November 15, 2010

An Oom-Poppa-Mow-Mow Christmas

by Jim Newsom

Though it won’t quite be Thanksgiving, the Oak Ridge Boys show on Sunday, November 21st at the Ferguson Center is being billed as a Christmas concert. When the Oaks’ bass singer Richard Sterban called me from Branson, Missouri recently, he told me why.

“We refused to start it before Thanksgiving,” he said, “but the demand over the years has grown; in a lot of ways we’ve become known for our Christmas music. It’s a big part of our career. November and December are two of the busiest months for us.

“The show that we’ll do in Newport News is what we consider our full-blown Christmas show, but it does include some of our hits. We come out at the beginning for about 45 minutes and do a mini-version of what we do during the course of the year in our regular show. We put several hit songs that people expect to hear—‘Elvira’ will certainly be included. That’s the law!”

“Elvira” is the song that changed it all for the Oak Ridge Boys in 1981. Though there has been a gospel quartet with the name Oak Ridge Boys since 1945, the current incarnation of the group came together by the early ‘70s. Later in that decade they began what would be a lengthy string of hits that topped the country charts. But “Elvira” took them to another level. Its “Oom Poppa, Oom Poppa, Mow Mow” chorus become Richard Sterban’s calling card.

“I remember the first time we heard the demo of that song,” he said, “we figured ‘Wow! This is the song we’ve been looking for.’ And I remember the first time we performed that song in Spokane, Washington in 1981. We had just finished recording it and we decided, ‘Let’s just throw this thing right into the middle of the show and see what kind of reaction it gets.’ So we didn’t say anything, we just did ‘Elvira’ and the place just went crazy! We encored that thing four or five times. They wouldn’t let us leave!

“We knew we had something special on our hands. Sure enough, it became the number one country record and also became the number one pop record.”

Though the Oak Ridge Boys have a distinctive vocal sound, they have never been content to rest on their laurels. Last year they recorded a CD, The Boys are Back, with a hot young rock producer.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate over the years to reinvent ourselves periodically,” Sterban explained. “I think this latest album is as good an example of that as you’ll see or hear. We worked with a new young producer, David Cobb, and he took us down some roads that we had not traveled, and probably wouldn’t have traveled on our own. But he said ‘trust me, we want to do something different which could possibly appeal to a younger audience.’ We put ourselves in his hands.

“He wanted to record a project that sounded like an American songbook, with a lot of variety to show the different sides of the Oak Ridge Boys, even paying tribute to our gospel music roots. But at the same time, he stressed the fact that he didn’t want to change us.

“Some people would think that it’s a stretch for us to think about recording something like ‘Seven Nation Army.’ But he told us ‘you guys are a vocal group, and we want to get you to do the instrumental parts vocally. We don’t want to all of a sudden make you a rock-n-roll act because that’s not what you are.’ I think there’s a difference between doing some things differently but at the same time not changing yourself and staying true to who you are. There’s a fine balance there and we’ve tried to walk that line.”

Some of the songs from that new album will probably turn up on the Ferguson setlist, but Richard Sterban stressed that the crux of the show will be familiar hits and seasonal favorites. And he said to bring the whole family:

“After the intermission, we have a complete Christmas presentation that takes a little over an hour. We cover a lot of Christmas ground—the secular side of Christmas, the romantic side of Christmas, a balance between traditional Christmas songs and some newer songs by contemporary writers. Then we get real secular: Santa Claus makes an appearance! He comes through the audience with a big ole bag of toys and gives toys to the kids…and we are probably the only Christmas show to pay tribute to Mrs. Claus.

“We close out the show with what we consider the true meaning of Christmas. We close with a series of songs about the birth of Jesus.”

And, of course, a little “Oom Poppa Mow Mow.”

“That song was close to twenty years old when we recorded it,” he said. “It had been recorded by Kenny Rogers when he was with the First Edition. And Dallas Frazier, the guy that wrote the song, had a regional hit, but it never became a national hit. But we used his version as the demo and adapted it to our style. Obviously it turned out OK!”

The Oak Ridge Boys
Ferguson Center for the Arts
Sunday, November 21 – 7:00 pm
Tickets: $27.00 – 57.00
757-594-8752; fergusoncenter.cnu.edu