My earliest memory is when I was six-years-old, standing beside my nine-year-old sister in the kitchen of my grandparents’ farmhouse, both of us holding brooms and singing the Oak Ridge Boys’ hit “Elvira” into the handles. I know I’m not alone. Most of my friends now in their mid-to-late thirties have a similar memory of belting out Joe Bonsall’s boozy verses and imitating bass Richard Sterban’s infamous “Giddy up, oom papa oom papa mow mow” chorus. The song went viral — or “Elviral,” as one of Bonsall’s friends says — in 1981, at a time when there was no Twitter, no Facebook, no YouTube. There was just country radio, and then pop radio, which helped it sell well over 2 million 45s.
For nine straight months, “It was the kind of song that everybody was singing,” Bonsall says 30 years later. “Little kids were singing it. They were playing it at every seventh inning stretch of every ball game from Little League to the majors. People on church picnics were pulling out in their vans singing ‘Elvira.’ They were singing it in bowling alleys.” He remembers the group’s first trip to Anchorage, Alaska, in Sept. 1981, and a radio station devoting Labor Day weekend to the song. “Seventy-two straight hours of nothing but ‘Elvira’,” he says. “I was afraid to get out of the plane. I thought people would throw ice balls at us. I even thought that’s a little bizarre.”
The song had been recorded before — by the likes of Dallas Frazier, who penned it in the ’60s (Elvira supposedly came from a street named Elvira Avenue outside Nashville), Rodney Crowell, and Kenny Rogers & The First Edition. But it was the Oak Ridge Boys who made it famous. As the story goes, a song plugger for Acuff Rose Music named Ronnie Gant heard a bar band in Texas singing “Elvira,” and thought it’d be perfect for Bonsall’s and Sterban’s voices. He took the idea to their producer, Ron Chancey, and the Boys recorded it in a couple of takes. It wasn’t their first hit — they already had 12 No. 1 singles to their name — but they had a feeling it might be their biggest one when they introduced a few songs from their then-upcoming Fancy Free album to a show in Spokane, Wash. “We sang the song, just sang it, and the place cheered and cheered and cheered — it was almost like somebody was playing a joke on us,” Bonsall says, recalling a time later in the group’s heyday when a bloopers show coerced 18,000 people at the Kentucky State Fair to not clap at all after he finished singing “I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes.” He asked the Spokane crowd if they wanted to hear “Elvira” again, and they did. “We did the song three times, and the place was standing,” he says. “We backed up and looked at each other and said, ‘Holy cow, what in the world is goin’ on?’ Next couple of nights the same thing happened.” They told their label it should be the single.
The Oak Ridge Boys are still together and touring in 2011. “Our crowd is, for the most, a little bit older now, as we are. Sometimes the biggest thing that happens at one of our concerts is when a tennis ball flies off a walker and hits somebody on a scooter,” jokes Bonsall, 62. “I don’t know how long this thing’s gonna go. I think we are a very blessed bunch because we can still sing and perform at a pretty doggone high level for our age. And I think that that’s important. I don’t want to be up there not singing good for people. As long as we can sing good, I say, man let’s keep on singing. Somebody’s gonna eventually have a state of bad health. We’ve dodged a few bullets over the years. But everybody’s really feeling good and singing good, and there ain’t one guy in this group that ever talks about how we can slow down. All it would take is one guy to really ruin that. Alabama, Statler Brothers, they’re not here no more. One guy in each of those groups did not want to do that anymore.”
Having caught an Oak Ridge Boys concert last Saturday night in Lancaster, Penn., we can confirm that they’re still singing good — and eating good. Early in the show, Bonsall, who’s originally from Philadelphia, watched a string of fans approach the stage with bags of soft pretzels, peanut butter eggs, whoopie pies, and cookies. “Everything went on the bus, everything went home,” he says. “Everything I ate that day, I ate thanks to people bringing. I had a pizza steak for lunch. I saved the second one and had it on the way home on the bus. I ate three of the five soft pretzels that were given to me, half of one which I ate on stage. I topped it all off with a Tastykake.” He also adds he had some Goldenberg Peanut Chews. Bonsall attributes that generosity to fans having listened to him lament missing those Philadelphia delicacies over the years, but he says it happens in other states, too. “I will tell you that Pennsylvania is good at that, so is Ohio. In the Carolinas, people will come up to the bus and open up the trunk and it will be full of fried chicken,” he says, laughing. “People do bring food, pies, cakes, cookies in the Midwest a little bit. Sometimes in New England, you’ll get stuff. Some guy the other day even brought a whole bunch of clam chowder to the first show. But you know, we can take a four-week tour on the West Coast and nobody brings you jack. California, Washington, Oregon, nobody brings cookies.”