Album ReviewsSKY HIGH
The Oaks return for their sophomore release for Columbia records. Sky High is equally as good as 1974's self-titled offering. On the plus side, this album branches out and features all four members on lead vocals.
Sky High also marks the second album for tenor Joe Bonsall. His presence in the Oak Ridge Boys is most certainly felt. He brings an energy to the group that they've never quite had in the recent past. Yes, they've been animated on stage, and put on a good show. But Joe Bonsall has a natural charisma and energy that suck you in as a spectator. Not to mention, Joe does not have that piercingly high tenor voice that so many quartets have....and that's a good thing. This fact now sets the Oak Ridge Boys music apart even further from most gospel quartet acts. Joe's voice is much more accessible than the ultra high pitched tenors, and frankly, a breath of fresh air.
Sky High offers some good songs. "Sailing Toward Home", "Nobody Special", "Plant A Seed" and the closer, "Mighty Fine" are all great songs. Unfortunately, the first single of this record is not included in the "great songs" section of this review. The song "Rhythm Guitar" is corny, and simply not one of the better tracks on this album. Why it was chosen as the first single is a mystery.
Nevertheless, Sky High is an enjoyable
listen, and there's something for everyone here.
The Oaks’ 1974 album “The Oak Ridge Boys” was
recorded right after Joe Bonsall joined the group. The Oaks would attempt to
follow that album up the next year with “Sky High” with the four current members
in full blast, and the Oaks ended up making what turned out to be my favorite
album of the three Columbia albums. I should add that this is the only Oaks
album with Richard’s afro on display.
George Richey was credited as producer, but he did not stay in the studio for most of the sessions, leaving Duane to produce most of the album. Duane changed a lot of the philosophy on the album. The Oaks left out the backup singers this time, and made the quartet sound stand out on this album, as well as gave the other three members besides Duane a chance to get leads on other songs.
The Oaks were planning to release “Bringing It Back”, a song written by former band member Greg Gordon and also recorded by Elvis Presley, as their first non gospel or message song released to country radio. Columbia ultimately changed their mind, didn’t put “Bringing It Back” on the album, and instead released “Rhythm Guitar” as the first single. Columbia refused to service gospel stations with singles, and with country and pop radio refusing to play the Oaks, this single didn’t have a chance to be a hit, and Columbia pulled any other singles from this album. You can hear “Bringing It Back” on the 1982 Columbia compilation “All Our Favorite Songs”, which was released on vinyl and cassette, but not on CD.
The first song was the only single, and one of two songs the Oaks got from the American Song Festival in New York, “Rhythm Guitar”. It was a song that was better than average, in my book, but not great. This song has a great chorus and concept, but shaky verses, and would have benefited less from Duane. (Ron Chancey would say, “you guys are gospeling out on me“ when this happened at MCA when he was producing). ”Rhythm Guitar” was re-released four years later when the “Best of the Oak Ridge Boys” Columbia compilation was released, and it made the Billboard and Cashbox Country Charts, but failed to come even close to the all-important Top 40. The second song was a song that the melody bored me, and isn’t one of my favorites, but a song that most critics say was a beautiful, stately song that was one of WLG’s best, the Dottie Rambo song “Sailing Toward Home”. The next song was one of my favorites on the album, and was a very well-done message song, that was a nice pop track just made for pop and AC radio at the time, “Nobody Special”. The next song is a top-of-the-fence song that was the first Columbia song to feature Richard Sterban, “We Gotta Love One Another”, which I thought was average. Some critics feel Richard “overdoes" it on this song, and has to be saved by the choruses. The next song was another average message track, “When I Sing for Him”. Porter Wagoner wrote this song, and wanted Duane to sing this song at his funeral, which Duane ended up doing, but the Oaks haven’t sung it in their live show since the mid-70s, as far as I know.
The sixth song on the album was a cool song that the Oaks got as part of a winner in the American Song Festival, “Plant a Seed”. It has a great 70s rock-pop sound, and is one of the best songs on the album. However, some critics feel this is another song Richard “overdoes” it on the spoken word part. The next song is a very well-written message song with a great 70s pop feel, “There Must Be a Better Way”, that I felt was a little better than average, as far as my tastes go, but not one of my favorites on the album. This song contains one of the best rhymes of any Oaks song: “this bottle oughta last until at least tomorrow noon". (Talk about inspired writing...bottle oughta is certainly that). The next song was a slow gospel song that I liked average, “That’s What I Like About Jesus”, that was written by Oaks pianist Garland Craft, who was once with Joe in the Keystones. This song, however, goes on too long. These last two songs were among the best on the album. “”I Just Want to Help You Be Free” is a great 70s pop song written by Tony Brown, who was a former Oaks pianist who went on to be a record executive, which really fits in perfectly with the era, and the kind of audience the Oaks were trying to reach. Ed Wille doesn’t like it, but it is a great song, in my view. The last song is my favorite song on the album, “Mighty Fine”, which has a great 70s classic rock feel to it, and I enjoyed it the most, being someone who enjoys classic rock.
This album was by far my favorite of the Columbia albums. It had four very impressive songs on it, compared to three that really impressed me on the other two Columbia albums. However, the public just didn’t catch on to this album, and the album turned out to be a failure. While the Oaks’ first self-titled Columbia album was a Top 40 hit on the Billboard Country Charts, “Sky High” did not chart on either the Billboard or Cashbox Country charts. “Rhythm Guitar” did not get airplay on Country, Pop, or Gospel radio, due to the fact that the radio programmers still looked at the Oaks as “only" a gospel group. Also, the album did not sell, since the Oaks didn’t give Columbia an album to market. There was no clear direction as to which song would be a single, or on which format. “Rhythm Guitar" couldn’t even appeal to the public when Columbia tried it during the Oaks’ MCA height of their career in 1979, since it was just too gospel. “Sky High" was a pop album without a lot of pop songs. The Oaks did release a single that wasn’t included on this album, though, “Heaven Bound”, which became the first Oaks song to chart on a major chart, charting on the Cashbox charts at #91. However, the song didn’t come close to the all-important Top 40.
Around this time, Larry Goldblatt, manager of Blood, Sweat, and Tears, offered to manage the Oaks as an attempt to get further into pop music, which was why they signed with Columbia. Goldblatt planned the American Song Festival, as well as the Oaks’ involvement. The Oaks cancelled their gospel dates, and prepared to make it in pop music. However, Goldblatt didn’t follow through with his promises, and left the Oaks without many dates. William Lee Golden took over as manager, until the Oaks found the man who would become the savior in their career, Jim Halsey, who promised them work IF they broke away from pop, and became a country act. The Oaks agreed, and the rest is history.
My Favorite Tracks: Nobody Special, Plant A Seen, I Just Want To Help You Be Free, Mighty Fine (my favorite)
Tracks I Didn't Care For Much: Sailing Toward Home
---John Vairin (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Both "Street Gospel" (1973) and their
self-titled Columbia Records debut (1974) were recorded during transitions
within the group. Richard had joined during the production of "Street Gospel,"
and Joe joined during the production of "The Oak Ridge Boys," so both albums
were somewhat pieced together.
1975's "Sky High" album, however, was the current group in full force. Where the previous album made several attempts to leave the standard gospel quartet sound behind, "Sky High" embraces it, and does so right off the bat with the opening line of the first song. Throughout this album, in fact, we get much more of the standard quartet sound than their previous release. Part of this is due to the fact that, while George Richey was credited as producer, he actually was not present for most of the sessions, leaving Duane to produce the majority of the album.
This is most evident in "There Must Be A Better Way" and "I Just Want To Help You Be Free," both that include a heavy 70's pop feel (and female backing vocals) and a fuller production with various winds and strings, while the rest of the album is scaled back in terms of production style. These two songs also tend to shy away from the 4-part harmonies compared to the other songs. These two songs are also more remeniscent of the lyrically ambiguous "message" songs that were an attempt to break into the mainstream.
For the most part, however, we actually get less ambiguity from the lyrics this time out. "When I Sing For Him," which was done quite a few times for TV appearances, is among their strongest gospel songs (and was written by Opry legend Porter Waggoner), as is "Sailing Toward Home," written by gospel music songmaster, Dottie Rambo.
"Nobody Special" and "We Gotta Love One Another," tend to lean more towards the "positive message" songs that don't necessarily include a scripture-based lyric, but nonetheless could work in both a secular and gospel audience.
It seems like more of an effort was made on this album to ensure that everyone got a feature. Richard leads the driving "Love One Another" after his previous feature was omitted from the preceding album, and Joe gets a gospel ballad with "That's Just Like Jesus" (written by Garland Craft). Joe obviously is doing his best on "Just Like Jesus" to duplicate Duane's more classical vocal training.
The two most fun songs on here are "Plant A Seed" and "Mighty Fine." Both retain that 70's sound, but more of a 70's classic rock sound. "Seed" has a really cool mid-tempo groove, while "Mighty Fine" is all-out driving rock.
In hindsight, this album is among many gospel fans' favorites, but at the time, it was a source of contention between the Oaks and Columbia. At the time of the album's production, they had recorded a song written by Greg Gordon (who had previously played in their band) called "Bringing It Back," with the plan to release it to country radio as their first country song. Instead, Columbia released "Rhythm Guitar," and the song tanked. Add the fact that the gospel DJ's still were not getting serviced by Columbia, and they were stuck without airplay in either market.
Regardless, if you come across this album in a record bin, it's definitely worth picking up a copy.