Those who know the Oak Ridge Boys from the hit singles that began with 1977â€™s “Y’all Come Back Saloon” and ran through crossover icons “Elvira” and â€œBobbie Sue,â€ may be surprised to find the groupâ€™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 â€˜60s, the Oak Ridge Boys. The groupâ€™s best-known lineup came together in the early â€˜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 â€œPraise the Lord and Pass the Soupâ€ 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 groupâ€™s Columbia singles fared no better, with the first six failing to chart, and the seventh, â€œFamily Reunion,â€ barely scraping onto the charts at #83. A large part of the groupâ€™s problem seems to have been Columbiaâ€™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 groupâ€™s debut single for Columbia, the Grammy-winning â€œThe Baptism of Jesse Taylor,â€ 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 Kristoffersonâ€™s â€œWhy Meâ€ hasnâ€™t the wasted soul of the original, but it was a canny pick for a cover, as was their non-charting take on Paul Simonâ€™s â€œLoves Me Like a Rock.â€ The group turned soulful with Allen Toussaintâ€™s widely covered â€œFreedom for the Stallion,â€ and the debut albumâ€™s â€œGive Me a Starâ€ provides a powerful close to the debut Columbia album. Their sophomore effort opens with the albumâ€™s non-charting single â€œRhythm Guitar,â€ featuring honky-tonk piano and a terrific bass vocal.
The opening verse of â€œNobody Specialâ€ briefly shows off the quartetâ€™s vocal blend in an a cappella arrangement that could have supported the entire track (or an album!). Porter Wagonerâ€™s â€œWhen I Sing For Himâ€ 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 albumâ€™s songs of praise, the group offers Christian life principles in â€œWe Gotta Love One Anotherâ€ and â€œPlant a Seed,â€ essaying the pitfalls of part-time faith. The closing â€œMighty Fineâ€ 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 â€œHeaven Bound.â€ and â€œPraise the Lord and Pass the Soup,â€ and the B-side â€œLook Away Mama.â€
Disc two opens with the ten tracks of the groupâ€™s third Columbia album, and features a second collaboration with Johnny Cash on his original â€œNo Earthly Good.â€ The non-charting single â€œWhere the Soul Never Diesâ€ and â€œJesus Knows Who I Amâ€ offer revival tent zest, but the albumâ€™s split between old-timey gospel, country-flavored numbers and middle-of-the-road ballads doesnâ€™t quite live up to the collectionâ€™s home-spun title. As with the previous two albums, the breadth is admirable, but it plays more like a variety show than a groupâ€™s album. The final two Columbia singles, David Allan Coeâ€™s â€œFamily Reunionâ€ and George Jonesâ€™ â€œAll Our Favorite Songsâ€ are included along with their B-sides.
The group moved from Columbia to Dot in 1977, then to Dotâ€™s parent, ABC, and then to ABCâ€™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 groupâ€™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 & Weilâ€™s Brill Building classic â€œ(Youâ€™re My) Soul And Inspiration,â€ the country hit â€œLucky Moon,â€ its bluesy B-side take on â€œWalking After Midnightâ€ and the fine, but low-charting â€œFall.â€ The set closes with a funky cover of â€œGo Tell it on the Mountain,â€ 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 Marcheseâ€™s detailed liner notes, â€œThose were the days when we rode the fence musically trying to appease everyoneâ€¦ Although some of the songs were really cool, we just couldnâ€™t seem to gain any real traction.â€ This set provides bookends for the groupâ€™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 didnâ€™t produced the mainstream fame theyâ€™d find on MCA, but it opened their ears to the opportunity that lay just ahead. [Â©2018 Hyperbolium]