The Oak Ridge Boys

The Oak Ridge Boys
The Oak Ridge Boys
Background information
Genres Country, southern gospel, pop
Years active 1947–present
Associated acts Johnny Cash, The Statler Brothers
Joe Bonsall
Duane Allen
William Lee Golden
Richard Sterban
Past members
Tommy Fairchild
Wally Fowler
Noel Fox
Smitty Gatlin
Jim Hammill
Herman Harper
Gary McSpadden
Ron Page
Steve Sanders
Willie Wynn

The Oak Ridge Boys are an American country and gospel vocal quartet.

The group was founded in the 1940s as the Oak Ridge Quartet. They became popular in southern gospel during the 1950s. Their name was officially changed to the Oak Ridge Boys in the early 1960s, and they remained a gospel-oriented group until the mid-1970s, when they changed their image and concentrated on country music.

The lineup which produced their most well-known country and crossover hits (such as "Elvira", "Bobbie Sue", and "American Made") consists of Duane Allen (lead), Joe Bonsall (tenor), William Lee Golden (baritone), and Richard Sterban (bass). Golden and Allen joined the group in the mid-1960s, and Sterban and Bonsall joined in the early 1970s. Aside from a seven-year gap (1987–1995) when Golden left the group and was replaced, this lineup has been together since 1973 and continues to tour and record.


Group History

The Oak Ridge Quartet

The core group that would eventually lead to the Oak Ridge Boys was a country group called Wally Fowler and the Georgia Clodhoppers, formed in 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee. They were requested to perform to staff members and their families restricted during World War II at the nuclear research plant at nearby Oak Ridge (the birthplace of the atom bomb). They were asked to sing there so often that eventually they changed their name to the Oak Ridge Quartet. And because their most popular songs were gospel, Fowler decided to focus solely on southern gospel music. At the time, the quartet was made up of Fowler, Lon "Deacon" Freeman, Curly Kinsey, and Johnny New. This group began recording in 1947.[1] In 1949, the other three men split from Fowler to form a new group, so Fowler hired an existing group, the Calvary Quartet, to re-form the Oak Ridge Quartet. In 1957, Fowler sold the rights to the "Oak Ridge Quartet" name to group member Smitty Gatlin in exchange for forgiveness of a debt. As a result of more personnel changes, the group lost its tenor, so they lowered their arrangements and had Gatlin sing tenor while the pianist, Tommy Fairchild, sang lead. They recorded an album for Cadence Records, then in 1958 they hired Willie Wynn to sing the tenor part, Fairchild moved back exclusively to the piano. At this point the group consisted of Fairchild at the piano, Wynn, Gatlin (singing lead), baritone Ron Page, and bass Herman Harper. They recorded an album on the Checker Records label, one on Starday, and three on Skylite. In 1961, Gatlin changed the group's name to "the Oak Ridge Boys" because their producer, Bud Praeger, thought "Oak Ridge Quartet" sounded too old-fashioned for their contemporary sound.


In 1962, Ron Page quit, and the group hired Gary McSpadden (who had filled in for Jake Hess in the Statesmen Quartet) as baritone with the understanding from Hess that when he was ready to start a group, he would recruit McSpadden. They then recorded another album on Skylite, and then two groundbreaking albums on Warner Brothers after which McSpadden quit when Jake Hess followed through on his promise to hire McSpadden and invited him to join a new group he was forming, the Imperials. Jim Hammill[2] (later a mainstay in the Kingsmen Quartet) was chosen to be his replacement. They made one album for Festival Records, one for Stateswood (Skylite's budget label), and two more for Skylite. Hammill did not get along with the rest of the group, and William Lee Golden, a fan, thought that Hammill was hurting the group and recommended himself as baritone. Golden joined the group in December 1964.

The group recorded another album for Starday and another on Skylite in 1965. In 1966, Gatlin left the group to become a minister of music and, on Golden's recommendation, Duane Allen, formerly of the Southernairs Quartet (and more recently baritone of the Prophets Quartet), was hired to replace him. With Willie Wynn still singing tenor and Herman Harper as bass, the group made another album for Skylite, one for United Artists, and then began recording on the Heart Warming label. Between 1966 and 1973 they made 12 albums with Heart Warming, and the company also released several compilation albums on which they were included during those years. The group also had an album on Vista (Heart Warming's budget label) that included unreleased songs from previous sessions. Harper left the group in 1968 to join the Don Light Talent Agency, before starting his own company, The Harper Agency, which remains one of the most highly-reputable booking agencies in gospel music. Noel Fox, formerly of the Tennesseans and the Harvesters, took over the bass part. In 1970, the Oak Ridge Boys earned their first Grammy award for "Talk About the Good Times".

In late 1972 (possibly October), Richard Sterban, the bass with J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet left that group and joined the Oak Ridge Boys. This closely followed what was possibly the Stamps Quartet's most famous moment, backing Elvis Presley in his 10 June 1972 concert at Madison Square Garden. Joe Bonsall, a Philadelphia native who was a member of the Keystone Quartet and recording on Duane Allen's Superior label, joined in October 1973 (coincidentally, both Sterban and Bonsall had been members of the Keystones during the late '60s, recording much of the ORB's material). That same year the Oak Ridge Boys recorded a single with Johnny Cash and the Carter Family, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup", that put them on the country charts for the first time. The group's lineup would remain consistent for the next 15 years.


After opening a series of shows for Roy Clark, the Oak Ridge Boys moved in 1973 to the Columbia label, for whom they made three albums and several singles. In early 1976, they toured Russia for three weeks with Roy Clark. They went from being one of the top acts on Heart Warming to nearly the bottom on Columbia in terms of promotion. Columbia did not service the gospel radio stations like Heart Warming did, leaving the impression that the Oak Ridge Boys were leaving gospel music, which hurt the group's popularity among its core fan demographic. While promoting the single "Heaven Bound", the Oak Ridge Boys made appearances on The Mike Douglas Show and The Merv Griffin Show, both nationally syndicated in the United States and Canada. In 1976, despite having been picked by Paul Simon to sing backup on "Slip Slidin' Away", the group asked to be released from its contract with Columbia after its single, "Family Reunion", was only a lukewarm success. Columbia complied with the request, and the band immediately made a live album that was a mix of gospel and country on their own label.

In 1977 the Oak Ridge Boys fully switched from gospel to country with the release of their first ABC Records (later absorbed by MCA) album, Y'all Come Back Saloon. Two songs from that album reached the top five on the country charts, and their next album, Room Service, in 1978, gave them two more, including their first No. 1 hit, "I'll Be True to You". The Oak Ridge Boys Have Arrived was released in 1979, and Together followed in 1980. A compilation album simply titled Greatest Hits, containing 10 singles from the previous four albums, was released in the fall of 1980. This same year, the Oak Ridge Boys also made a brief cameo appearance on The Dukes of Hazzard (Season 3, Episode 12 "State of the County".)

The group's sixth album, Fancy Free, released early in 1981, contained the Dallas Frazier-penned song "Elvira". This remains the group's most widely known song, and Fancy Free is their best-selling album. "Elvira" had been recorded by other artists, including Frazier himself in the late 1960s and The First Edition in 1970, but the Oak Ridge Boys were the first to have a hit with it. Their version of the song was a No. 1 country hit, and in July 1981 reached No. 5 on the pop charts.

The doo-wop-style title track from Bobbie Sue, their seventh album, was another crossover hit, reaching No. 1 on the country charts and No. 12 on the pop charts. That album also spawned the group's first U.S.-released music video, for the song "So Fine". (A video was made for "Easy", from the Y'All Come Back Saloon album, but was never released in the U.S.) The group also recorded The Oak Ridge Boys Christmas album in 1982.

Their album American Made, released in January 1983, created controversy when the title track became the source of a TV ad for Miller Beer. The original opening lines say:

My baby is American made
Born and bred in the USA

Miller's ads used slightly different words:

Miller's made the American way
Born and brewed in the USA

The Oak Ridge Boys did not want the song used in the ads, but had no part in the decision. The group would not sing it during the commercials' run.

The group made three albums over the next three years. The late-1983 album Deliver provided two No. 1 singles, one of which, "I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes", was written by Randy VanWarmer, who had a hit in 1979 with "Just When I Needed You Most". Their next album was Greatest Hits 2, released in July 1984. Unlike the 1980 Greatest Hits album, this one included two new songs, "Everyday" and "Make My Life With You", both No. 1 country hits. In 1985 they released their 12th album, Step on Out. The title cut was written by ex-Byrd Chris Hillman and former Crawdaddy magazine editor Peter Knobler. The group recorded two albums in 1986, one of which was a second Christmas album, and in 1987 they recorded a single called "Take Pride in America", which was used in television public service announcements about recycling.


In 1987 Where The Fast Lane Ends was released. It was the first with new producer Jimmy Bowen, and was the group's last album before the 1987 departure of William Lee Golden. Golden's departure was preceded by much discussion—both by the public and other members of the group—about his "mountain man" appearance, and lifestyle after he stopped cutting his hair and beard altogether, as well as his cutting solo material for MCA Records, releasing the critically acclaimed 'American Vagabond' in 1986. Golden complained that he felt like the "odd man out". When he was replaced by the band's guitarist, Steve Sanders, he sued the group but eventually settled out of court.[citation needed]

The group released four more albums for MCA, including a third Greatest Hits album that contained a previously unreleased single they had recorded for the Take Pride In America campaign. They then switched labels to RCA and made three albums there, including Best Of The Oak Ridge Boys which included a single they had made for the My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys movie soundtrack. Unfortunately, the move to RCA did not work out because the person who had signed them there moved to another label shortly thereafter, and his replacement wanted to promote Alabama more than the Oak Ridge Boys. They switched again and signed with Liberty Records, (Capitol's Nashville-based label). They made their third Christmas album there.

Baritone Steve Sanders had been dealing with personal problems (including serious issues with his ex-wife) for some time, and they were increasingly becoming problems for the rest of the group as well. He gave notice in late 1995, but then walked out before fulfilling it and left the group mere hours before a concert without a baritone. The group called Duane Allen's son, Dee, to fly there and fill in; he did so for the remainder of the year, with occasional help from his brother-in-law Paul Martin. (Martin had previously replaced J.P. Pennington as lead singer of Exile in the early 1990s until that band's disbanding.) At midnight on New Year's Day 1996, in Indiana, Golden returned to the group. That year they made a two disc gospel set, "Revival" (their first full gospel album since 1976) with Leon Russell producing. This was sold on TV and later by the Oak Ridge Boys themselves at concerts and through the mail. In 1998 Sanders committed suicide.

1997 to the present

Over the next few years, the group collaborated on an album with polka instrumentalist Jimmy Sturr and then made an album for Platinum Records called Voices.

After spending many years dealing with problems such as labels that did not seem to want to promote them, studio breakdowns, and record companies going out of business, their fortunes changed when they signed with Spring Hill Records in 2000. In the first four years of teaming with Dove Award-winning producer Michael Sykes, they made a full length gospel album (From The Heart), another Christmas album (Inconvenient Christmas), a patriotic album (Colors), a bluegrass album (The Journey), and recorded gospel songs to be added to a special edition version of From The Heart that was available only from Feed The Children. Later, to recoup some of the costs of making the album for Feed the Children, the label took those new songs, two from The Journey, and freshly cut versions of some of their previous gospel hits to make up their 2005 Common Thread album. They then made another Christmas album and had plans to record Fresh Cuts, which would have contained some new songs and some newly recorded versions of some of their hits. These plans were stalled by MCA releasing some of their country hits on a new compilation.

In 2006 the group completed a new album, Front Row Seats, on Spring Hill Records. The album is a return to mainstream country music with modern arrangements and song selection.

In 2007 the group appeared on Shooter Jennings' (son of Waylon Jennings) album The Wolf.

In mid-2008, lead singer Duane Allen announced that the group would be releasing a new project in mid-2009 currently being produced by Dave Cobb, who produced Shooter Jennings' album, "The Wolf". The Boys Are Back was released on May 19, 2009, named for the title song written by Shooter Jennings. The album debuted at No. 16 on the Billboard Top Country Albums Chart and No. 77 on the Billboard Top 200.

In addition to touring extensively throughout the year, playing over 150 dates, the group frequently performs at their Oak Ridge Boys Theatre in Branson, Missouri—a renovated venue formerly owned by Glen Campbell.[3]

The Oak Ridge Boys made a cameo appearance on the History Channel show Pawn Stars episode "Packing Heat", which aired on December 13, 2010.[4]

During the July 8, 2011, performance of the Friday Night Opry, Little Jimmy Dickens announced that the Oak Ridge Boys will be the newest members of the Grand Ole Opry, effective August 6, 2011.[5][6][7][8]



  • Curly Kinsey [Bass] 1945-1947
  • Lon "Deacon" Freeman [Baritone / Guitar] 1945-1949
  • Wally Fowler [Lead] 1945-1952
  • Little Johnny New [Tenor] 1945-1949; 1952
  • Monroe (Curley) Blaylock [Bass] 1947-1949
  • Boyce Hawkins [Piano] 1949
  • Bob Weber [Bass] 1949-1956
  • Pat Patterson [Baritone] 1949-1952 / [Lead] 1952-1953
  • Joe Allred [Tenor] 1949-1954 (Left briefly in 1952)
  • Bobby Whitfield [Piano] 1950-1952; 1954–1956
  • Bob Prather [Baritone] 1952
  • Glen Allred [Guitar / Vocals] 1951-1952
  • Carlos Cook [Lead] 1952-1953 / [Baritone] 1953-1954
  • Calvin Newton [Lead] 1953-1956
  • Cat Freeman [Tenor] 1954-1956
  • Les Roberson [Baritone] 1955-56
  • Ron Page [Bass] 19561

At this point the Oak Ridge Quartet disbanded. Was started up again by Fowler.

  • Bill Smith [Bass] 1957
  • Ronnie Page [Baritone] 1957-1962
  • Smitty Gatlin [Lead] 1957-1958; 1959-1966 / [Tenor] 1958-1959
  • Hobert Evans [Tenor] 1957-1958
  • Wallace "Happy" Edwards [Tenor] Fill-In 1958
  • Bobby Clark [Tenor] 1958
  • Powell Hassell [Piano] 1957-1958
  • Herman Harper [Bass] 1957-1969
  • Tommy Fairchild [Lead] 1958-1959 / [Piano] 1959-1960; 1961–1972
  • Little Willie Wynn [Tenor] 1959-1973
  • Gary Trusler [Piano] 1960
  • James Goss [Piano] 1960
  • Gary McSpadden [Baritone] 1962-1963
  • Big Jim Hamill [Baritone] 1963-1964
  • William Lee Golden [Baritone] 1964-1987; 1995–Present
  • Duane Allen [Lead] 1966–Present
  • Noel Fox [Bass] 1969-1972
  • Mark Ellerbee [Drums] 197?-1975
  • Marty Twinkles Glisson [Piano] 1976
  • Don Breland [Bass Guitar] 197?-1975
  • Skip Mitchell [Guitar] 1976-1986
  • John Rich [Guitar and Steel] 1972-1975
  • Tony Brown [Piano and Keyboards] 1972-1975
  • Richard Sterban [Bass] 1972–Present
  • Garland Craft [Piano] 1975-1981
  • Joe Bonsall [Tenor] 1973–Present
  • Steve Sanders [Baritone] 1987-1995
  • Dee Allen [Baritone] Fill-in, late 1995
  • Paul Martin [Baritone] Fill-in, late 1995
  • Ron Fairchild [Keyboard] 1980-2001, 2002–2009

Country Touring Band

  • Chris Golden [Acoustic Guitar/Mandolin] 1995 [Drummer] 1996–Present
  • Don Carr [Lead Guitar] 1991–Present
  • Jimmy Fulbright [Keyboard] 2001, [Bass Guitar] 2003–Present
  • Rex Wiseman [Various Instruments] 2006–Present
  • Jeff Douglas [Guitar and Dobro] 1995–Present
  • Chris Nole [Keyboard] 2009–Present

^1 Was hired to be baritone in a group started by Wally Fowler called the Country Boys. The group wasn't ready to go and Ron auditioned and won a job as a bass fill-in for the Oak Ridge Quartet. This was initially to be for two months. The plan was to have Armond Morales take the slot when he got out of the army, but the group went bust prior to this time and disbanded. Fowler decided to take the Oak Ridge Quartet name back and called the "Country Boys" the Oak Ridge Quartet Ron then took the baritone position he had won.

^2 Most likely not an authentic member. Not listed in any known source, nor known by historians. Tommy Fairchild never heard of him either. According to the book "The Oak Ridge Boys Our Story" Hobart was the tenor when the group started up again.

Deaths of former members

Oak Ridge founder Wally Fowler, 77, suffered an apparent heart attack and drowned while fishing on June 3, 1994.[9]

Longtime lead singer Smitty Gatlin died in 1972 at age 37, following a bout with cancer.[10]

Cat Freeman, tenor who replaced Allred, succumbed to a fatal heart attack in 1989 at 67.

Herman Harper, the bassist from the group's early years, died in December 1993.

Joe Allred, tenor during the early 1950s, died in 1997.

Steve Sanders, baritone from 1987 through 1995, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on 10 June 1998.[11]

Noel Fox, bass singer from 1969 through 1972, died at age 63 on 10 April 2003 in Nashville, Tennessee, after surgery following a series of strokes.

Lon "Deacon" Freeman, the last surviving original member of the Oak Ridge Quartet, died at the age of 82 on July 20, 2003.

Big Jim Hamill, after a long period of declining health, died in November 2007.

Pat Patterson, baritone from the early 1950s, passed away in the spring of 2010.

Industry Awards

Academy of Country Music

Country Music Association

Grammy Awards


External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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