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News createt: 15-11-2010

Richard Sterban Talks About Elvis

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He's chatted with the King and Prince, but for Richard Sterban it's the smell of a ballpark that rules his world.

It's something about the white lines painted on the green grass and the wafting ballpark food that has him longing for summer once again.

So much so that when the last baseball hit the catchers mitt for the final out of the World Series this year, Sterban slipped into a little bit of a sports depression - already counting the days until February when spring training starts again.

He even caught a little Arizona Fall League baseball on the tour bus Monday night just to hear the crack of the bat.

"It's hard to explain. You have to be a hard-core baseball fan to identify with the smell of a ballpark," he said.

Sterban and the rest of the Oak Ridge Boys were in Branson, Mo., earlier this week to kick off an annual Christmas tour that will bring them to the Crystal Grand Music Theatre in Wisconsin Dells tonight.

The show is coming to the Dells a little earlier this year because the tour was scheduled to be a swing through the western states only. But Sterban said they wanted to make it to Wisconsin.

"It's become a tradition for us doing our Christmas show at the Dells," Sterban said in a phone interview from Branson. "A lot of people now plan their holiday season around coming to the Dells and seeing the Oak Ridge Boys Christmas show."

The Christmas show, a combination of Oak Ridge Boys hits and Christmas classics, is big business for a band in its 23rd year of performing it.

"This thing has kind of grown on us, and I think we have become known for our Christmas music," Sterban said.

With the shows' popularity, Christmas comes a little earlier each year, now starting at the beginning of November and running until a few days before Christmas.

While this is a busy touring time for the Oak Ridge Boys, it leaves summer dates open for Sterban's baseball passion.

He's been part owner in the Nashville Sounds for decades - the Milwaukee Brewers' Triple A baseball club - and has become a big Brewers fan, having gotten to know players - like Prince Fielder and Corey Hart - who came up through Nashville.

But the Oak Ridge Boys always come first. Since 1972, Sterban has traveled the world with the band and credits the two years he sang backup to Elvis Presley as something that prepared him for touring - and how to do it right.

While fans may think of the song "Elvira" when they hear the Oak Ridge Boys, the group took a chance on an album last year to shake up their image - going as far as recording The White Stripes rock song "Seven Nation Army."

The move is not unlike what Johnny Cash did earlier this decade, landing a hit covering the hard rock band Nine Inch Nails.

"Wow. If this is what we're going to be doing, this is going to be a different project," Sterban said.


The first time he walked into a baseball stadium, Sterban was only a 3-year-old clinging to his uncle's hand.

Growing up in Camden, N.J., it was actually the Philadelphia Phillies he followed.

At his first game, the Chicago Cubs were in town. And since then, he hasn't lost the kid inside when going to a ballpark.

"I've always loved baseball," he said. "Baseball has become a passion of mine over the years and I've dabbled in some broadcasting."

He's been the color man on Nashville Sounds games and has also worked Vanderbilt games.

When Sterban moved to Nashville, he had a chance to become part-owner of the Sounds in the early 1970s and jumped at the chance.

"I didn't quite make it on the ground floor, but like the second year there I visited (with the owner looking for investors) and he allowed me to buy a little piece of the team. And over the years that has been something really special to me ... It's my hobby in life."

During summers, Sterban can be found at Sounds batting practice and in the clubhouse getting to know the team.

"I had a chance to hang out with Prince Fielder when he was in Nashville, Corey Hart, and most of those guys ...

"So over the years I've become a real Brewers fan and I follow them very, very closely."

While baseball is a hobby, singing in a group is something Sterban has done most of his life - going back to his experience in a junior high glee club where he was actually a tenor.

Over a summer, however, his voice dropped and the choir teacher moved him to bass.

After high school, Sterban attended college in New Jersey and continued singing - joining a caroling tradition there.

"Every year it was a tradition to go to dormitories and sing

a cappella," he said. "And thinking back on that it is really one of my fondest Christmas memories."


There's a life lesson to be had standing in the background while the King of rock ‘n' roll performs.

As part of the Stamps Quartet in 1971, Sterban found himself on tour with Elvis and never once saw an empty seat in the house.

This is how a tour is done, he thought.

"That was quite an experience. Even though I was standing in the dark singing oohs and ahs, it was still an exciting experience to be part of a tour of that magnitude," he said.

Sterban found himself a few years later going back to some of those same arenas - now as a member of Oak Ridge Boys.

"And I think in many ways that whole Elvis experience for me, it kind of helped prepare me for what was to come later on in my career with the Oak Ridge Boys."

Sterban landed in Elvis' last movie, "Elvis on Tour," which is a documentary on the King and life on the road.

"Elvis loved gospel music and he really loved spirituals. And he also had a quartet and vocal group on his (tours) because he loved that gospel harmony," Sterban said.

"And one of his favorite things, if there ever was a spare moment, he wanted us to come around him and start singing. And we would harmonize together."

The singing sessions would bust out anywhere, and were a way for Elvis to warm up backstage.

"I remember we would go up to his suite in Las Vegas and get around a piano and sing gospel songs for hours. And just impromptu. Like backstage, we would come over and just start singing a spiritual ... we used to have a lot of fun with him doing that."

Sterban ended up singing on "Burning Love" and the record "Separate Ways." And he said Elvis liked to joke around with the band and singers. Sterban said Elvis even thought of himself as kind of a frustrated bass singer.

"He would come over and stand next to me and sing bass in my ear to show me he could hit the low notes too, but, ah, not quite."

Christmas time

The Oak Ridge Boys may soon pass Andy Williams as the kings of Christmas albums.

They currently have five albums out and are considering doing another next year.

"We cover many areas of Christmas (in our show)," Sterban said. "We certainly cover the secular side of Christmas, the fun side of Christmas and we have songs that deal with the romantic side."

With that many albums, Sterban said they can change up shows each year to keep things fresh for audiences.

The Christmas shows came about in the late 1980s thanks in part to the Oak Ridge Boys' friendship with Kenny Rogers, who they toured with back then as part of the largest country show at the time.

"We not only became friends, but we also kind of became students of Kenny," Sterban said. "Still to this day we call him the ‘Sweet Music Man.' And we learned a lot from him. We studied (his work) and spent a lot of time talking about songs and what you do in the music business to make it, and do it the right way."

And one of those things was a Christmas show.

"Over the years I think we've become known for our Christmas music. We don't have as many as Andy Williams, but I think we're getting there."

Sterban said he hopes with the new management at Crystal Grand that they will continue to be invited back to Wisconsin Dells each year.

The Christmas show opens with classic Oak Ridge Boys hits, but also includes items off last year's album "The Boys Are Back," in which they explored country, rock and blues music, including The White Stripes and Neil Young.

"We've been around so long, we really needed this infusion of new energy," Duane Allen said in a release about the album.

The group worked with Shooter Jennings, Waylon's son, who turned them on to a producer for the album who wanted to take a new direction with the group.

"We were able to work with (David Cobb) who took us down some very interesting roads musically. And some roads we have not traveled before and probably would not have traveled on our own," Sterban said.

"It still sounded like us, (but it) got us a lot of attention. I don't know of anything that's gotten us more attention than recording (a White Stripes) song."

On Dec. 21, Sterban said the band will get to do something it hasn't done in almost a decade. They will bring their Christmas show back home to Nashville as part of the re-opening of Opryland, which was damaged by flooding this summer.

"It really will be the Oak Ridge Boys coming home for Christmas," Sterban said.

And maybe a few days later Santa will deliver better pitching for the Brewers.