STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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The obvious reason The Oak Ridge Boys sell out the Sellersville Theater every time the Country Music Hall of Famers play there is their hits — including the pop chart crossovers “Elvira” and “Bobbie Sue.”
An overlooked reason could be the connections to the area of two of their vocalists. Although the group has always been based out of Tennessee, Joe Bonsall is originally from Philadelphia, and bass singer Richard Sterban was born and raised in Camden County, NJ.
In his 2012 autobiography (written with Steve Robinson), “From Elvis to Elvira: My Life on Stage,” Sterban explains to those not from here what “down the shore” means. He also reveals that a noteworthy portion of his younger years was spent in Pennsylvania.
In a phone interview, Sterban said he committed to writing his memoirs because “for years, people have been asking me questions: ‘What was it like singing with Elvis?’ I got to thinking maybe I should write this down.”
Before The Oak Ridge Boys — and even before backing Elvis in The Stamps Quartet — Sterban was in a southern gospel singing group called The Keystone Quartet. The Keystones were friends Sterban first met at a concert in Bristol, Bucks County. The Keystone Quartet would go on to open for the Harrisburg-based group The Couriers in Hershey.
After the quartet initially broke up in 1965, “I became reacquainted with a man I had met singing at a show a few months earlier. J.R. Damiani was the leader of a ‘weekend group’ called The Eastmen Quartet, and also owned a shoe store and repair shop in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. We became friends, and in summer of 1965, I joined J.R., Frank Sanchez and Ronnie Landis as a member of The Eastmen Quartet, along with Nick Bruno on piano, who had also played with The Keystones,” Sterban wrote.
Today, Damiani is the pastor of Family Worship Center in Towamencin.
It was at around that same time Sterban got a job at a Gimbels department store in Northeast Philly.
“In order to be closer to the other members of The Eastmen Quartet, Sandra (Sterban’s wife) and I moved again — along with our new son, Rich — to Woxall, Pennsylvania (in Upper Salford Township), where I rented an apartment above a garage building next door to J.R.’s house. In fact, it was the same apartment that J.R. and his wife, Bev, had lived in when they first got married. Eventually I tired of driving the hour-long commute to Gimbels so I took a job running a press at a print shop owned by a friend of J.R.’s. The living and working arrangements were convenient for our rehearsals, as almost every night would find us in J.R.’s living room practicing our harmonies,” Sterban wrote.
Sterban later moved to Camp Hill and formed a new version of The Keystone Quartet with Bonsall.
One fateful night, while The Keystones were on tour and staying in a hotel outside of Buffalo, NY, Sterban got a call from the nephew of J.D. Sumner of The Stamps Quartet (who were not yet Elvis’ band). “They wanted a younger singer to sing bass. I was kinda starving to death, so I took the job. But it involved me moving to Nashville,” Sterban said.
He and Bonsall would reunite in 1973 when they both joined The Oak Ridge Boys, who scored their first big hit in 1977 with “Y’all Come Back Saloon.”
Bonsall, a member of the Philadelphia Music Hall of Fame, has written several books himself; including the Molly the Cat series, which supports literacy, animal shelter and pet education causes through The Joseph S. and Mary Ann Bonsall Foundation. According to Bonsall’s website, he is still a diehard Phillies fan.
“I always look forward to coming to that part of the country,” Sterban said of the Delaware Valley.
Check out www.richardsterban.com and www.josephsbonsall.com.