A commentary by Joseph S. Bonsall
In this year of celebrating the 30th anniversary of our huge megahit Elvira, I so wish I could take credit for the above term. But, alas…I cannot!
My long time friend Steve Robinson was visiting The Oak Ridge Boys on our recent swing through Florida, and we were on the way to an afternoon spring training game between the Phillies and the BoSox when we started to discuss the phenomenon that was Elvira in 1981.
I was talking about how songs and videos and such go “viral,” as the young folks might say in this day and age of social networking, emails, and YouTube, when Steve said, “Well THAT song went ELVIRAL!”
After a laugh, we both put some thought into the matter, and the end result is this little commentary.
Going viral is easier now than it was in 1981. Cable TV was just getting underway back then, and even MTV was brand new. There was NO Facebook or Twitter or YouTube. But now?? If you can get your cat to play an upright bass for 30 seconds you can be a star on the Internet. For me, that makes the success of Elvira even more amazing.
ELVIRA, ELVIRA…MY HEART’S ON FIRE for ELVIRA…
Ah, but a little history and music business folklore. If you were alive in the early eighties more than likely you were singing OOM POPPA MOW MOW with The Oak Ridge Boys. Here’s how it all came to be.
The Oaks were already riding high as we entered the year 1981. We had piled up a dozen Number One singles, and five Gold albums hung on our wall. We were touring with Kenny Rogers and Dottie West on the first big arena tour in country music history, and we were winning our share of awards. We were pretty much recognized as THE hot young act, much like Lady Antebellum or the Zac Brown Band is today.
As the story goes, late one night a song plugger for Acuff Rose Music by the name of Ronnie Gant heard a bar band in Texas singing Elvira. He immediately thought of the Oaks.
Now, keep in mind, Dallas Frazier’s little song, which had once been a regional hit for him, had been recorded over and over since the sixties, when it was first penned. Rodney Crowell had a version out there and, ironically, so did Kenny Rogers (when he was with the First Edition). But after Gant presented the idea to our hit-making producer Ron Chancey, the wheels started to turn in a new direction.
‘The Oaks have never done anything like this before,’ Ron said. ‘If Joe sings the verses and Richard bombs the OOM POPPA’s, this thing just might be cool.’
I might add that without the distinctive bass vocals of Richard Sterban none of this would have happened. Listen on the original recording to the way he added a silent “H” to the phrase hhhhh OOOOM….
We recorded the song as part of our Fancy Free album project, something we were hard at work on, and a funny thing happened on the way to the forum…. As usual, we wanted to try out a few new songs on our live show, so one night we stuck Elvira in the middle of a show in Spokane, Washington. The audience went, umm, VIRAL!
After a few more nights like that with Elvira blowing all of our big hits off the stage, we came home and begged MCA to release the song. They did, in February of 1981, and it was huge on country radio through June. The single sold over a million copies, and the album went platinum on just Country radio airplay, which back then was unheard of!
THEN…as we released Fancy Free, our second single from the album, to Country radio, Elvira spilled over into the Pop charts, where it was played in heavy rotation throughout the summer and well into the fall of that year.
We found out just how big a song could be, and the interesting thing was that, because of lots of TV exposure from The Tonight Show and such, people knew it was The Oak Ridge Boys who were singing the song, making the entire phenomenon that much bigger for us. During the course of 1981, we went from being a very successful country music act to a household name. All because of Elvira.
It went viral with every age group. It was THE monster hit every music act would love to have, and we are still feeling the results of it 30 years later. We cannot walk through an airport or down the street without somebody singing Elvira at us.
The 45 single of Elvira sold well over two million copies, and the Fancy Free album zoomed to double platinum in no time at all. It still sells today…Elviral for certain. Which begs the question. “What other song has gone viral or ‘Elviral,’ and why?”
Achy Breaky Heart comes to mind. Perfect timing for a good-looking, young guy with a mullet head to hit it big for a while with a catchy tune.
Macarena? This is unexplainable on every level.
All of the early Elvis songs went nuts—and so did the Beatles—because of radio play and TV, as well as the charisma of the icons themselves.
From the forties to the present, you can pick out songs that became part of the soundtrack of our lives. Steve Robinson reminds me that the song Convoy went big because of CB radios. Remember those? Now THERE is a thought.
At the time of Elvira, there were other hit records making big noise. Betty Davis Eyes, Jesse’s Girl, Celebration, but nobody is making much of a deal about them now.
ELVIRA? Just today I ran into a young mother who claims that her three-year-old little girl loves Elvira! Last night a rocking drummer named Dan Nelligan, who plays for head bangers, STEMM, out of Buffalo, New York, sat on the front of our bus and told us that his heroes were the Oaks, and it was Elvira that started it all when he was just seven years old!
So, it would seem that our little song has been passed down through generations. THAT may be the main reason it continues to survive the test of time and space.
Perhaps it is a big reason The Oak Ridge Boys are still around, as well. Our music and our shows, and our American spirit, have been passed down from grandparents to parents to young couples and even on to their kids. We see them all at our shows…STILL singing Elvira with The Boys!
What an honor and a blessing for those of us behind the music. Happy Birthday, Elvira.
We have been singing the song now for 30 years!
ELVIRAL? Yes indeed. I hope we are still singing it for a long time to come.