Forty years ago, on August 16, 2017, Elvis Presley left the building for good when he died at his home in Memphis. Fans still recall where they were on that day—I was selling shoes in a Sears store in Atlanta (and like Elvis, that Sears is long gone) — and every year since 1997 thousands gather at Graceland to mourn, celebrate, remember the life of the King of Rock and Roll.
Forty years on, his most devoted fans cherish his music, adore his personality, and perpetuate the stories—many about their own experiences at an Elvis concert or of that time they met him somewhere—that keep the flame of his memory burning bright. “There is such a big deal about this guy right now, 40 years after his death,” says Richard Sterban, the bass singer for the Oak Ridge Boys. “It just shows me that he was a one-of-a-kind guy.”
Sterban devotes about one-third of his memoir, From Elvis to Elvira: My Life on Stage (Richards & Southern, Inc.) to the time he spent with Elvis and on Elvis’ tour. Sterban, who grew up singing gospel, landed his first big gig with J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, who went on to become the quartet that sang with Elvis on albums and on tour. I chatted by phone with him recently about Elvis and his memories of the King.
Why was Elvis a one-of-a-kind guy?
I was singing with J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, and Elvis had invited us to back him. We had to go to Minneapolis to rehearse for the show. We got there; the TCB Band, the Sweet Inspirations, and Kathy Westmoreland were all there, so we got to meet all these folks and visit with them. There was no Elvis. I later found out that Elvis enjoyed being fashionably late, and he certainly was that day. After a little while, the door opened and in walked this entourage. You could feel his presence in that room. He had such magnetism and charisma. He came over and said hello to all of us; he knew our names. He hugged me and asked how I was doing. Up to that point I had been a casual fan. After that day, though, I saw that he had something that no other guy had. There’s only one other guy who could be even a close comparison, and that’s Johnny Cash. The evidence of Elvis’ presence and charisma is that 40 years after his death everyone is still talking about him.
What’s Elvis’ legacy?
I don’t know if there is any artist today who will be talked about the same way 40 years from now. Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift are two of today’s powerful performers, but I don’t know if they’ll be remembered 40 years from now in the same way that Elvis is remembered today, 40 years after his death. When you listen to Elvis’ records, you hear how good he really is; he recorded like he was performing on stage.
Can you talk a little more about that?
Well, Elvis was an engineer’s nightmare (laughs). He did not know what he was going to record when he came into the studio. When he got to the studio, he’d listen to demos, find a song he liked, and then sing it. That happened with “Burning Love.” The musicians would look at the charts and get their parts down, and then Elvis would do one or two takes; he never did more than two takes; that’s how good he was. Listen to his albums, and you’ll hear how good he sings. He didn’t have all this technology we have today, like Pro Tools, where you can slide your note over if your vocal is just a little flat. It was just him; you realize when you listen to his albums how good he really was.
How did your time with Elvis change your life?
It was a learning experience for me. I was part of the biggest tour in the music business, but I got to be on stage with Elvis. I learned how to be part of a big major tour like that. Elvis was a true professional in every way. I know that being a part of Elvis’ tour helped prepare me for what was to come with the Oak Ridge Boys.
Do you think if Elvis had lived he might have returned to singing gospel solely?
Even though he was the King of Rock and Roll, I really believe that in his heart his favorite music was gospel music. He loved gospel quartets and black spiritual music. He loved the spiritual “I, John.” When I was touring with him, the highlight of every night was listening to him sing “How Great Thou Art.” When I listened to him sing that song, I thought that if I looked up into the sky I might see Jesus looking down; that’s how powerful his version of the song was. I never dreamed that I’d be in two of the same halls of fame that Elvis is in: the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. There are only five other artists, besides the Oak Ridge Boys, who are in both halls of fame: Elvis, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Johnny Cash, Dolly, and the Statler Brothers.
In your book you talk about the ways you’ve reinvented yourself; what the next reinvention for you?
Well the Oak Ridge Boys really enjoy the process of creating new music. Each guy in the group brings something different to the table. We’re a true band of brothers; it’s the key factor to our longevity. We have been traveling down some new musical paths. Ben Isaacs produced one of our latest projects. He’s a great acoustical mind, and he brought that perspective to our music. Dave Cobb produced our album, The Boys are Back, and he challenged us to grow and stretch. He had us sing the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”; we did all the instrumental parts on that song with our voices. New music brings new energy and new life on our albums and it carries over to our stage shows.