Joe Bonsall, Longtime Member of The Oak Ridge Boys, Dies at 76

Joe Bonsall, Longtime Member of The Oak Ridge Boys, Dies at 76

Joe Bonsall, the tenor in The Oak Ridge Boys, died on Tuesday (July 9) from complications of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the group announced on its website and social media accounts. He was 76, and died in Hendersonville, Tenn. Bonsall had announced his retirement from touring at the beginning of the year.


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In 1973, Bonsall left his position with gospel group The Keystones to join The Oak Ridge Boys. The Oaks, in which Bonsall teamed with Duane Allen, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban, first found success as a gospel group. They segued into country music in 1977 with “Y’All Come Back Saloon,” their first of 34 top 10 hits on Billboard’s Top Country Songs chart.

The Oaks landed 17 No. 1 hits on that chart, the third-highest total among duos and groups after Alabama (33) and Brooks & Dunn (20). Two of the Oaks’ country chart-toppers became top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 – “Elvira” (No. 5 in 1981) and “Bobbie Sue” (No. 12 in 1982).

The group landed three No. 1 albums on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, two of which became top 20 albums on the all-genre Billboard 200Fancy Free (No. 14 in 1981) and Bobbie Sue (No. 20 in 1982).

The Oaks won five Grammys. The first four were in gospel categories; the fifth in country, for “Elvira.” That platinum-selling smash won best country performance by a duo or group with vocal.

The Oaks won two CMA awards – vocal group of the year in 1978 and single of the year in 1981 for “Elvira.”

They won four ACM Awards – top vocal group in 1978, album of the year that same year for Ya’ll Come Back Saloon, single record of the year in 1981 for “Elvira” and the Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award in 2007. 

The Oaks’ 1979 concert trek with headliners Kenny Rogers and Dottie West is considered the first full-fledged country arena tour, Tom Roland reported in this recap of the group’s 50 years.

As a 50-year member of the The Oak Ridge Boys, Bonsall was a member of the Grand Ole Opry and was inducted into the Philadelphia Music Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, and the Country Music Hall of Fame, the latter in 2015.

“For 50 years, Joe Bonsall was the Oak Ridge Boys’ sparkplug,” Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said in a statement. “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.”

“When I think of the Oak Ridge Boys and their place in country music history, the image of Joe with his huge smile and boundless energy comes to mind so clearly,” Sarah Trahern, Country Music Association CEO, said in a statement. “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.”

Bonsall was also the author of 11 books including his latest, a memoir entitled I See Myself, which is set for release in November.

Bonsall’s final show with the Oaks was on Dec. 17, 2023. In January, he revealed that he had battled the slow onset of a neuromuscular disorder for more than four years. “I am now at a point where walking is impossible, so I have basically retired from the road. It has just gotten too difficult,” he said in a statement. “It has been a great 50 years, and I am thankful to all the Oak Ridge Boys band crew and staff for the constant love and support shown to me through it all. I will never forget, and for those of you who have been constantly holding me up in prayer, I thank you and ask for you to keep on praying.”

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

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

Bonsall’s death comes just eight days after the death of William “Rusty” Golden, a musician, songwriter and son of The Oak Ridge Boys member William Lee Golden. The younger Golden died on July 1 at his home in Hendersonville, Tenn. He was 65. William Lee Golden said in a statement at that time, “This is the hardest thing ever for a father to have to face. I love family more than anything. Rusty was a great musician, a talented songwriter and a wonderful son. We appreciate your thoughts and prayers for the days ahead. I love you, son.”

See The Oak Ridge Boys’ announcement below: