The Oak Ridge Boys were formed in 1943, originally as Wally Fowler And The Georgia Clodhoppers, later renamed the Oak Ridge Quartet, a Gospel outfit out of, you guessed it, Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Never heard of Oak Ridge? The town was critical to the development of the first atomic bomb. The labs there enriched uranium for the Manhattan Project, which, headed by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, produced the nuclear device that destroyed Hiroshima, Japan. During WWII, members of the Oak Ridge group often sang for the restricted families of government staff at the top-secret facility.
After another name change, to the Oak Ridge Boys, the group broadened its gospel roots to include country and crossover music. In 1981, it had its biggest hit, “Elvira,” which climbed to No. 1 on the Cash Box Top 100 chart. The group has also recorded with Paul Simon, most notably background vocals on the hit “Slip Slidin’ Away,” and worked with other famous musicians, including Johnny Cash.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Oak Ridge Boys’ current lineup of Joe Bonsall, Richard Sterban, Duane Allen and William Lee Golden. I traveled to Nashville over the holidays to attend the group’s Christmas special at Gaylord Opryland Resort. Before the show, I sat down with Allen, 79, for a chat. He is a classically trained vocalist and a member of The Country Music Hall Of Fame since 2015. Allen is unassuming, soft-spoken and spiritual. Following are edited excerpts from a longer conversation.
Jim Clash: Talk a bit about how Oak Ridge Boys have evolved musically over the decades.
Duane Allen: We haven’t really changed that much. Our music has just spilled over, been accepted by a broader group, depending upon the style of song we cut. In our shows today, we still do some basic gospel songs, some country songs. A few of our songs have mass appeal that cross over into the Top 40, like “Elvira,” “Bobby Sue” and “Heart Of Mine.”
Clash: When you first heard yourself on the radio, what was that like?
Allen: That goes way back to high school, even before. When I was seven, I sang on local radio. I had on a Cowboys suit. I wasn’t professional yet, but thought I was [laughs]. I can tell you where we were when we heard our first country song, “Y’all Come Back Saloon.” I had been with Oak Ridge Boys for 11 years without a hit. We had been singing gospel, and when we tried to make our music more commercial, more country, we got a negative rub from people who didn’t want that to happen.
We recorded “Ya’ll Come Back Saloon” in 1977. We had just done a concert in Houston [Texas], and were on our way to Dallas. The song had been released to juke boxes before the radio stations. We thought that if we pulled into a truck stop, there was maybe, just maybe, a chance that the song would be there. And it was! We fed quarters in until the truckers had heard enough to get sick of it, I think [laughs]. The song ended up reaching No. 2 on the country charts, just behind the Kendalls’ “Heaven Is Just A Sin Away.’’
Clash: You did work with the great Paul Simon on one of his songs, “Slip Slidin’ Away,” correct?
Allen: Yes. He was one of the nicest people you would ever want to meet. We also did a TV special [All-Star Gospel Session] he had put together in California, with the Mighty Clouds Of Joy and other groups. Paul Simon is into all kinds of music. He went to Africa to make albums with tribes with all different rhythmic chants. On “Slip Slidin’ Away,” Phil Ramone was the engineer. It took us two days. Earlier, Paul had had us do a session with The Roches, “If You Empty Out All Your Pockets, You Could Not Make Change.” He was probably checking us out for “Slip Slidin’ Away.”
Clash: You’ve met so many people during your six decades in the music business. Is there one you haven’t met that you particularly would like to meet?
Allen: I’ve never met Paul McCartney, but I would like to, just sit down and talk music with him, or talk anything. He’s a fascinating person, brilliant. I’d ask him if maybe he could write something, or produce something, for us. That would be an honor.
Clash: Have you ever played in a communist country, like say, China or Russia? I just wonder if closed societies like that would ever have heard of country music.
Allen: We went to the [former] Soviet Union in 1976 for three weeks with Roy Clark under a Cultural Exchange Program. We worked in what was once Leningrad [now St. Petersburg], then took trains to Riga in the Baltic area, and to Moscow. Every show was sold out!
Clash: The Oak Ridge Boys have been together for so long. Still friends?
Allen: Sure. I’m constantly pulling practical jokes on Joe [Bonsall] in the tour bus. I bought a big, remote-controlled black spider. Joe is scared of spiders. I put it over the top of his bunk, then, in the dark, set it off from across the aisle. It’s got two big red eyes that light up [laughs]. We have things like that going on all of the time.
(Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a multi-part interview series with Oak Ridge Boys member Duane Allen.)