The tried and true tradition of a jolly Santa Claus romping around in the spotlight while real snow falls on the hard wood stage of Star Plaza Theatre continues this Sunday as country music superstar group, the Oak Ridge Boys, bring the spirit of Christmas to Northwest Indiana just as they have each holiday season since Dean White first opened the doors of his 3,400-seat theater back in 1979.
“Christmas is all about tradition, home and family,” said Oaks bass singer Richard Sterban, who as a member of JD Sumner & The Stamps Quartet spent a few years singing back up for Elvis Presley, before accepting the invitation from Duane Allen and William Lee Golden to join the Oak Ridge Boys in 1973, replacing Noel Fox in the line-up. Joe Bonsall joined a few months later.
“For the Oak Ridge Boys, the coming of Christmas means we are coming to Merrillville to sing songs for our friends and our extended family in Northwest Indiana. We have been coming there to see you folks for so long, that it’s truly very much like coming home for us. Star Plaza is one of our very favorite places in the world to perform and we always look forward to this time of year because we get to see old friends like Charlie (Blum), Mark (Bishop), Monica (Montella-Helms) and the wonderful staff at Star Plaza, and all the Oak Ridge Boys fans there who have been so good to us over the years.”
One of the things making the Oak Ridge Boys winter visit different than many of the holiday concerts and shows that come to theaters this time of year is they keep “the reason for the season” upfront and in focus. “We love Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus and all that just like everyone does,” said Sterban, on why so many secular songs about toys, reindeer with red noses and jolly fat guys find their way into the Oaks annual Christmas tour. “But the main thing we want people to remember about Christmas is the birth of Jesus Christ,” said Sterban. “We sing a lot of songs in this show that tell that story. While we love singing the fun songs, it’s those spiritual songs about the birth that have the most meaning for the four of us.”
An Oak Ridge Boys’ Christmas concert is broken into two hour-long sets with an intermission. The first is full of many of the group’s 50 charted singles, including “Elvira,” “Y’all Come Back Saloon,” “Thank God for Kids,” “Gonna Take A Lot of River” and “Bobbie Sue.”
“The second half of Sunday’s show will be all Christmas songs,” said Sterban. A portion of the Christmas set will again feature the four members sitting in official Cracker Barrel rocking chairs and sharing personal childhood Christmas stories with the audience as they sing. “We did that last year and people really liked it,” he continued. “So we’re doing something like that again, but we’ve changed it up a bit.” The snow machine will be fired up during the second half to make sure everyone who’s dreaming of a white Christmas gets one, along with a visit from Santa Claus, who may have even more of a presence on Sunday than in past years.
“Within the last few weeks, we released ‘Christmas Time’s A-Coming’, which is the sixth Oak Ridge Boys Christmas album,” Sterban said. “Just like in the Christmas show, the album features a nice mix of familiar and very traditional Christmas songs that you expect to hear this time of year like ‘Joy To The World,’ ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Santa Claus is Coming To Town,’ along with some new songs that tell the Christmas story, like “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” “Getting Ready For A Baby,” and “Glorious Impossible.”
“This album is done in more of an acoustical style than on our previous albums,” said Sterban.
That more subtle groove and the rich home-style pickin’ acoustical feeling is attributed largely to musician Ben Isaac. While Isaac deserves props for laying down some nice upright bass on the “Christmas Time’s A-Coming” CD, more importantly, Isaac was the guy who helped direct the Oaks back to their roots sound as the producer of the group’s early summer release, “Back Home Again.”
“These last two albums have been recorded for the Gaither label which put us together with young Ben,” noted Sterban.
While the first incarnation of the Oak Ridge Boys goes back to 1945, before Sterban, Golden, Bonsall and Allen were barely out of diapers, these four iconic members have owned the name and trademark sound for the last four decades. Yes, it’s really been that long. Golden and Allen joined in 1965, with Sterban and Bonsall joining in 1973.
“It’s hard to believe, but in 2013, we will be doing our 40th anniversary tour,” said Sterban. “We kick it off in January (in Galveston, Texas) and we’ll just keep on going. I expect it’s going to be quite a year.”
In between touring and recording, Sterban told of keeping busy by co-authoring his first book, “From Elvis to Elvira,” which he described as a reflection on his fabulous career in music and his evolution from boy soprano to world famous bass singer.