From Elvis to Elvira — the real story behind how ORB got Elvira

| September 6, 2017 | Reply

A shortened version of this article first appeared in Buddy Magazine’s September 2017 issue.    By Mary Jane Farmer

Perhaps the most refreshing of Richard Sterban’s characteristics are that he has made a success of his life, the success he set out to make, and that he only speaks well of a former co-musician, Elvis Presley.

Sterban is the “Giddy Up Bah Oom Papa, Oom Papa, Mow Mow” man, aka bass singer, with the Oak Ridge Boys, on their signature success, “Elvira.”

Before that, Sterban’s on way up his self-designated ladder to success, he sang backup with Elvis Presley. He talks about his decades of years on the stage in a new book, From Elvis to Elvira, released in August on the 40th anniversary of singer Elvis Presley’s death.

But the Texas Nexus part is:  A couple of dozen years ago, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, one of the singer/songwriter leaders of the 70s reinvention of Texas music, called Progressive Country, Cosmic Cowboy, or Redneck Rock at the time, told me the story of just how The Oak Ridge Boys came about coming upon and recording “Elvira.” And when interviewing Sterban recently, I asked him that question, “Just how did you all come across ‘Evira?’” Here’s their stories.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore
Courtesy photo

Jimmie Dale Gilmore

“I played it all the time, every place I played, I played “Elvira” It was that period in the early 1980s, before I got a record deal.

“It was during that period in the early 80s before I got a record deal, that I sang ‘Elvira’ all the time, at The Alamo, at Gruene Hall, at The Split Rail, everywhere.” Butch Hancock and Gilmore were often together on those stages, and Hancock said, too, that it was a favorite of Gilmore’s songs.

“Elvira” was written by Dallas Frazier, who went on to also write other straight country hits including “All I have to Offer You (Is Me),” “Fourteen Carat Mind,” and “What’s Your Mama’s Name, Child?”

“I just was a fan of his from before he was ever known,” Gilmore said. “There was a long time I was more associated with the folk crowd, but was the only one doing C&W in that crowd, those early early times, I had a whole repertoire that was different than the others — Ray Wylie and Gary P., for instance. We sang mostly mine or Butch’s songs, but drew others from all over the place.

“My version of the song was completely different from Dallas Frazier’s version. I did it differently. Then, one day, I read that some Nashville group had a hit with it. And when I heard it, their version sounded exactly like mine.

“Then I read an interview where the Oaks said they had heard a band in south Texas do it that way.”

Richard Sterban Photo by Mary Jane Farmer

Richard Sterban

“The song ‘Elvira’ was channeled to us. We knew Dallas Frazier, but it was a publisher who was on vacation in Texas when he heard a band singing ‘Elvira” in a bar. When he heard it, be thought of the Oak Ridge Boys. When he got back to Nashville, he made a copy of the song, Dallas’ own version, and it made its way to us.

“When we heard it, we all knew this is the song we have been looking for. Days later, it went down very easily, only a couple of recordings, and it was done. We used a few studio musicians and the song just felt like a hit.” Sterban said Dallas wrote the ‘mow mow’ part in the song, and said, “I just listened to it and adapted it to my way of doing things.

“I think we didn’t realize how special it was until the first time we did it in person. That was in Spokane, Washington. And in the middle of the show, we decided to throw that song in there. We didn’t say a word about it, just played and sang it; but the place went crazy and we had to encore it several times, three or four times, and we did it again at the end (of the concert). And people went crazy again and we had to encore it again. It was the same on the rest of that West Coast Tour.”

Sterban said that when they got back home, they called their record label, saying “We have to get this out, we have something special on our hands.” “Elvira” was one of the largest single records to ever be recorded in Nashville and to cross-over. It first became a country hit, then the top radio stations started playing it, Sterban said, and it shot up the pop music charts.

“To this day, we’ve got to do ‘Elvira.’ It’s our signature. And if I have such a thing as a claim to fame, it would be that line, “Giddy up bah oom papa, oom papa, mow mow,” Richard sang over the telephone to me.

Dallas Frazier, an Okie by birth, wrote and recorded “Elvira” himself in 1966. Jimmie Dale Gilmore and often Butch Hancock, both Texans, sang it often in and around the 1980s, and the Oak Ridge Boys, all of Tennessee, recorded and made a hit of it in 1981. That’s 51 years of life for a powerhouse song.

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