The Oak Ridge Boys are music legends…and they owe it all to one song. The 1981 tune “Elvira” catapulted them to another level of stardom, leading to a long career in the business.
In March 1981, the Oak Ridge Boys released their version of the 1966 classic song “Elvira,” originally recorded by Dallas Frazier. The rest, they say, is history.
Interestingly enough, “Elvira” was not inspired by a woman, but on a street in East Nashville, Tennessee. Also interesting? The Oak Ridge Boys weren’t the first to cover it. But they were the first to cover it with astounding success.
The original version peaked at #72 on the Billboard Hot 100. Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, as well as Rodney Crowell, also put their own spin on it before the Oak Ridge Boys made it a total classic after it appeared on their “Fancy Free” album.
The Oak Ridge boys made the song uniquely their own, in part because of Richard Sterban’s deep take of “giddy up ba-oom papa oom papa mow mow.”
The group was by no means struggling when “Elvira” came out, as they were already a successful band, with five gold records and a Greatest Hits collection that was poised to go platinum.
Band member William Lee Golden told People magazine in May 1979: “Inevitably our music will cross all borders and labels. Someday we’re going to run across something that everybody will like at the same time. When THAT happens, we’ll have made it.”
He certainly was on the right track.
When “Elvira” was released in March 1981, it was the group’s fourth number 1 and their biggest crossover pop hit, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August 1981.
In a phone interview with The Press Enterprise earlier this year, singer Joe Bonsall noted, “I joke that the song is ‘Elviral’ because it went viral before going viral was a thing.”
Bonsall spoke about how “Elvira” came to be, with song plugger Ronnie Gant pitching the tune to them after seeing a band playing it at a Texas bar. Bonsall recalled, “He said a light went off in his head and thought we could do this song,” adding, “So we cut it and maybe ran through it twice and that was it.”
He added, “At the time we recorded ‘Elvira’ we were playing big coliseums with Kenny Rogers and winning all the awards. We were the hot young act.”
When they played “Elvira” live for the first time in January 1981, Bonsall said, “I can still remember. We were in Spokane, Washington, and when we played the song everyone went nuts. I mean bananas.” He added, “You would have thought we gave everyone in the audience a condo in Montserrat.”
The song climbed the country charts and was a huge pop crossover hit. Bonsall said the group owes it all to Sterban’s deep vocal standalone, saying, “I think it was the kids that first loved ‘Elvira.’ Even today, all these year’s later ‘Elvira’ will be one of the first songs kids latch onto.”
He added, “It’s like the whole country was singing ‘Oom papa mow mow’ with Richard and The Oak Ridge Boys. And still after all these years with all of our success, ‘Elvira’ is still our biggest hit and nothing has come close.”
The Oak Ridge Boys were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015.
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