July 19, 2024

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Oak Ridge Boys member and Country Hall of Famer, he was 76.

Oak Ridge Boys member and Country Hall of Famer, he was 76.

Joe Bonsall, a frontman for the Oak Ridge Boys country music band for 51 years, died Tuesday at the age of 76. The cause of death was complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Bonsall, a familiar face in the group since 1973, announced his retirement from touring with the group in January, citing illness, while the Oak Ridge Boys continued their farewell tour in his absence. After retiring from touring, Bonsall, who provided tenor vocals for the group’s harmonies, reportedly still plans to record a new album with them this year.

The band became known to their fans for their 1981 hit “Elvira,” which not only reached No. 1 on the country charts, but was also a major pop hit, reaching No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The following year, “Bobbie Sue” was also a pop hit as well as country, reaching No. 12 on the Hot 100 in addition to topping the chart in the house band format. In total, the band had 17 No. 1 country songs and 34 Top 10 country hits.

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

“For 50 years, Joe Bonsall was the spark that sparked the Oak Ridge Boys,” Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said in a statement honoring the singer. “His performances were as exciting as anyone who ever took the stage to sing gospel or country songs. His voice was loud and clear, and his cheerful spirit always provided a burst of energy, instantly getting the crowd to come and relax. He definitely lightened our spirits every time he sang.”

The Oak Ridge Boys had their roots in the 1940s, and the group took on the name in the mid-1960s, but the group was primarily known as a gospel band before Bonsall joined in 1973. Johnny Cash helped them get signed to Columbia Records after he enlisted them as a guest on his single “Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup,” but the group did not achieve major secular success until they later signed with Dot/ABC and released a single called “Y’all Come Back Saloon,” which reached No. 3 on the country chart in 1977. Subsequent No. 1 hits during this 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-topping songs of the 1970s and 1980s 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 scored their last country music hit in 1989 with “No Matter How High,” but they continue to tour successfully—and are welcomed as guests at country music awards shows and other special events—to this day.

The group was also known to Paul Simon fans for their vocal performance on his 1977 hit song “Slip Slidin’ Away.”

Bonsall has written 11 books, including his memoir, “I See Myself,” due out in November.

In 2022, Bonsall said he nearly died from a pulmonary embolism. “I could have easily died last weekend, but God isn’t done with me yet,” Bonsall said. I tweeted“I’m home now after 6 days in the hospital with a pulmonary embolism… it may take some time for me to recover… thank you for the prayers and love you’ve shown!”

He has recovered and is able to participate in the initial dates of what he called the “American Made: Farewell Tour,” which begins in September 2023.

In January, Bonsall posted on his X account (formerly known as Twitter): “Many of you know that I have been suffering from a slow onset (over 4 years ago) neuromuscular disorder. I have now reached a point where walking has become impossible so I have retired from the road. It has become very difficult… There is a young man called Ben James who sings for me and he needs your love and encouragement… His voice is different from mine but he brings so much talent to the table! @oakridgeboys will be finishing their farewell tour without me but rest assured that I am okay with all of this! God can do it!!!”

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

“Joe loved to sing. He loved to read. He loved to write. He loved to play the banjo. He loved to work on the farm. He loved the Philadelphia Phillies. But Jesus and his family always came first – and we will see him again one day,” said an obituary released by Bonsall’s representatives.

Bonsall is survived by his wife, Mary Ann, daughters Jennifer and Sabrina, granddaughter Brian, grandson Luke, two grandchildren Chance and Gray, and sister Nancy. He was preceded in death by his parents, Joseph S. Bonsall, Sr. and Lily Bonsall.

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

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