How the Oak Ridge Boys Reached the Top of the Tree (1998)
Originally published June 16, 1998.
Twenty years ago this month the Oak Ridge Boys scored their first No. 1 with “I’ll Be True to You”—just a year after making the decision to go country.
The group had been having an identity crisis. They were reaping rewards for their gospel records, such as the 1974 Grammy-winner, “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor,” but were also cutting country tracks. Johnny Cash had even taken them on as a touring partner. But the question remained, which were they?
“We were definitely in a gray area,” recalls Oaks vocalist Joe Bonsall. “We were getting to the point where gospel wouldn’t play us, and the country market still associated us with gospel.”
In 1977, the group decided to record only secular material, then secured a manager, Jim Halsey, and a record label, ABC Dot.
The following year, the Oak Ridge Boys, now a full-fledged country band, released “I’ll Be True to You” and made history when it hit the top spot June 24.
The song proved a slight departure from their first two country singles, “Y’All Come Back Saloon” and “You’re the One,” in that the love interest dies at the end. But that didn’t stop the Oaks from choosing it as their third single from the Y’All Come Back Saloon album, which snagged an ACM award for Album of the Year in 1978.
“There was no hesitancy at all, mainly because we were starving to death,” Bonsall remembers with a laugh. “This was a ‘make-it-or-break-it’ album for us, and we had to prove that we could adjust our sound and come out with different things. ‘I’ll Be True to You’ was a ballad and, even though the woman dies, it was a romance song just the same.”
Richard Sterban, possessor of the most-recognized bass voice in country music, felt it was an instant hit. “When I listened to the demo, I thought, ‘This is the song we’ve been looking for.’ Actually, the demo that was played for us could have been a hit, because it was so well done,” he recalls.
“I’ll Be True to You” was a first in another sense, adds Richard. “The vocals you hear on the record were cut during the original tracking session, which is very unusual,” he says. “Normally, the producer first gets the basic track, which has all the instruments, then works on the vocals later. But our producer, Ron Chancey, kept our original vocals. That was the only time that happened in our whole career.”
Baritone William Lee Golden also recalls another unique aspect: “We did a video with that, a little performance thing. I think we one of the pioneers of video. We were doing some international traveling at the time, and videos were commonplace overseas as a way of giving artists exposure. They would use it on their music programs.”
The Oaks have come a long way since then with 16 more No. 1s, three albums that went platinum and 10 gold. Most recently, the band launched The Oak Ridge Boys Live From Las Vegas their own weekly variety show on TNN.
But the Oaks still enjoy touring and, 20 years after “I’ll Be True to You” topped the charts, it remains one of their most-requested numbers at concerts. “Maybe that being our first number one has something to do with that,” Joe Bonsall tells COUNTRY WEEKLY. “But there are other reasons, too.
“First of all, Duane Allen, who does the lead vocal, sings the living daylights out of it. It’s also a good love song, which always seems to be in style.”
William Lee adds, “It’s a great ballad, and it has a simple, pure country feel, lots of mandolins and fiddles. That song let us know how strong a ballad could be, and showed that we could be versatile.”
Richard had a feeling of giddy excitement, even before the song reached the top. “After it was released, I remember our bus pulling up to a truck stop outside Houston,” he says. “I always looked at the jukebox every time we stopped somewhere. Well, this place had ‘I’ll Be True to You’ on theirs, and it was the first time I ever saw an Oak Ridge Boys record on a jukebox anywhere.”
Sterban couldn’t contain himself. “I ran back to the bus and told the other guys. A couple of them were still getting dressed, but we were so excited, we all just poured in to that little truck stop. We kept popping quarters in the jukebox, playing that same song, of course. I thought later on that we probably ran people out of the place.”
“You know, I’ve always considered ‘Y’All Come Back Saloon’ our first hit, even though it didn’t go number one in Billboard,” says Bonsall. “That song was so ironic, because we had come from gospel, and that title was definitely not a ‘gospel’ one.
“Even so, ‘I’ll Be True to You’ will always be special to the Oak Ridge Boys. That was the one that really launched us.”
As Richard says, “There’s always something magical about your first number one.”