Joe Bonsall, Longtime Tenor With the Oak Ridge Boys, Dead at 76

Joe Bonsall, the longtime tenor vocalist for the celebrated country and gospel group the Oak Ridge Boys, died Tuesday, July 9, from complications of ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). He was 76.

The Oak Ridge Boys announced Bonsall’s death in a statement on their website: “As a 50-year member of the American music group the Oak Ridge Boys, Joe was a member of the Grand Ole Opry and inducted into the Philadelphia Music Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, and the prestigious Country Music Hall of Fame.”

With his smooth tenor, Bonsall was the guiding voice of some of the quartet’s biggest hits, including “American Made,” “Bobbie Sue,” and their signature “Elvira,” Number 193 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 200 Greatest Country Songs of All Time. Onstage, he was a blur of energy, excitedly jumping up and down, bounding over to the musicians playing behind the Oaks, and flashing a big smile. In the Eighties, Bonsall was instantly recognizable for his curly hair and long mustache.

“Joe loved to sing. He loved to read,” the Oaks’ statement continued. “He loved to write. He loved to play banjo. He loved working on the farm. And he loved the Philadelphia Phillies. But Jesus and his family always came first—and we will see him again on the Promised Day.”

In addition to his work with the Oaks, Bonsall was a prolific author, writing 11 books, including his recent memoir, I See Myself, which was released last year.

Bonsall spent just over 50 years in the Oak Ridge Boys: He joined the group in 1973 and announced his retirement from touring at the beginning of the year due to a neurological condition, but few knew of his ALS diagnosis. At the time Bonsall announced that he would step back from the road, it was reported that the Oak Ridge Boys planned to return to the studio in late January to record another album with producer Dave Cobb, who produced the Oaks’ 2009 album The Boys Are Back and 2018’s 17th Avenue Revival. Editor’s picks

Bonsall was born and raised in Philadelphia, and began his music career in Pennsylvania, moving to Harrisburg in the late Sixties to sing with the gospel group the Keystone Quartet, alongside Richard Sterban, who once backed Elvis Presley as a member of J.D. Sumner and the Stamps. Through the gospel world, Sterban and Bonsall got to know Duane Allen and William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys; and when the band found themselves in need of a bass and tenor singer in the early Seventies, they enlisted the pair.

“They were the most innovative quartet in Gospel music,” Bonsall told the Oaks’ website. “They performed Gospel with a Rock approach, had a full band, wore bell-bottom pants and grew their hair long… things unheard of at the time.”

By that time, the Oak Ridge Boys had already been around for decades and cycled through numerous members (they were originally founded as the Oak Ridge Quartet in 1947). This new lineup of Bonsall, Sterban, Allen, and Golden would become the Oaks’ most stable and successful over the decades to come, and the members inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015.

While the Oaks were already incorporating elements of rock and pop into their gospel sound, their big breakthrough came when they started to embrace country. With their reputation as a live act firmly established, Bonsall credited Roy Clark’s manager, Jim Halsey, with giving them the encouragement to push themselves further in the studio.

“He came backstage and told us we were three-and-a-half minutes (meaning one hit record) away from being a major act,” Bonsall recalled. “He said we had one of the most dynamic stage shows he’d ever seen but that we had to start singing Country songs.” Related

The Oak Ridge Boys did just that and, starting in the late Seventies, they embarked on one of the most wildly successful runs in country music history. They notched the first of their 17 Number One country singles in 1978 with “I’ll Be True to You.” Their 1981 album, Fancy Free, was certified twice platinum in the U.S., driven by hit singles “Elvira” and “(I’m Settin’) Fancy Free.”

“Elvira” was also the first Oak Ridge Boys single to enjoy major crossover success, reaching Number Five on the Billboard Hot 100. The group enjoyed another major smash the following year with “Bobbie Sue,” which peaked at Number 12 on the Hot 100.

“Elvira” also earned the Oak Ridge boys their first (and only) non-gospel Grammy, for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal. (Before that, the band had won four gospel performance Grammys, only one of which, from 1971, came before Bonsall joined the group.)

During this wildly prolific period, the Oak Ridge Boys recorded with an array of country legends, like George Jones, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Roy Rogers; they also worked with Paul Simon on his 1977 album Slip Slidin’ Away and Ray Charles on his 1984 song “This Old Heart (Is Gonna Rise Again).”

The Oak Ridge Boys continued to release music and tour at a near-relentless pace through the Eighties and into the Nineties, though not without some changes. Golden left the band after 1987’s Where the Fast Lane Ends, and over the next few years, he was replaced by Steve Sanders, and Allen’s son, Dee. The group’s chart success began to waver at this point, too. In 1992, the Oak Ridge Boys released their album The Long Haul, after which they did not drop another record for five years — practically an eternity for a group that had released at least one album a year (and sometimes two or three) since the late Fifties. (Technically, the only other gap year was 1984 — but even then the Oaks issued a greatest hits comp with several new hit singles.)

Golden returned to the Oak Ridge Boys at a special New Year’s Eve concert, famously taking the stage one minute after midnight on Jan. 1, 1996. A new album, Revival, arrived in 1997, marking the group’s first proper gospel album since the Seventies; they continued to embrace the genre into the new millennium, signing with the contemporary Christian label Spring Hill Records. In 2009, they made another pivot with The Boys Are Back, which found them partnering with producer Dave Cobb for the first time and covering a mix of country, pop, and rock hits (including the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”).

The Oak Ridge Boys continued to record and tour in the 2010s, a decade which also saw the accolades and milestones pile up. The band’s classic lineup celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2013, while two years later they were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Over the ensuing decade, the band’s pace understandably slowed as the group’s members aged. In September 2023 they announced their “American Made Farewell Tour” to celebrate the lineup’s 50 years together. Trending ‘MaXXXine’ Brings Back Old-School Porn and Horror, 1980s Style Decoding Kendrick Lamar’s Best Shots at Drake in the ‘Not Like Us’ Video Katy Perry Cosplays as a Risqué Rosie the Riveter in ‘Woman’s World’ Teaser Republicans Are Quietly Trying to Block Biden’s Abortion Protections

A few months before the tour was announced, Bonsall expressed his excitement at what was ahead for the Oak Ridge Boys in an interview with a local paper in Ellicottville, New York. “I’m sitting here at 75 years old and I’ve been with the Oak Ridge Boys for 50 years now and we’ve been at every level in this business that there is. We’ve worked hard to try and keep a living, we’ve been the biggest act in country music. We’ve done everything. We’re in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and I’m in the Philly Music Hall of Fame. What I’m doing right now I’m excited about, which is making new music, because new music always refreshes you. But what I’m into doing at this point in my life is going out there and singing the best I can and coming home.”

At Bonsall’s request, no funeral will be held. In lieu of flowers, donations are encouraged to the ALS Association or the Vanderbilt Medical Center ALS and Neuroscience Research Center.

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