Every once in a while a song comes along that so transfixes people, it becomes part of their DNA henceforth. You remember the first time you heard it. You travel back to that time and place when you first heard it when you hear it again. It’s a guidepost to your memories. “Elvira” by the Oak Ridge Boys, which is celebrating its 40th Anniversary this month, is most certainly one of those songs.
Written in 1966 by Dallas Frazier, but not recorded and released by the Oak Ridge Boys until 1981, the song was about the perfect ear worm with its bouncy verses combined with the do-woppy “Om-papa-mow-mow” portion performed by bass singer Richard Sterban. Add a Lone Ranger reference in there, and every kid born from the 50’s to the 80’s and most adults found favor with “Elvira,” sometimes becoming their introduction to country music.
“The first time we performed ‘Elvira’ in front of an audience was at an afternoon rehearsal for ‘The Tonight Show,’” says Oaks member Duane Allen. “We were not set to perform it on the show that night, but we had just recorded it and decided to sing it for a soundcheck. By the time we got halfway through the song, the producer, assistants, secretaries, sound and light crew, and all of the people who could hear us, came running over and freaking out. ‘The Tonight Show’ gave us the first ‘reading’ of how ‘Elvira’ was going to be received.”
“Elvira” was not just a country music single, it became an ambassador for the genre. Along with going #1 in country, it also reached all the way to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the time. “Elvira” became its own kind of cultural phenomenon, with everyone trying to “Om-papa” along, but failing to reach the register of Richard Sturban’s range.
“It’s been said that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to fully appreciate or understand the magnitude of something as it’s happening,” says Richard Sterban. “While that might be true in some circumstances, I can honestly say that I—and we—could not have been any more aware of what was happening to us, as we rode the crest of the ‘Elvira’ wave.”
The Oak Ridge Boys had already enjoyed a few #1 singles and a strong legacy in Gospel music before “Elvira” came along, but the song certainly launched them into the stratosphere. Eleven of the next fifteen singles from the Oak Ridge Boys would go #1.
“When the Oaks first cut ‘Elvira’, the phenomenal success it created for them blessed my quest for success as well,” says songwriter Dallas Frazier. “Every songwriter dreams of getting cuts like that one.”
“American Made,” “Bobby Sue,” and “Thank God for Kids” are some of the other songs country fans may immediately think of when they think of the Oak Ridge Boys. But everybody knows “Elvira.” And if you play it for a kid today, they’ll immediately be hooked. Not many country songs today you’ll be able to say that about 40 years from now.