It takes about roughly a second for one to realize they are talking to Richard Sterban.
The Oak Ridge Boys bass singer’s voice, the one that powered the “oom pa pa mow mow” in the band’s ubiquitous early 1980s hit “Elvira” and is prominent throughout the band’s catalog of classics, is still famously miles-deep and can almost make a cellphone rumble when he speaks through it.
That famous voice, which has been a major force in the band’s success that includes more than 40 million albums sold, is getting plenty of use these days across the country.
Sterban spoke with Compass in mid-November on the eve of the start of the group’s Shine The Light On Christmas tour, with this year’s edition being the 29th annual. It’s the busiest time of the year for the group, Sterban said, and the numbers support that. The tour began Nov. 14 in Branson, Missouri, and by its last night on Dec. 23 in Nashville, Tennessee, the group will have played 34 dates in 18 states.
The group has become known for its Christmas music, Sterban said, having released seven CDs of Christmas music in addition to the annual tour. And all that reflects the members’ personal feelings about the holiday.
“It’s very important to us. It’s very meaningful to us,” Sterban said. “I think, in a lot of ways, that’s why we do it. It’s so important to us. It really is.”
Rapid City will be a stop on the tour when the Oak Ridge Boys play the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center on Dec. 18.
The group previously brought its Christmas show to the Black Hills in 2015, when they performed it in Deadwood.
Sterban described the group’s Christmas show as two concerts in one. The first part of the concert, covering about 45 minutes, will focus on the band’s hits. After an intermission, the second part of the evening will be the Christmas concert. The transition in the show from a regular concert to a Christmas show is symbolized by a segment featuring the band’s singers — William Lee Golden, Joe Bosnall and Duane Allen in addition to Sterban — sitting in rocking chairs on stage and reminiscing about childhood memories of the season.
For Sterban, the memories include singing Christmas music while part of a church youth group in his native New Jersey that would sing carols at hospitals and to shut-ins on Christmas Eve. When he grew up and moved on to Trenton State College, that tradition continued when he sang with a group called The Carolers and went from dorm to dorm to perform Christmas songs.
“Christmas music has always been important to me personally,” Sterban said. “All four Oak Ridge Boys would tell you the same thing.”
The group’s Christmas musical selections initially run the gamut from romantic to fun, Sterban said, with a visit by Santa for the kids to emphasize the family aspect of the show. The concert then will be closed out with sacred music focusing on the birth of Jesus.
Sterban said that is where the tour’s theme comes to the forefront.
“We are in a lot of ways, you know, we’re living in kind of a dark world right now, and this world needs some light,” Sterban said.
While Sterban uses his voice most famously for singing, it also adds gravitas to his stories about walking with two other giants of American music and culture.
Sterban recalled being a singer in Elvis Presley’s tour in the early 1970s, and meeting the King of Rock and Roll for the first time in a rehearsal hall in Minneapolis. Presley came into the hall — fashionably late, as Sterban put it — in the middle of an entourage. However, Presley still came over, welcomed each of the musicians gathered, including Sterban, and referred to them by their first names. Eventually, Sterban got to know Elvis a bit.
“He had a magnetism, he had a charisma that I had never seen in another person,” Sterban said.
Sterban eventually left that gig and joined the Oak Ridge Boys in 1972 when they were looking for a new bass singer, and the group began getting booked on dates with Johnny Cash in the mid-1970s. Despite the relationship with that music legend, at one point when they were performing in Las Vegas the Oak Ridge Boys had no other dates booked and questioned whether they would be able to stay together, Sterban said. Cash, sensing this, brought them up to his suite and told them he saw something special in them and encouraged them to stay together because good things would start happening for them if they did.
After Cash’s words of encouragement, they got their first recording contract and started creating hit records. Then, they earned the 1978 Country Music Association award for vocal group of the year. At that ceremony, when the band's name was announced as the award’s winner, the members ran up on stage not to the podium they were supposed to go to, but over to the other podium where award-show host Cash was standing. Sterban said while they hugged the Man in Black, Cash told them, “See fellas, I told you so.”
Today, the Oak Ridge Boys are in the Country Music Hall of Fame — as are Cash and Presley.
“It’s amazing. It’s almost come like a full circle,” said Sterban, whose group is also in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame with Presley and Cash.