The Oak Ridge Boys: "Elvira"

It’s not often that a group with gospel and country roots scores a pop hit, especially breaking into the Top 5, but the Oak Ridge Boys – lead Duane Allen, tenor Joe Bonsall, baritone William Lee Golden and bass Richard Sterban — did it in 1981 with their monster hit “Elvira.” Featuring the unforgettable hook of Sterban’s deep-voiced “Ba-oom papa oom papa oom papa mow mow,” the song had been released by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition in 1970, but went largely unnoticed until the Oaks put their stamp on it.

The group’s history is a long one, stretching back to World War II, when the Country Cut-Ups were formed to entertain workers with gospel music at a nuclear research plant at Oak Ridge, near Knoxville, Tennessee. The group was renamed the Oak Ridge Quartet, then the Oak Ridge Boys in 1960. After changing members over the years, the group in 1977 cracked the pop market with “Y’All Come Back Saloon.” But it was an unlikely song four years later that became their biggest seller.

Country songwriter Dallas Frazier wrote “Elvira” in 1966 and used the song as the title track of his album that year. Record producer Ray Baker relates on Songfacts that while Elvira is a girl’s name, the inspiration for the song is not a real person.

Dallas and I were driving in my car in East Nashville one afternoon and I almost ran a red light at the intersection of Gallatin Road (a main thoroughfare) and a side street called Elvira Street. I stopped in time and while we were sitting there drinking beer and having a good time, Dallas looked up and noticed the street sign. Immediately he started singing the chorus to what would become the song 'Elvira.' He had a strong R&B background from California and thought it would be clever to rhyme Elvira with the word Fira, as some black artist might have sang it…

I have thought many times about how me stopping in time at that red light was a very fateful event in so many lives. We've kidded and said many times how it does pay to obey the law.

It was alternative country artist Rodney Crowell’s 1978 cover of “Elvira” that caught the Oaks’ attention. They decided to cover the tune for their upcoming album “Fancy Free.” The song was an immediate hit, reaching number one on the country charts and number five on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1981, selling 2 million copies.

Ken Morton, Jr. asked Sterban in 2009 if “Elvira” has overshadowed a career’s worth of recording.

I think it’s obvious that the Oak Ridge Boys are a lot more than just “Elvira.” There’s no question about that. We’ve just had too many good records over the years and some really good “meaningful” records over the years. A song like “Thank God For Kids” comes to mind. That’s probably one of the more meaningful songs we’ve ever cut. At the same time, I don’t think “Elvira” shadows any of the other music. I think “Elvira” is simply the song that makes people want to come hear us to start with. And then they get a chance to hear all of our other stuff as well. I think it works together pretty well.
The Oak Ridge Boys are currently on tour with their Christmas show while raising money for the Christmas 4 Kids charity, providing poor children with their own shopping sprees.

 

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