The Oak Ridge Boys: When I Sing For Him – The Complete Columbia Recordings & RCA Singles

The pre- and post-MCA sides of the Oak Ridge Boys

Those who know the Oak Ridge Boys from the hit singles that began with 1977’s “Y’all Come Back Saloon” and ran through crossover icons “Elvira” and “Bobbie Sue,” may be surprised to find the group’s Southern gospel roots stretch back to the 1940s. Starting out as Wally Fowler and the Georgia Clodhoppers, they became the Oak Ridge Quartet, and then in the early ‘60s, the Oak Ridge Boys. The group’s best-known lineup came together in the early ‘70s when bass singer Richard Sterban and tenor Joe Bonsall joined mid-60s arrivals Duane Allen and William Lee Golden. It was this quartet that charted with Johnny Cash on the 1973 single “Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup” and eventually expanded from gospel to country hit making.

By 1974 the group had moved from the Heart Warming gospel label to the secular Columbia where they recorded the trio of albums anthologized here: The Oak Ridge Boys, Sky High, and Old Fashioned, Down Home, Hand Clappin’, Foot Stompin’, Southern Style, Gospel Quartet Music. The self-titled Columbia debut cracked the top 40, but the remaining two albums, despite quality material and performances, failed to chart. The group’s Columbia singles fared no better, with the first six failing to chart, and the seventh, “Family Reunion,” barely scraping onto the charts at #83. A large part of the group’s problem seems to have been Columbia’s lack of service to gospel radio, but their stylistic range, which included gospel harmony, MOR ballads, country and soul diluted their identity as gospel singers without providing a ready hook for secular radio.

Which is a shame, because the singles and albums deserved an audience. The group’s debut single for Columbia, the Grammy-winning “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor,” could easily have fit country radio in 1973, but it was a year or two late to mingle with the God Rock pop hits of 1971-2. Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me” hasn’t the wasted soul of the original, but it was a canny pick for a cover, as was their non-charting take on Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock.” The group turned soulful with Allen Toussaint’s widely covered “Freedom for the Stallion,” and the debut album’s “Give Me a Star” provides a powerful close to the debut Columbia album. Their sophomore effort opens with the album’s non-charting single “Rhythm Guitar,” featuring honky-tonk piano and a terrific bass vocal.

The opening verse of “Nobody Special” briefly shows off the quartet’s vocal blend in an a cappella arrangement that could have supported the entire track (or an album!). Porter Wagoner’s “When I Sing For Him” gave lead vocalist Duane Allen an opportunity to really soar, a performance so moving that Wagoner asked him to sing the song at his funeral, which he did in 2007. Beyond the album’s songs of praise, the group offers Christian life principles in “We Gotta Love One Another” and “Plant a Seed,” essaying the pitfalls of part-time faith. The closing “Mighty Fine” would have made a catchy second single, had Columbia been more interested in promoting the group. Disc one is filled out with six bonus tracks that include a pair of vault tracks from All Our Favorite Songs, the singles “Heaven Bound.” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup,” and the B-side “Look Away Mama.”

Disc two opens with the ten tracks of the group’s third Columbia album, and features a second collaboration with Johnny Cash on his original “No Earthly Good.” The non-charting single “Where the Soul Never Dies” and “Jesus Knows Who I Am” offer revival tent zest, but the album’s split between old-timey gospel, country-flavored numbers and middle-of-the-road ballads doesn’t quite live up to the collection’s home-spun title. As with the previous two albums, the breadth is admirable, but it plays more like a variety show than a group’s album. The final two Columbia singles, David Allan Coe’s “Family Reunion” and George Jones’ “All Our Favorite Songs” are included along with their B-sides.

The group moved from Columbia to Dot in 1977, then to Dot’s parent, ABC, and then to ABC’s parent MCA, minted the biggest hit albums and singles of their career. In 1990, with Steve Sanders having replaced William Lee Golden as the group’s baritone, the group signed with RCA and released Unstoppable and The Long Haul. Disc 2 is filled out with four RCA singles from this period, including a grandiose cover of Mann & Weil’s Brill Building classic “(You’re My) Soul And Inspiration,” the country hit “Lucky Moon,” its bluesy B-side take on “Walking After Midnight” and the fine, but low-charting “Fall.” The set closes with a funky cover of “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” drawn from Sounds of the Season.

The Columbia sides show the group branching out from their gospel roots, but not yet fully committing themselves to the country market. As Joe Bonsall opines in Joe Marchese’s detailed liner notes, “Those were the days when we rode the fence musically trying to appease everyone… Although some of the songs were really cool, we just couldn’t seem to gain any real traction.” This set provides bookends for the group’s hit years on MCA, showing how they expanded their material and style from gospel to pop, rock, country and soul without ever dropping the thread of faith. Their Columbia material didn’t produced the mainstream fame they’d find on MCA, but it opened their ears to the opportunity that lay just ahead. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

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