Steve Herbert Sanders was born on September 17, 1952, to Lorraine and Herbert Sanders of Richland, Georgia (just outside Macon). His parents discovered their son's musical talent by accident when Steve was only 5 years old. Herbert Sanders was learning to play a gospel song called "Not My Will But Thine Be Done" on the piano, and stopped playing abruptly in frustration. As Steve told a Chicago Tribune interviewer in 1988,
"This little voice, like a little angel's voice, just kept singing where he left off. He went looking to see where the voice was coming from, and he found me in my room sitting on the floor playing with my toys and singing. I guess I had learned it subconsciously, because he played it so much. So he said 'Hey! My retirement! Come here, son."
This was only a hint of what was to come. Herbert and Steve began to perform in area churches; soon they were asked to sing on a Macon gospel TV program. They were touring the Southern gospel music circuit in less than a year - and "Little Stevie" cut his first record at age 7. During his career as a child gospel star, Steve performed and recorded with such notables as the Florida Boys and the Sego Brothers. (For more information on Steve's early recordings, click here.)
In 1964, twelve-year-old Steve auditioned, along with 10,000 other youngsters, for the role of Jody Baxter in the Broadway production of "The Yearling" - and won the role, which earned him critical acclaim during his 18-month run. He went on to land an important part alongside Jane Fonda and Michael Caine in the movie "Hurry Sundown", directed by Otto Preminger. By the time he was 14, Steve had also found success in television, appearing on programs such as "To Tell The Truth", "The Ed Sullivan Show," "Gunsmoke," and "Noon Wine," a dramatic special starring Jason Robards and Olivia DeHavilland.
After succeeding on stage, screen and television, Steve returned to Georgia and his first love, Southern gospel music. At the age of 19, he began writing secular songs and the course of his career changed. He moved to England to join the British rock scene for a short time, recording and performing with pop acts such as Mylon LeFevre, Alvin Lee (of Ten Years After), and Steve Winwood. Returning to the United States, he recorded an album with the rock group Pyramid (playing keyboard, percussion, and guitar as well as singing) before moving to Nashville in 1977. Steve spent three years in Nashville trying to establish a songwriting career, then moved back to Florida and gave up the music scene entirely. In 1982, about to embark on a three-year world cruise, he came back to Nashville to say goodbye to his friends - including the Oak Ridge Boys, who were friends from his days on the Southern gospel circuit. As Steve told the Chicago Tribune,
They did about three days out on the road, and I went out just as a guest, and the band ended up asking me to be their lead singer. I wasn't being paid, I was just traveling with them, and occasionally they'd bring me out to do one song with the band. One thing led to another, and before long I was playing rhythm guitar for the Oaks as well as being the lead singer for the band."
Steve enjoyed success with the Oaks Band, and continued his songwriting - the Oaks recorded one of his songs, "Live In Love" as the B-side of their smash hit "Bobbie Sue." In 1987, he gave his notice to the Oaks that he would be leaving at the end of the tour to concentrate on building a song publishing company in Nashville. Little did he know what was to come - at the end of the tour, the Oak Ridge Boys voted out longtime baritone singer William Lee Golden, and asked Steve if he would consider joining the group as the new baritone. Steve was concerned that Golden would think he was robbing Golden of his place, and discussed the offer with William Lee before accepting the position:
"I went over to his house and told him the deal and said, 'What are your plans?' He said, 'I don't know, but they don't include singing with the Oak Ridge Boys ever again.' We smiled and shook hands."
In July, 1987, Steve performed his first concerts as an Oak Ridge Boy, being immediately thrust into the limelight in Las Vegas during a weeklong stint at Caesar's Palace. He was received well by critics and fans alike, and is generally credited as having revitalized the Oaks, whose career was sagging at the time of the split with Golden. While he was a member, the Oaks released six albums - "Heartbeat", "Monongahela", "Greatest Hits 3", "Unstoppable", "The Long Haul", and "Country Christmas Eve" (later re-released as "Christmas with the Oak Ridge Boys"). Steve's smoky-sweet baritone was featured on several hit singles, including "Gonna Take a Lot of River", "Lucky Moon", "Beyond Those Years", and "No Matter How High". (For more information on Steve's recordings with the Oak Ridge Boys, click here.) In 1990, after almost three years as an Oak, Steve described what it was like to a writer with The Elkhart Truth:
"It doesn't matter what the place is. The bottom line is we're on stage ...(and)... the audience is out there. It's the excitement, the energy. I have a saying: You can't fake real, and you can't fake steady. We genuinely love what we're doing ... the sheer love of what you're doing, that keeps you going."
Personal problems led to Steve's departure from the Oak Ridge Boys on November 4, 1995 (after which William Lee Golden returned to the group). He moved back to Florida with his second wife and stepchildren, and reportedly was writing songs and recording advertising jingles while trying to engineer a return to the Nashville music world he loved so much. Steve gave no indication why, late on the night of June 10th, 1998, he apparently locked himself in the bathroom of his home in Cape Coral, Florida, and killed himself with a single gunshot wound to the head. He leaves behind two children, Gaylea Sanders McDougal and Sevren Sanders; two grandchildren, Bayley and Austin McDougal; a widow, Janet (nee Riggins); two stepchildren, Brooke and AJ; his parents, Herbert and Lorraine; one sister and one brother; and countless friends and fans who mourn the loss of a good man ... and a great talent.
-----. "The Oak Ridge Boys' Thoughts On..." The Elkhart (IN) Truth, 18 February 1990.
Hurst, Jack. "A new leaf: The latest Oak Ridge Boy is searching for some roots." Chicago Tribune, 14 August 1988.
Hurst, Jack. "Sanders is thrilled to become Oak." Chicago Tribune, 21 May 1987.
"Oak Ridge Boys Deliver" (press release/bio). Distributed by the Oak Ridge Boys International Fan Club, 1984.
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