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The Oak Ridge Boys Biography

Home > Music > O > Oak Ridge Boys, The > Biography

Years Active: 1945-present
Genres: Gospel, Country, Pop

The Oak Ridge Boys are a country and gospel music quartet that was formed in the 1940s under the banner, Oak Ridge Vocal Quartet. The quartet became popular in southern gospel circles during the 1950s where they built up a local following. By the time the 1960s rolled around the quartet was calling themselves The Oak Ridge Boys. A decade later another change took place when the band shifted musical directions away from their traditional gospel-oriented sound in favor of a more country music sound. During the 70s the line-up consisted of Duane Allen on lead vocals, Joe Bonsall as tenor, William Lee Golden as baritone, and Richard Sterban as bass. This line-up has been the most stable, and most successful to date.

The Oak Ridge Boys had the unique ability to cross over to the pop charts, which helped to cement their popularity across numerous genres. 1947 marked the group's first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, consisting of Wally Fowler, Lon “Deacon” Freeman, Curly Kinsey, and Johnny New. The group went through numerous line-up changes over the next few years with Fowler remaining until the early 1960s. Gatlin took over as the driving force behind the band with William Lee Golden joining as baritone vocalist in 1964. When Gatlin retired two years later, Duane Allen became his replacement on lead vocals, with bass singer Noel Fox and tenor singer Willie Wynn.

The Oak Ridge Boys were flexible musicians and able to adapt with the times and as the musical climate changed so too did the groups style with the incorporation of pop and rock into their country/gospel sound. As a result, the group became one of the most popular gospel acts of the late '60s, earning a Grammy Award in 1970 for “Talk About the Good Times.” 1973 saw the group collaborate with Johnny Cash and the Carter Family on a song called, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup,” which exposed the band to the Country Music charts. As a result, the band landed an opening slot for Roy Clark in 1975, and hit the road. The group signed with Columbia Records, but struggled with their music identity while at the label. Not knowing if they were a country act or a gospel act, the group confused their audiences and record sales dropped. The group decided to call it quits in 1976 and parted ways. However, a year later MCA Records chased the group down and signed them. The group came back with a hit single, “Y'all Come Back Saloon,” off their debut album for the label in 1977. The group followed-up with, “You're the One,” peaking at #2 on the U.S charts.

“Room Service,” appeared in 1978 and gave the band the #1 hit single, “I'll Be True to You,” in addition to spawning two other hit singles, “Cryin' Again” and “Come on In.” The Oak Ridge Boys were now firmly established as a successful country music band, scoring a string of hits throughout the 1980s. Of note was the band's cover of a 1960s doo-wop song, “Elvira,” which became a huge cross-over hit single and earned the band a Grammy Award.

The Oak Ridge Boys' sales began to decline by the late 1980s as the musical climate began to shift once again. They were still able to produce hit singles, such as 1987's “It Takes a Little Rain,” and “This Crazy Love,” 1988's “Gonna Take a Lot of River” and 1990's “No Matter How High.” The band went through another line-up change when they fired Golden in an attempt to reinvent themselves and Steve Sanders replaced Golden. The Oak Ridge Boys parted ways with MCA shortly thereafter and signed with RCA, but were cut loose after two albums that failed to make a commercial impact. The group returned to their country/gospel roots during the 1990s.

Tragedy struck when Sanders shot and killed himself in 1998, which prompted Golden to return to the fold. The group, with their original 1970's line-up released the studio album, “The Boys Are Back,” in 2009 which was a hit with fans. More touring ensued. In 2011, the group released “It's Only Natural,” with the album peaking at #16 on the Billboard Country Albums chart and remaining there for two months.