Joe Bonsall, longtime tenor in country and gospel quartet the Oak Ridge Boys, dies at 76


Joe Bonsall, a singer who dedicated more than 50 years to the Grammy-winning country and gospel quartet the Oak Ridge Boys, has died. He was 76.

The tenor’s website announced in a statement that Bonsall died Tuesday from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. In January, Bonsall said he was battling a neuromuscular disorder that prompted his retirement from the Oak Ridge Boys.

“I am now to a point that walking is impossible so I have basically retired from the road,” he said in a January statement on X. “It has just gotten too difficult.”

He added at the time: “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.”

The Oak Ridge Boys spread news of Bonsall’s death online, sharing a photo of the singer and the statement on the group’s various social media platforms

Bonsall joined the Oak Ridge Boys, known for hits including “Elvira” and “Bobbie Sue,” 30 years after its founding in 1943. He became a member after a gig with the Keystones and was a mainstay as the group achieved mainstream success throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. The Tennessee group gained popularity in gospel circles and touted Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Brenda Lee and Paul Simon among its collaborators.

The group earned its first Grammy Award in the gospel performance category in 1971. The Oak Ridge Boys would go on to win four additional Grammys, including one for “Elvira” in 1982. The group has a total of 23 Grammy nominations.

“We’re the act that won’t go away,” Bonsall told The Times in 1996 after a performance in Glendale. “We’re not kids anymore, but we’re out there rockin’.”

Bonsall, a member of the Grand Ole Opry, was also 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, according to his website.

The musician was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry in the United States. In response to the decision, Bonsall declared, “It’s a sad day for those that care about spirituality and principles based on the Bible,” and swiftly faced backlash.

In the years before his death, Bonsall toured seemingly nonstop with the Oak Ridge Boys, save for their hiatus amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Before announcing his retirement this year, Bonsall had revealed in 2022 that he had battled pulmonary embolisms, telling fans at the time, “I could’ve easily died last weekend.”

The Oak Ridge Boys launched their American Made Farewell Tour in September 2023, and singer-songwriter Ben James took over for Bonsall amid his retirement.

Before his death, Bonsall authored 11 books, including his upcoming memoir “I See Myself,” which is set to publish in November. Music, family and faith were central to Bonsall, his website said.

“Joe loved to sing. He loved to read. He loved to write. He loved to play banjo,” the statement added. “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 was born May 18, 1948, in Philadelphia. He is survived by 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.

The family will not host a funeral, at Bonsall’s request. Supporters can donate to the ALS Assn. or to the Vanderbilt Medical Center ALS and Neuroscience Research Center.

Former Times staff writer Jonah Valdez contributed to this report.





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