Tour stop in South Jersey brings two Oak Ridge Boys home

Joak24-2
The Oak Ridge Boys will appear for two shows at Millville's Levoy Theatre on Friday. The group performed recently with Blake Shelton (center). The band includes (from left) Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall, William Lee Golden, and Richard Sterban.

For half of the award-winning country/gospel quartet the Oak Ridge Boys, the next stop on the band's Celebration Tour will be familiar territory. On Friday, the quartet, which has shared the stage with the likes of Blake Shelton and Kenny Rogers, will perform two shows at the Levoy Theatre in Millville, N.J.

"I've driven through Millville on several occasions on the way to the Shore. Most of the times when we come to New Jersey, we play one of the casinos," said Richard Sterban, the Oak Ridge Boys' bass and a South Jersey native. "I can speak for all the Oak Ridge Boys, and I can tell you that we're all looking forward to it."

Sterban was born in Camden and grew up in Collingswood, and the band's tenor, Joe Bonsall, is from Philadelphia and remains a diehard Phillies fan. Both are now based in Hendersonville, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville, but have siblings who stayed in South Jersey. Sterban's sister, Susan, has a Shore home in Ocean City and lives year-round in Mount Laurel; Bonsall's sister, Nancy, resides in Cherry Hill.

Bonsall's late parents, Joe Sr. and Lillie - both World War II veterans - lived at his childhood home on Jasper Street in the Harrowgate section of the city before moving to the Southeastern Veterans Center in Spring City, Chester County, in 1998. Bonsall honored them with his song "G.I. Joe and Lillie" and has published a book of the same name.

The other two "Boys," William Lee Golden and Duane Allen, respectively hail from Alabama and Texas. The band was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015.

Sterban and Bonsall alike found their musical footing through religion.

"The first singing that I ever did was as a boy soprano, and I was in church," the First Assembly of God on Walnut Street in Camden. "I was about 9 years old," said Sterban, 73, whose parents played radio programs by Billy Graham and music by the Harrisburg gospel group the Couriers. "I can still picture it today, being in the church in front of the congregation."

Sterban was in for a surprise (albeit pleasant) when his voice dropped drastically between seventh and eighth grades.

"I thought it was a cool thing. It made me want to sing low," said Sterban, who is known for providing the sonorous solo refrain of "Giddy up, oom poppa, omm poppa, mow" on the Oak Ridge Boys' 1981 hit "Elvira."

During high school, Sterban sang in school ensembles as well as in the All-South Jersey and All-State choirs. He then pursued vocal music at Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey) and was a member of the Keystone Quartet, a Southern gospel group founded in Bristol, Bucks County, from 1962 until 1970. He moved to Nashville to perform with J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, who sang backup for Elvis Presley. He became an Oak Ridge Boy in 1972.

Bonsall joined the Keystone Quartet in 1968 after hearing Sterban sing at a concert in Hershey, Pa. At the time, Sterban was selling men's clothing at Gimbel Bros.

"I couldn't believe how good [Sterban] was because he was so young," said Bonsall, 68, who would visit him at the department store to discuss gospel music, a genre that he became fervent about at age 15 as a member of the Christian Endeavor youth group. Before his Keystone days, Bonsall and his sister had their own gospel group, the Faith Four. He joined the Oak Ridge Boys a year after Sterban.

"I grew up in a rowhouse on cement. I didn't own a tree. Now I have thousands of trees," said Bonsall, who owns a farm with his wife, Mary Ann, near the Kentucky/Tennessee state line. "Those guys [from Harrowgate] wouldn't have believed that Little Joey would be up there on a John Deere tractor picking a banjo."

The Oak Ridge Boys perform at the Levoy Theatre, 126 N. High St., Millville, on Friday at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Doors open an hour before showtime. Tickets are $48.50 to $53.50. See http://levoy.net or call 856-327-6400 for more information.

zmiller@philly.com 856-779-3813