Richard Sterban doesn't remember the song, but he remembers the moment.
He was 6 years old in Sunday school and, like most boys his age, a soprano when he stood in front of the folks in his church for the first time to sing.
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"I can visualize the congregation," he says now, "and I knew then it was my calling."
Turns out he was right.
You may not immediately recognize Sterban's name, but if you've followed country music even a little bit over the past four decades you'll recognize his voice.
It's changed, of course, from that little boy's soprano to the deep bass he has brought to songs like "Elvira" and a boatload of other hits since joining the Oak Ridge Boys in 1972.
On Dec. 21, you'll be able to see Sterban and the rest of the group performing many of those hits and a sampling of holiday favorites when they bring their Christmas show to North Central College in Naperville.
"It's a great family show," Sterban says. And if you're a fan of the Oaks, or Christmas or, preferably, both, "it's truly the total package."
Two quick things to know about Sterban:
First, his speaking voice is every bit as deep as his singing voice. He says he was a tenor in seventh-grade glee club and when he returned after summer break his voice had dropped more than an octave.
It's really an arresting sound, and if you talk to him now for even 20 minutes it's really, really hard to resist asking him to say "Giddy up a oom poppa oom poppa mow mow."
Second, if he carries any of the trappings of a guy who once sang backup for Elvis (with The Stamps Quartet) and is part of a Grammy-winning group that's sold more than 30 million records over the past 40 years, he doesn't show it.
On a recent day off, he's scheduled to do a phone interview when he learns at the last minute he has to race off to New York City for a TV appearance.
He's in the shower when he realizes he's running behind and asks his wife to call a reporter to say he'll be about 15 minutes late. And when Richard himself calls at the newly appointed time, he's genuinely apologetic.
Some of it, of course, may be his upbringing. Some of it may be because the Oak Ridge Boys aren't quite as big as they were when "Elvira" was blaring out of nearly every radio back in the early '80s.
But make no mistake, Sterban and the other guys in the group -- Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall and William Lee Golden -- still are incredibly busy, and they're going to be even more so in the coming year.
The Christmas tour that will bring them to Naperville began earlier this week. In January, they're launching a yearlong 40th anniversary celebration (of the group in its current configuration) with a string of concerts, a network TV special and the release of a commemorative album.
In late February, they're going with some fans on a four-day Caribbean cruise -- Rally at Sea -- that will include plenty of music and individual seminars hosted by each guy in the group.
Sterban himself recently released a book, "From Elvis to Elvira," that sheds a little light on his own life ("I'm probably the least known Oak Ridge Boy," he says) along with plenty of tales about The King and the Oaks.
But for now, at least, the group's main focus has been on getting ready to stage its Christmas shows. The Oaks' first "full-blown" Christmas show was Tuesday in Branson, Mo.
"Putting the songs on a CD is one thing," Sterban says. "Getting them show-ready is an entirely different thing."
Two for one
There's no doubt the Oaks will be ready by the time they roll into Naperville, and Sterban says "the Christmas show is truly like getting two shows in one."
The guys will open with a 45-minute version of their regular concerts, he says, "with lots of hits and some new music we've done over the past couple years."
The showstopper is "Elvira," but if there's one song Sterban most looks forward to performing live it's "Thank God for Kids." He calls it the group's most meaningful record.
Then, following an intermission, they'll return with the holiday portion of the show that Sterban says touches on "all aspects of the season, including the romantic side and the fun side," complete with a visit from Santa.
It ends, he says, with songs addressing "the true meaning of Christmas, or what we consider the true meaning of Christmas: the birth of Jesus."
The performance begins at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 21, in North Central's Pfeiffer Hall, 310 E. Benton Ave. Tickets -- $60, $50 and $45 -- are available by calling the box office at (630) 637-7469 or visiting northcentralcollege.edu/showtix.
Many of the holiday songs that night will come from the group's latest CD -- released in September and produced in conjunction with Gaither Gospel Series and Cracker Barrel Old Country Store -- called "Christmas Time's A-Coming."
It features classics such as "Let it Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and some new things, from religiously tinged numbers such as "Getting Ready for a Baby" and "Glorious Impossible," to the let's-have-some-fun "Peterbilt Sleigh."
Christmas is coming
"Christmas Time's A-Coming" is the sixth holiday CD the Oak Ridge Boys have recorded, following releases in 1982, 1986, 1995, 2002 and 2005.
"We almost have as many Christmas CDs out as Andy Williams," Sterban says with a laugh.
After that many holiday albums, he admits, "we had to do some searching" for new material.
"We try to find a happy medium between the familiar and the new ones," he says. "We try to take people back to their childhood -- which is what Christmas is all about -- and tell the Christmas story in a different way."
With four guys in the group, it might seem difficult to decide who's going to sing what, but Sterban says that's seldom a problem with the Oaks. When the guys sit down to listen to demos "we kind of fall into it naturally."
So when they listened to the new "Peterbilt Sleigh," the story of a trucker who has to help Santa and Rudolph deliver toys when the sleigh breaks down, everybody immediately agreed on who should sing it.
"Only Joe (Bonsall) sings that," he says.
And when they listened to "All I Want for Christmas is You," Sterban knew he was right for the lead and so did everybody else.
Maybe Christmas concerts and Christmas albums really do transport us back to our childhoods.
One of the songs on the Oak Ridge Boys' new album is "White Christmas." And, no, it didn't take them six albums to get around to that old chestnut; they've recorded it before.
The song shows off the Oaks' four-part harmonies and it's probably fitting they're doing it again because when Sterban thinks back to the Christmas songs he heard when he was growing up in Camden, N.J. -- back when he was just beginning his musical journey -- he can still hear Bing Crosby crooning away.
"That's the one," he says, "that sticks out in my mind."
When he sings it Dec. 21 in Naperville, his voice will be much different than it was that day he first sang before his church congregation. But the calling will be the same.