Although their career is splattered with endless country hits, there’s one song that has become the definitive Oak Ridge Boys classic – Elvira.
The catchy 1981 country and pop hit is easily recognizable the moment it starts and will get even the most bashful of people singing along by the end. But very few know that the song isn’t actually an Oak Ridge Boys original – it was written and recorded in 1966 by songwriter Dallas Frazier for his album of the same name. Nowhere near as catchy or magical, the Oak Ridge Boys turned the song around and made it one of the biggest and most famous songs of the 1980s.
As The Oak Ridge Boys prepare for the summer release of their next album “Front Porch Singin”, we Zoomed in with Country Music Hall of Famer Joe Bonsall to reminisce about the 40th anniversary of the release of Elvira.
It’s the 40th anniversary of Elvira and I’d like to dive into that song a little bit, but I was surprised to find out that it wasn’t actually an Oak Ridge Boys song originally. How did you guys discover that song?
Well, you are correct. Rodney Crowell actually cut it years before we did. The writer, Dallas Fraser, had a regional hit with it in 1964. Kenny Rogers and The First Edition did a rendition of it and some weird minor key – it wasn’t a single but it was really weird.
What happened was, in 1980, we were working on our album called Fancy Free. We’d already had five gold albums at that point and everything was going great. We had actually been touring with Kenny Rogers for a year and a half on the big “Full House Tour”.
We were just wrapping up working on Fancy Free when a song plugger from Acuff-Rose Music named Ronnie Gant came into the studio and said, “Man, I just heard a bar band in Texas singing Dallas Fraser’s Elvira and I was thinking the Oak Ridge Boys could nail this thing to the wall. They never did anything like this. What do you think?” Our producer, Ron Chancey, said “Hey boys, let’s give it a try”. So we went the studio and ran through it probably twice. I’ll be really honest with you, if you listen to me sing on those verses, I was just goofing around (sings) “Eyes that look like heaven”. Just goofing. Then Richard with that remarkable voice put those “Oom Papa Mow Mow’s” on there and became probably the most famous bass singer in the world. And the rest is history.
Fancy Free album was in the can ready to be released. And we went on a little tour in early 1981. And we put the song on stage a couple of times just to see how it went. People in the audience acted like we gave them a condo in Montserrat. I mean, the response was like, off the wall. I mean, standing up, yelling. We sang it three times.
One night in Spokane, Washington, we called MCA Record and told them we’ve got something going on out here – Man, you better release this. And they did. It became a number one country single. Between March and June, it sold 2,000 – 45’s back then right away, and then as we released Fancy Free as our second single from the album for the summer, it crossed over into the pop market. So all the way through the summer of ‘81, everybody in this country was singing Elvira with the Oak Ridge Boys. It was pretty cool.
It doesn’t sound like there was a lot of hesitation picking that song. Choosing covers is not an easy thing.
Well, in a way, I never felt like we were singing somebody else’s song. I just went in there and had fun with it. I didn’t even sing it like anybody else did. If you listen to some of the originals, they do things on some of the original cuts of the song that we did not do. Especially like with Richard singing “Oom Papa Mow Mow” and me the way I did the verse. So we actually did make it our own song, I think. We have very rarely done covers, if you want to call them that. We’ve done some and always been open minded to anything creatively. We’re the group that recorded Seven Nation Army a few years ago, so we’ll do anything. But Elvira was just one of those things. It’s like the old question, how big can a song get? Boy you won’t believe how big one could get. And everybody in the world wishes they had an Elvira? I wish we had another one.
You touched on this, but one of the biggest and most underrated skills in the music business is taking a song and reworking it and making it your own. You guys took that song and you own it. That is your song.
I gotta tell you, I didn’t think we were doing somebody else’s song. I had never heard Rodney Crowell’s version. I heard Kenny Rogers and their First Edition version on an album, because I was a big Kenny Rogers fan. So I mean, I’d heard it, but I just didn’t feel like we were doing somebody else’s song to be honest with you. I just never felt that way. Ron said, Joe, I think he should sing the verses. And I think Richard, you do the “Oom Papa Mow Mow”, really make it different and come up with a cool arrangement and we just recorded it. It wasn’t like we were re-recording Bridge Over Troubled Water either. You know what I mean? It was Elvira. Just a fun song and we approached it with a fun attitude. And I think that’s how it comes off even 40 years later. The song is amazing. Even now, the Oak Ridge Boys on stage, we’ll go Alright, let’s sing Elvira, and the people stand up like it’s the Hallelujah chorus. They stand and sing it with us. It’s just an incredible phenomenon that only comes along once in a lifetime.
I was a rocker growing up as a teen when the song came out. I still knew all the lyrics to the song and whenever it was on the radio, you could sing along to it. It’s one of those magical songs that crossed over. That’s an interesting thing in country music when it crosses over because the songs just become this entirely different thing.
Well, again, it became so big and I think one of the keys to our early success of it was the fact that people not only loved the song, but they knew it was us singing it. And that’s a big deal. I mean, people knew it was the Oak Ridge Boys. Thanks to Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show, and quite a few other shows we were on, people knew it was us singing Elvira. To this day, we can walk through an airport and people go “Hey, man, Elvira – Oom Papa Mow Mow, Heigh-ho silver”. People know the Oak Ridge Boys and Elvira, they put it together. We’ve had over 35 charted hit records beside that and we’re in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Elvira didn’t put us in the Country Music Hall of Fame, our body of work did. But Elvira’s the song that people want to hear from the Oak Ridge Boys, and it’s the song they identify with. Count your blessings, man, I’ll sing Elvira probably, I’m sure until the day I die.
Do you remember the very first time you played it?
Yes. Spokane, Washington at the Spokane Opera House. I said that night on stage, we’ve just come out of the studio recording a new album and we’d like to do a few new songs for you. And we did a couple of the songs and they went over really well. Then we did Elvira and it went over like, Whoa. We knew right then that we had something going on. Then the next night was Portland, Oregon. Same thing happened. The next night was Eugene, Oregon. Same thing happened. That’s when we called the record label and said better release this thing, man, something’s going on here.
Do you keep a history of the band because you recalled that immediately.
Well, I’ve written two books on the Oak Ridge Boys – one called “An American Journey: Over 30 Years on the Road to Memories, Music and Legend” and one called “On the Road with The Oak Ridge Boys: Forty Years of Untold Stories and Adventures by Joseph S. Bonsall”, which is my writing name. I just finished a semi-autobiography / semi Oak Ridge Boy book called “I See Myself”. It’ll probably come out around Christmas, if not next year. I just now finished the book. So yeah, man, I keep kind of a running history in my head of everything we’ve done. It’s, I’m pretty adept at it.
What can we expect in that new book?
Well, we can expect to hear how a Philly boy became an Oak Ridge Boy. And I keep reflecting back and forth between growing up and early singing days; back and forth to what the Oak Ridge Boys are doing and have done. And so it’s a quasi autobiography, a quasi Oak Ridge Boy book.
Elvira was recorded several times by you guys, what’s your favorite version and why?
I’ve got to go with the original to be honest. We’ve cut it with different people, we’ve cut some different things. We cut it real Dixieland once with a Dixieland band, and a Dixieland approach to – it was really kind of fun, to be honest. We’ve cut it live a few times too, and they’re exciting, but that original cut, I don’t know, man, it was just some kind of magic to it. Can’t deny it.
And you wish you could capture that magic every time I bet?
Well, you know, we’ve managed to capture a lot of magic over the years. We have a new album coming out in June, called “Front Port Singin”, and we went into the studio even during this pandemic in August with one of the great producers in town now, the young Dave Cobb. This is actually the fourth album he’s produced for us. Dave had us singing like we’re sitting on our front porch like I’m doing right now. I’m sitting on the front porch.
The whole attitude of this new album is Oak Ridge Boys singing old gospel songs, old country songs, new gospel songs, new country songs as if the four of us were just sitting on the front porch at home singing harmony, and the album came out really, really good and with some of the songs and the way they’re written and the way they’re performed, I think we inadvertently might have recorded the perfect album for the time.
I can’t wait for everyone to hear it. It comes out in June. And it’s called “Front Port Singin”.
That sounds exciting.
The Oak Ridge Boys have a really long history. It goes way beyond your joining the band. The gospel has always been at the center and the heart of the band, and it evolved in the country and then transferred over to pop with some of the hits. But what’s your opinion on the gospel end of things. It takes a lot of soul to create gospel music.
Well, we don’t make our living singing gospel music, but we love gospel music. All our guys are Christian men.
We believe in the saving power of Jesus Christ and we’re not afraid to get out there and say that, and we’re in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame as well as the Country Music Hall of Fame because the Oak Ridge Boys have put a lot of stones on the mountain of gospel music.
It’s our roots. It’s our heritage. And you can’t come to an Oak Ridge Boys show and not hear a whole lot of hits. You’ll hear Elvira, Bobbie Sue, Thank God for Kids, Sail Away, on and on and on. But you’re going to hear a little gospel too. And the gospel always comes from our hearts and I think it moves people.
What did you know about the Oak Ridge Boys before you joined the band?
Everything. I was a big fan of the Oak Ridge Boys long before I joined the group. I go into that in pretty good detail, in “I See Myself” on a very magical night when my little singing group that I had at the time called The Keystones opened for the Oak Ridge Boys in Wilmington, Delaware, and we became friends immediately.
Dwayne Allen loved my group. He produced 10 albums for The Keystone group. We were working out of Buffalo, New York at the time and The Keystones did a lot of singing up there in Ontario.
William Lee Golden started booking The Keystones down south and I would bring the Oak Ridge Boys up north. I promoted Oak Ridge Boys shows all over New York State, Pennsylvania, Southern Ontario. I remember Sarnia for instance, I promoted the Oak Ridge Boys there. Through all those years, we just became really good friends and creative partners so to speak.
Then my good friend Richard, who I sang with for six years, went with J.D. Sumner & The Stamps, and 1971 backed up Elvis Presley till October 1972 – then joined the Oak Ridge Boys of all things.
A year later, when an opening came in the group when their tenor guy left, they offered me the job and so I think I’ve written this before, but you can take 10,000 guys and line them up, keep pulling four out of there and put them behind a microphone and you’re not going to get an Oak Ridge voice. There’s a lot of water under a lot of dams here.
Oh, absolutely, and we talked a little bit about magic – the Oak Ridge Boys connection is magical.
Well, I think it is. William Lee Golden first joined this group in 1965, Dwayne Allen in ‘66, Richard in October ‘72 and me in October ‘73. I was 25 years old and I’m about to turn 73, and I’m still one of the Oak Ridge Boys. That’s magic.
How do you keep your voice so up to spec?
That’s a blessing from God, I have to give him the honor and the praise on that. I’ve heard a lot of older people sing and they just kind of lose some of it. But then I’ve heard a lot of older people sing that don’t lose any of it.
Remember, Ray Price? Price was close to 90 years old and he was right on it. Right? Well, I’m very fortunate that I can still sing my part, without any trouble. There’s a few little things in my voice that maybe aren’t there anymore.
You remember a song we had back in ‘85 called “Little Things”, (sings) “it’s away, you kiss me”, I can’t get up and do that no more. There’s power in my voice, but some of that falsetto may be gone. But the power in it. (Sings Elvira), is there, I mean, it’s there. And my guys are the same way.
Dwayne Allen is one of the finest singers ever to sing a song and he’s still right on it. Golden has this countrified attitude and his voice, and it’s strong man – Golden’s 82 years old and he is strong. I want to be him when I grow up.
Richard, what a unique talent, he sings bass like nobody else has one of those. And he hasn’t lost the thing either. So we’re very fortunate that we can all still sing, and I don’t do anything special. I, certainly tried to get a good night’s sleep. I tried to take care of myself physically and mentally. I think we all do, and that’s why we can still sing at a very high level.
There’s a lot of drive. I mean, here we are in a pandemic, and you’ve got a new book coming out. There’s a new album coming out. That takes a lot of drive and ambition.
Well, there’s just no quitting in the Oak Ridge Boys, there ain’t one guy in this group that goes, Well, you know what, Maybe we’re done? No, it’s always moving forward. I heard Dwayne Allen say something the other day and I tweeted this at @oakridgeboys. He said, “You know, man, I have found over the last year and a half that I can be home a lot, and I can be happy at home”. And I think we can all say the same thing. I’ve enjoyed being home. I’ve enjoyed my farm, enjoyed my wife, my cats, it’s been fine. I haven’t felt weird like we all have because it has been a weird time. But I haven’t minded being home. But as Dwayne said the other day, “There’s still a hole in my heart that’s only filled by going out there on stage and singing to people and bringing love and encouragement to that stage and then have it come back to you. That fills the hole and it tells me we’re not through yet. We have a lot more to do”. I feel the same way.
You can order Oak Ridge Boys newest album “Front Porch Singin” at OatRidgeBoys.com