The Oak Ridge Boys Biography

Originally called the Country Cut-Ups, the Oak Ridge Boys were formed in 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. They often performed at the atomic energy plant in Oak Ridge, where, in the midst of a war, their optimistic gospel songs were welcomed, and hence they were renamed the Oak Ridge Quartet. They recorded their first records in 1947 with a line-up featuring leader Wally Fowler (15 February 1917, Adairsville, Georgia, USA, d. 3 June 1994, Tennessee, USA), Marshall Lon Freeman (b. c.1921, Berryton, Georgia, USA, d. 30 July 2003, Rocky Face, Georgia, USA), Curly Kinsey, and Johnny New. Handled by Fowler, they recorded their first records in 1947, moving their base to Nashville. Various members came and went during this period, with Fowler the one constant before he elected to disband the group in 1956. A year later, they re-formed in a revised line-up organized by a long-serving member, Smitty Gatlin. They became full-time professionals in 1961 and the album on which they changed from the Oak Ridge Quartet to the Oak Ridge Boys included strings and horns, an unusual move for a gospel group. William Lee Golden (b. 12 January 1939, near Brewton, Alabama, USA), who had admired the group since he saw them as an adolescent, became their baritone in 1964.

When Gatlin decided to become a full-time minister, Golden recommended Duane David Allen (b. 29 April 1943, Taylortown, Texas, USA), who became the group’s lead vocalist in 1966. With bass singer Noel Fox (b. 1940, USA, d. 10 April 2003, Nashville, Tennessee, USA) and tenor Willie Wynn they established themselves as the best-loved white gospel group in the USA and won numerous awards and Grammys. Further changes came in 1972 with bass singer Richard Anthony Sterban (b. 24 April 1943, Camden, New Jersey, USA) and in 1973 with tenor Joseph Sloan Bonsall (b. 18 May 1948, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA) becoming part of the group. Although most gospel fans enjoyed their high-energy, criss-crossing performances, they were criticized for adding a rock ‘n’ roll drummer to their band. They recorded a single, ‘Praise The Lord And Pass The Soup’, with Johnny Cash and the Carter Family in 1973.

In 1975, the Oak Ridge Boys switched to country music, but their first secular single, ‘Family Reunion’, only reached number 83 in the US country charts. Their total income fell to $75, 000 in 1975 and they made a loss in 1976. Columbia Records dropped them, ironically at the same time as they were accompanying their labelmate, Paul Simon, on ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’, which featured sentiments diametrically opposite to gospel music. They opened for Johnny Cash in Las Vegas, played the USSR with Roy Clark, and had a major country hit with ‘Y’All Come Back Saloon’. They topped the US country charts with ‘I’ll Be True To You’ (a death disc), the classic ‘Leavin’ Louisiana In The Broad Daylight’, and ‘Trying To Love Two Women’. In 1981, they made number 5 on the US pop charts with the doo-wop novelty song ‘Elvira’ and followed it with ‘Bobbie Sue’ (number 12). Ronald Reagan, in a presidential address, said: ‘If the Oak Ridge Boys win any more gold, they’ll have more gold in their records than we have in Fort Knox.’

Further country hits followed with ‘American Made’, ‘Love Song’, ‘I Guess It Never Hurts To Hurt Sometime’ (written by Randy Vanwarmer), ‘Make My Life With You’, and ‘Come On In (You Did The Best You Could)’. In award ceremonies, they ousted the Statler Brothers as the top country vocal group. Golden, who stopped cutting his hair and beard in 1979, became a mountain man, going bear hunting and sleeping in a teepee. When he was dismissed in 1986 for ‘continuing musical and personal differences’, he filed a $40 million suit, which was settled out of court. He released a solo album, American Vagabond, also in 1986, and went on to form a family group called the Goldens. His replacement was their rhythm guitarist, Steve Sanders (b. 17 September 1941, Richmond, Georgia, USA, d. 10 June 1998, Florida, USA), formerly a child gospel performer and Faye Dunaway’s son in the movie Hurry Sundown.

The Oak Ridge Boys continue with their philosophy to ‘keep it happy, keep it exciting’, and do nothing that might tarnish their image. They turn down beer commercials and only sing positive songs. To quote Joe Bonsall, ‘We’re just an old gospel group with a rock ‘n’ roll band playing country music.’ In 1996, Golden returned to the line-up when they signed to A&M Records, but tragedy was to follow when Sanders, who had left the group because of personal problems in 1995, shot himself in June 1998. In 2000, the Oak Ridge Boys was inducted into the Gospel Music Association’s Gospel Hall Of Fame in Nashville. Golden suffered a mild heart attack in August 2004.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.