Album ReviewsTHE OAK RIDGE BOYS
The Oak Ridge Boys debut on Columbia Records with a self-titled record, and a new member. The Oak Ridge Boys introduce their new tenor, Philadelphia's own Joe Bonsall, formerly of the Keystone Quartet, on this album. And it's a fine album to say the least. It's almost a Duane Allen solo record, given that he sings lead on 8 of the 10 songs here. Bill Golden and Joe Bonsall each contribute one lead as well. Unfortunately, the uncommon bass voice of Richard Sterban is buried somewhere in this record. With his talent, this album could have only been better with him shining though a bit.
The songs here are good, from the opening "The Baptism Of Jesse Taylor" to "You Happened To Me" to "Put Your Arms Around Me Blessed Jesus", Duane Allen and the Oak Ridge Boys make a bold statement of what faith in Christ can do. The Boys sings these songs with heartfelt conviction that permeates the speakers as you listen.
Despite Duane Allen having a smooth lead
voice; and any song would be lucky to have him sing it, the Oak Ridge Boys are
known for their vocal diversity and "spreading the wealth" so-to-speak, with the
lead duties. Although this is a departure from that philosophy, it's an
enjoyable record. Hopefully the next album will branch out a bit vocally
and feature all the members.
In 1973, the Oak Ridge Boys were one of the top groups in gospel music. They had just released two excellent gospel albums that had won them Dove awards, “Light” and “Street Gospel”. They’d already won numerous Dove awards, as well as a Gospel Grammy in 1970 for “Talk About the Good Times” (Best Gospel Performance). The Oaks already had a huge audience, and they were looking to grow their audience even more by cutting down on the actual gospel material and doing more “top-of-the-fence” message songs. The Oaks would continue to have many gospel lyrics in their music, such as referencing Jesus, but their music began to shy away from the southern Gospel sounds and more towards the pop, flower-child sounds of the era.
The Oaks started this transition by leaving Heartwarming Records, which was a gospel label that they had done some albums at for the past seven years. Heartwarming was one of the biggest gospel labels, but it had little effect on the mainstream, and wasn’t a good label to be doing pop albums, or albums that appealed to a bigger audience. The Oaks tried to go pop a year earlier in 1972 with their “Light” album, making it quite the pop album. While it broke new ground in gospel, it had little success in the pop field due to Heartwarming’s limited distribution.
The Oaks began to record their new album on spec, which they simply titled “The Oak Ridge Boys”, shipped it out to several labels, and Columbia Records was interested. The Oaks enlisted George Richey, who would later become Tammy Wynette’s spouse and produce many huge country acts, as their producer. Richey wanted to use backup female singers, something the Oaks would not use in later albums, and abandoned most of the vocal harmonies. Richey also wanted Duane to lead eight of the ten songs, since Richey felt Duane sounded like a lot of the singers on pop radio at the time. Columbia wanted to credit the Oak Ridge Boys as just “the Oaks", and a couple early singles had the Oak Ridge Boys name as “The Oaks", but eventually, the name was dropped.
However, the Oaks’ tenor, Willie Wynn, left the group during the recording sessions, due to issues with his marriage. I should add that many observers feel the Oaks felt Willie’s gospel-styled voice wasn’t right for a group looking to branch out to mainstream pop. So the Oaks signed Joe Bonsall as their new tenor, who had just left the Keystones.
Willie’s voice can still be heard on the harmony vocals on many of the songs on the album. However, Joe re-cut “What a Time We Will Have Over There”, which was originally supposed to feature Willie, as well as a few harmony parts on “He” and “Freedom for the Stallion” where it would have been obvious Willie would have been heard. Also, the Oaks dropped a song called “Joy Comes in the Morning” from the album, since it was too close to the southern gospel style they were trying to stray from. The song, however, can be heard on the 1982 album “All Our Favorite Songs”, which was never released on CD, with Willie’s voice easily heard.
The first song on the album is an Oak Ridge Boys classic, “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor”. Though this recording was an average song for me, this song won the Oaks a Grammy award for Best Gospel Performance, and is still in the live show today. The second song is “You Happened to Me”, which was a ballad with a 70s pop feel, and one of the best written songs the group has recorded. The next song is a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s classic “Why Me”, another one of the best written songs the group has recorded. The Oaks were looking to do covers as a way of broadening their audience. Another cover follows this, a cover of the song’s writer Allen Touissiant’s hit, “Freedom for the Stallion”. Next was another cover that I felt the Oaks did a great job on, and was a standout track for me, a cover of Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock”. The backup harmonies on this song were great.
The next song was my favorite song on the album, and the second single, “He’s Gonna Smile on Me”. Another song with excellent harmonies, as well as an excellent 70s pop melody. Next was a song I didn’t care for, “Put Your Arms Around Me Blessed Jesus”, which was the only song on the album to feature William Lee Golden. No offense to Golden, who is a good friend of mine, but this was a song where I didn’t like the melody, though the message was great. Next on the album was “He”, a Today’s People cover, which had a decent 70s pop sound. Next was Joe’s very first lead on an Oak Ridge Boys album, “What a Time We Will Have Over There”, which was a song I liked some. However, I doubt it would have been recorded if Joe had been with the group for a while, because this is a Willie Wynn-type song. The album ends with a song I also considered a standout track on the album, “Give Me a Star”, which had a great performance by Duane and was another great 70s pop track, as well as a very underappreciated one.
The album was a success, reaching #38 on the Billboard Country Album Charts and becoming the Oak Ridge Boys’ first Top 40 album, despite little to no country or pop airplay. However, the Oaks’ name recognition and the TV they were doing, such as the videos they shot from the Jake Hess studio (which you can find on YouTube), helped this album sell.
While this album was a success for the Oaks, it wasn’t an album I would consider one of my favorites. It is one of those albums I merely looked at as decent, and there were no tracks on the album I would give a four-star rating to. Maybe it is the fact that I’m just not as big of a fan of 70s pop.
Tracks: He's Gonna Smile on Me (my favorite), Loves Me Like a
Rock, Give Me a Star
Tracks I Didn't Care For Much: Put Your Arms Around Me Blessed Jesus
---John Vairin (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In 1973, the Oaks were at the top of their game in gospel music.
They'd won multiple Dove and Grammy awards, and had the Singing News song of the
year with "King Jesus." As their popularity grew, so did their desire to grow
their audience even more by doing less church-anthem music and more positive
Their first step in this direction was to sign a new record deal with Columbia Records, which meant parting ways with Heartwarming, their label home for the previous 7 years. Heartwarming had a strong hold on the gospel market, but very little presence in the mainstream, so it seemed logical to move to a label who had the larger influence.
Their first order of business was to begin production on their self-titled Columbia debut. At the time, Willie Wynn was still tenor for the group, but would leave during production of the album. As a result, Joe would replace Willie's vocals as needed and a few new songs would be recorded to make a 1974 release. The resulting album is, shall we say....interesting.
We get some of the southern gospel sound that fans came to expect from the Oaks in "Put Your Arms Around Me Blessed Jesus," "What A Time We Will Have Over There," and "Why Me, Lord." For the most part, these songs stay true to the group's previous gospel stylings (and were mostly recorded during Willie's time with the group - Joe replaced the lead vocals on "What A Time" and simply added his voice to the others, which means you can hear both Joe and Willie on the same song at times).
We also get some country stylings with "The Baptism Of Jesse Taylor" (co-written by Dallas Frazier and leading to another Grammy award) and "He's Gonna Smile On Me," which was often used to open their shows around this time.
Then we get the more ambiguous songs, both in terms of style and content. "Loves Me Like A Rock" (a cover of the Paul Simon song) has a bit of a gospel feel to it, but I've never been able to make sense of the lyrics. "Freedom For The Stallion" is more of a civil rights crusade than gospel song (although I admit, the trumpet solo is well-played).
"You Happened To Me" and "Give Me A Star" are both closer to standard gospel ballads in arrangement (especially when compared to their previous album, "Street Gospel"), but again, ambiguous enough that they aren't necessarily limited to gospel radio. "Happened" (written by Larry Gatlin) could be applied to Jesus and His gift of Salvation, or it could be applied to a lover (the only line that makes it inherently gospel is the final line, which feels like it was added as an afterthought to ensure the gospel status), while "Star" could be a prayer for guidance, or could just be another ambiguous pop song.
"He," while definitely less confusing lyrically, is about as 70's pop as you can possibly get musically, abandoning the quartet sound for unison backing vocals and stacked echo parts. And's it's one of my favorite songs on the album as a result, simply for its ability to stand out in this aspect.
While the Oaks were looking to expand their reach with a wider audience, signing with Columbia had several downfalls that they didn't forsee. At Heartwarming, they had been a priority artist (and one of the top selling at the label), while at Columbia, they were considered a beginner act, no where near the priority as their larger pop acts. On top of that, Columbia did not service a good portion of the gospel radio stations that Heartwarming did, so their new gospel songs weren't being played.
Had this album been recorded at Heartwarming, it probably would've gotten a much stronger response, but while the label was larger at Columbia, they were no longer the big fish, and their self-titled debut, despite winning a Grammy, did not help their cause much.