the Good Times." Fox and Wynn were replaced by Richard Sterban (ex-Keystone Quartet) and Philadelphia native Joe Bonsall in 1972 and 1973, respectively, and this lineup would remain intact for the next decade and a half. In 1973, they recorded a single with Johnny Cash and the Carter Family called "Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup," which brought them their first appearance on the country charts. In 1975, they opened a series of tour dates for Roy Clark, whose manager was highly impressed and encouraged them to try their hands at secular country.

The Oak Ridge Boys signed with Columbia later that year but found the initial transition a rough one: they split their time between country and gospel, and without a strong identity their sales dropped. The resulting financial problems nearly forced them to disband, and a discouraged Columbia gave up on them after the 1976 single "Family Reunion" barely charted, even though labelmate Paul Simon had tapped them to sing backup on his hit "Slip Slidin' Away." Fortunately, they got another chance with MCA and scored a breakout Top Five hit in 1977 with "Y'all Come Back Saloon," the title song from their label debut. The follow-up, "You're the One," reached number two, and their next album, 1978's Room Service, gave them their first number one hit in "I'll Be True to You" as well as two more Top Five hits in "Cryin' Again" and "Come on In."

Thus established as country hitmakers, the Oak Ridge Boys embarked on a run of chart success that would last through the '80s. Golden stopped cutting his hair and beard altogether, giving the group a hugely recognizable visual signature as well. They hit number one again in 1980 with "Trying to Love Two Women," but it was the following year that would make them a genuine phenomenon. Their recording of "Elvira," an obscure, doo wop-style novelty song from the '60s, became a major, Grammy-winning crossover smash. Not only did it hit number one on the country charts, but its infectious "oom-pop-a-mow-mow" bass vocal hook boosted it into the Top Five on the pop charts. Its accompanying album, Fancy Free, became their first to top the country charts, not to mention their biggest seller ever. The title cut of their chart-topping 1982 follow-up, Bobbie Sue, also went number one country and nearly made the pop Top Ten as well. American Made's title track also topped the charts in 1983, as did its follow-up, "Love Song." In early 1984 Deliver became their third number one country album, and they landed two more number one singles that year with "Everyday" and "I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes." 1985 brought three number ones: "Little Things," "Make My Life with You," and "Touch a Hand, Make a Friend."

The Oak Ridge Boys' sales began to slow a bit in the latter half of the '80s, but they still produced big hits with regularity. They hit number one in 1987 ("It Takes a Little Rain," "This Crazy Love"), 1988 ("Gonna Take a Lot of River"), and 1990 ("No Matter How High"), giving them a total of 16 career country chart-toppers (and 29 Top Ten hits). However, by that point, the group's longtime lineup had split -- Golden, whose mountain-man appearance was increasingly supported by his rugged lifestyle, was given the boot in 1987 in an attempt to remake the group's image. He was replaced by longtime backing-band guitarist Steve Sanders and sued his former bandmates, eventually settling out of court. In 1991, the Oak Ridge Boys parted ways with MCA and signed with RCA, but after just two albums, it was apparent that their commercial prime had passed, and the relationship ended. The group returned to traditional-style country gospel on occasion during the '90s and continued to tour.

Meanwhile, Sanders' marital problems worsened, causing him to leave the group in late 1995; Golden and the other members resolved their differences, and he returned at their New Year's Eve show that year; they still performed often, notably in Branson, MO. Sadly, Sanders shot and killed himself in 1998. Fox, who moved on to run the group's publishing arm and later became a high-ranking music executive, passed away in April 2003. The group, with its classic 1970s lineup of Sterban, Bonsall, Golden, and Allen, released a new studio album, The Boys Are Back, which featured re-imagined versions of songs by John Lee Hooker, Neil Young, and the White Stripes, in 2009. ~ Steve Huey & Steve Leggett, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography

Comments

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I love love Elvira
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Used to see this group perform in Pleasantvill e United Methodist Church in P'ville, New Jersey, back in the 60's. It's been my pleasure to see them make it to the top!!
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dmartin763
Hey beard boy.sorry did not mean beard boy.
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Love this group. I could listen to them all day
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What great GOLDEN Tones. Great sounds.
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phoenixmommy 5 4 8
I remember singing this song in church...
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Halluja
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Amaing grace by the oak ridge boys
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Oh yes!
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So fine does remind me of elvira
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I lie
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We all should let Our Savior in...Amen!
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niralimurthy
Cool
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does So Fine remind anyone of Elvira???
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Oak ridge boys
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i have grew up on the oakridge brothers and they have a combination of voices that are just so natural the four of them harmonize perfectly.
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And love the oaks so much praise these boys oak ridge is always good a big a man this is my song thank u jesus amen amen mom always great ill die with flowers on the wall stuck in my head I lived in Ohio my whole life never hear of them before this good song
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I'm 20 and I remember hearing this song when I was 6 or 1 when the family was going to aunt Susan's house in bar tin they are and still is one of the best country and Gisele group of all time . Love their voices togther
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im 16 and i remeber hearing this song when i was 3 or 4 when the family was going to grammas house in kentucky
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They are and still is one of the best country and gospel group of all time. Love their voices together. & love the Oaks so much.
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rousevera
Praise these "boy's"��
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oak ridge is always good a big a-men
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This is my song thank u jesus amen amen
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Mom
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Always great. I'll die with Flowers on the Wall stuck in my head.
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I lived in ohio my whole life never heard of them before this. good song
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Tell me about it -- Amen!
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Old time singing
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Back in the late 70's we lived in Lima, Ohio and the Oak Ridge Boys were performing at the country fair. My family loved them and had many of their albums. Lavern Tripp was with them then and when they took a break he took a liking to my son and nephew who were both 5. I got a picture of him with the two boys...it is priceless. I hate they had such a hard time, but the devil has a way of moving in on God's people if allowed to do so. Their music is defiently Spirit moving. I still love the
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I hate this song but it makes me think of my great grandms
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annerivers
Try Chatham County Line for some great music.
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they were here in San Diego last weekend, seen them in
branson. No matter were you see them its still a good show
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I feel the spirit!!!!
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rjreed
Great music. Thank you.
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bobjacobs90
I love this service, Thank you all, very much----a retiree
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Oh yes!
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473601785
On my word!! Love their voices!!:)
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I was in a group in the early 80's that performed the Oak's music and also the Statler's. It was a great time I'll never forget!!!
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There will never be another group like them, and I hope they perform until I die so I don't have to live in this world without them.
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one of the best country ang gospel group of all time
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Amen!
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terratexinc
Amen, God is awsome !!!!!!
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Trying to find Oakridge boys Ozark Mountain Jubilee. Think it was from the early to mid 80's.
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the best group in country music
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Pioneers,and one of the best country groups !!!
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dicknsandy6
Why when I pick an artist, do you play one song with that artist and then you change it to artists I do not want to hear? Many are not even Christian.
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Love gospel music. The Gaither's and homecoming friends sing the songs I grew up siging.
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halfpintbant a m s 3 0 1 2 6
I grew up listening to the Oak Ridge Boys as My Mother had the opportunity to Meet one of the bandmember's Mother(she was a real estate agent)when we moved to Nashville when the group had originally started up so with having opportunity to meeting a Parent of one of the Group members was a Inspiration to continue to support them during their reign of popularity
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stevendsherr o d
One of the best bass singers they had was failed to be mentioned an then he went on to be a booking agent I guess you wanna call it for a lack of a better term was Herman Harper and he started the Harper Agency, One of the best line-ups was Willie Wynn,Herman Harper,Willi a m Lee Golden,and its a toss up between Duane Allen and Smitty Gatlin but as an opinion in my mind that was one of the best they ever had but please not taking away from the current line-up they are great as well and I understan
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Great entertainers .

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