It’s the ultimate earworm, one of country’s most beloved sing-along songs, and the signature hit of the Oak Ridge Boys. The tune is “Elvira,” originally written by Dallas Frazier, who turned it into a minor pop hit in 1966. Fifteen years later, the Oak Ridge Boys debuted the song on the Billboard country charts, April 4, 1981, and it went on to become a No. 1 country single. But unlike some chart-toppers, “Elvira” hasn’t succumbed to one-and-done success. If anything, the song has grown richer and more flavorful 40 years after its release.
The Oak Ridge Boys – Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall, Richard Sterban, and William Lee Golden– are marking the big 4-0 for “Elvira” in a celebratory way. They’ve named their current road show the Elvira 40 Tour, kicking off in late March and running through mid-November. The Oaks’ Joe Bonsall and Richard Sterban reflected on the “Elvira” phenomenon for Sounds Like Nashville, sharing memories of the recording, their first concert performance of the mega-hit, and what the song has meant to the Oak Ridge Boys’ overall legacy.
“IT JUST FELT SPECIAL”
Both agree that they knew they had fired up a hit, but at different times during the process. Sterban immediately noticed the joy and exuberance of the studio musicians when the group recorded “Elvira” in Nashville in 1980. Normally, professional sidemen, who do a plethora of sessions, stick to the task at hand and rarely react to a song that’s being done. But the aura around “Elvira” was different, Sterban recalls.
“I remember when we recorded it, Jimmy Capps, the guitar player, had this big smile on his face while he was playing.” Sterban tells Sounds Like Nashville. “All the musicians were laughing and smiling. You usually don’t see that with musicians because the good ones play on so many records. They don’t show a lot of emotion when they’re playing. To see them react like that told me we were on to something. It just felt special.”
Tenor vocalist Bonsall felt the magic when the quartet performed “Elvira” in concert for the first time at the Spokane Opera House in Washington in early 1981. The group had included the song on their forthcoming album Fancy Free but had yet to test market it for an audience. “We decided to sing a few of the new songs from the album,” Bonsall remembers, “and we did ‘Elvira.’ We finished the song and everybody started standing and screaming and going crazy. We did it a second time during the show and they went just as crazy as the first time. On the encore,” Bonsall adds, “we did ‘Elvira’ again and got the same reaction.” The following night, the Oaks played a show in Portland, Oregon, performed “Elvira,” and, as you might surmise, that audience ate it up with the same enthusiasm as their Spokane counterparts.
“We called our producer Ron Chancey and the record label from the road,” Bonsall continues, “and told them that we might want to release ‘Elvira’ as a single. We can’t explain it but people are going nuts when we sing this. We knew right away that we had something big on our hands.”
What really moved the “Elvira” needle turned out to be the Oaks Ridge Boys’ appearance on the top-rated late night TV series of its era, The Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson. “The biggest thing that happened with that song was getting to do it on The Tonight Show,” Bonsall says. “Johnny gave it a great intro and when we started singing, people in the audience were singing with it. And even [show bandleader] Doc Severinsen and The Tonight Show band were singing it.” The exposure from that performance lifted both “Elvira” and the Oaks’ fortunes. “That took us from being the hot young country act at the time to being a household name,” Bonsall declares. “People identified the song with the Oak Ridge Boys.” The single moved quickly up the charts, and peaked at the No. 1 spot on May 30, 1981.
“Elvira” never seems to get old, even to a younger generation of fans. But what accounts for that staying power, after more than four decades? After all, even the most die-hard Oaks fan would have to concede that it’s hardly a lyrical masterpiece, nor does it encompass great depth. It was not even inspired by a real woman, according to Dallas Frazier, but a street name in Madison, Tennessee, outside of Nashville. Bonsall is quick to admit, “It’s not a meaningful song, not like ‘The House That Built Me’ or something along those lines.”
To explain the magic, you would have to first point to the recording itself. Bonsall sang the verses with a lighthearted, playful delivery that bounced along to the catchy melody. “I just kind of goofed around on the verses,” Bonsall says with a laugh. “We had so much fun in the studio recording it, and I think that shows up on the record. We sang it through about three times and we nailed it!”
The most distinctive sonic element to the song has to be Sterban’s unique and unforgettable bass vocal on that “Ah-oom papa, oom papa, oom papa, mow mow’ line that has become one of the most identifiable in recorded music history. That gave “Elvira” a robust flavor. “It might sound braggadocios for me to say this,” Sterban says in an earnest, humble tone, “but it is one of the most famous bass parts in music. Dallas Frazier had that part on his original recording. I took that and adapted it to my own style of doing things. I was just having fun with it.”
WITH A LITTLE HELP
Other artists have also joined in the fun of singing “Elvira.” Little Big Town performed the song with the Oaks during the Grand Ole Opry’s 90th Birthday Bash. The a cappella group Home Free recorded a version with the Oak Ridge Boys, which became a career highlight for the young quintet, and has accompanied the Oaks on stage several times for a rousing “Elvira” rendition.
“There’s always a huge response when we sing it with them,” says Home Free baritone vocalist Adam Chance. “It’s always a magical moment. There’s an energy to it that the crowd feels and gives to you.” Adds the group’s bass vocalist Tim Foust, “People go nuts. You can’t beat 8-part harmony!” On that note, he’s right on the money.
THE LEGACY OF “ELVIRA”
To this day, “Elvira” remains the one “Must do” number in the Oak Ridge Boys’ concert set list. “It is still mind-boggling,” raves the Oaks’ Bonsall. “At the end of our show, when we sing ‘Elvira,’ everybody stands up like it’s the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ or something. After 40 years, it’s still like this. I think it’s the law,” Bonsall adds laughing, “that we have to do ‘Elvira,’ if nothing else. We’ve had many hits worldwide, but ‘Elvira’ is still the song that the Oak Ridge Boys are known for.” Says Sterban in agreement, “We can not get away without singing ‘Elvira.’”
“It’s such a unique and one-of-a-kind song,” notes Home Free’s Adam Chance to Sounds Like Nashville. “To me, that makes it timeless. Also, it’s a song that appeals to every generation because it’s so much fun and easy to sing along to.” Adds Home Free’s beatboxer Adam Rupp, “It’s still a staple of their live shows. What makes the song so special are the familiarity, fun energy, and those deep bass moments.”
Oaks’ bass singer Sterban likely sums it up best when speaking of the ongoing legacy of “Elvira” and the song’s continuing popularity. “It’s just a great sing-along song,” Sterban observes. “It makes you happy and you forget about all your troubles. And that’s what the Oak Ridge Boys have always been about.”