Oak Ridge Boys Member, Country Hall of Famer Was 76

Joe Bonsall, one of the mainstays of country music’s leading vocal group, the Oak Ridge Boys, for 51 years, died Tuesday at 76. The cause of death was complications of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

Bonsall, who had been a familiar face in the group since 1973, announced his retirement from touring with the group in January, citing his illness, as the Oak Ridge Boys continued their farewell tour in his absence. Upon his concert retirement, it was reported that Bonsall, who provided a tenor voice in the group harmonies, still planned to record a new album with them this year.

The group was best known by crossover audiences for the 1981 smash “Elvira,” which not only hit No. 1 on the country chart but also found pop success, reaching No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The following year, “Bobbie Sue” also registered success in pop as well as country, hitting No. 12 on the Hot 100 along with topping the chart in the ensemble’s home format. Altogether the band had 17 No. 1 country songs and landed 34 in country’s top 10.

Bonsall was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame along with three of his fellow group members in 2015. The Oak Ridge Boys were also elected into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2000.

“For 50 years, Joe Bonsall was the Oak Ridge Boys’ sparkplug,” said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, in a statement memorializing the singer. “He was as exciting a performer as any who ever hit a gospel or country stage. His tenor voice was high and clear, and his jovial spirit always provided a jolt of energy, immediately rousing audiences to come on in and take a load off. He certainly lightened our cares every time he sang.”

The origins of the Oak Ridge Boys go back to the 1940s, and the group took on that name in the mid-1960s, but the combo was primarily known as a gospel act before Bonsall joined in 1973. Johnny Cash helped them get signed to Columbia Records after he enlisted them as guests on his single “Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup,” but the group didn’t find major secular success until a subsequent signing to Dot/ABC and the release of a song called “Y’all Come Back Saloon” that went to No. 3 on the country chart in 1977. Subsequent No. 1 songs during that early period of success included “Trying to Love Two Woman,” “I’ll Be True to You,” “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” and “(I’m Settin’) Fancy Free.”

Other chart-toppers during the group’s ’70s/’80s streak included “This Crazy Love, “I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes,” “It Takes a Little Rain” and “No Matter How High.”

The Oak Ridge Boys registered their final No. 1 country hit with 1989’s “No Matter How High,” but continued to be a successful touring act — and to be welcomed as guests on country awards shows and at other special occasions — to the present day.

The group was also known to Paul Simon fans for the vocal accompaniment they provided on his 1977 hit “Slip Slidin’ Away.”

Bonsall had written 11 books, including a memoir due to be published this November, “I See Myself.”

In 2022, Bonsall said he had nearly died from pulmonary embolisms. ““I could have easily died last weekend but God is not through with me yet,” Bonsall tweeted. “I am home now after 6 days in the hospital battling pulmonary embolisms … my recovery could take awhile … thanks for the prayers and love shown!”

He recovered and was able to participate in the initial dates of what was dubbed “American Made: Farewell Tour,” beginning in September of 2023.

In January, Bonsall posted to X (formerly Twitter), “Many of you know I have been battling a slow onset (over 4 years now) of a neuromuscular disorder. I am now to a point that walking is impossible so I have basically retired from the road. It has just gotten too difficult… There is a young man named Ben James singing for me out there and he needs your love and encouragement … his sound is different than mine but he brings a ton of talent to the table! The @oakridgeboys will finish the Farewell Tour without me but rest assured I am good with all of it! God’s Got It!!!”

“When I think of the Oak Ridge Boys and their place in Country Music history,” said Sarah Trahern, CEO of the Country Music Association, “the image of Joe with his huge smile and boundless energy comes to mind so clearly. His commitment to serving others while developing Country Music into a worldwide sensation will never be forgotten and our industry has been made better because of him. Today, we lost an incomparable energy and voice in music. He will be missed greatly by all who were fortunate to know him.” 

Said a death notice issued by Bonsall’s reps, “Joe loved to sing. He loved to read. 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.”

Bonsall is survived by his wife, Mary Ann, daughters Jennifer and Sabrina, granddaughter Breanne, grandson Luke, two great grandsons, Chance and Grey, and a sister, Nancy. He was preceded in death by his parents Joseph S. Bonsall Sr. and Lillie Bonsall.

At his request, no funeral will be held. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the ALS Association or to the Vanderbilt Medical Center ALS and Neuroscience Research Center

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