menu Home chevron_right

Oak Ridge Boy Joe Bonsall Passes At Age 76 [Full Obituary]

admin | July 11, 2024

Joe Bonsall, the high-energy tenor singer of The Oak Ridge Boys, died yesterday (July 9).

As a member of the group, he is a member of both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Bonsall was a key vocalist on such Oak Ridge Boys hits as “Elvira,” “Bobbie Sue” and “American Made.”

Bonsall was raised on the rough streets of North Philadelphia. He entered a talent contest as a singer at age four and appeared on local television. But he joined a street gang at age 12 and turned his back on music and religion. After a severe beating at age 14, he turned his life around. He was fascinated by vocal harmonies, particularly by those in gospel quartets.

The Oak Ridge Boys. Photo: Alan Messer

He joined a local group called The Faith Four Quartet. Singing in New Jersey, he heard a truly professional ensemble named The Eastman Quartet. It featured bass singer Richard Sterban, who became a friend. After Sterban joined The Keystone Quartet, the group invited Joe Bonsall to join when he was 19.

The Keystones admired and imitated The Oak Ridge Boys, a quartet founded in 1943. William Lee Golden and Duane Allen had already become members of the Oaks by that time. The veteran group was known for modernizing the gospel sound. Steban joined The Oak Ridge Boys in 1972. Bonsall completed the Oaks’ modern lineup in 1973.

He moved to Nashville to join the rest of the group. The Oaks signed with Columbia Records and became even bigger gospel stars. But they were also known as “gospel rebels” for including secular songs in their repertoire and playing Las Vegas. They also jettisoned the matching-suits, gospel-quartet uniforms and grew their hair long. In addition, Bonsall and the Oaks began drifting into country music.

In 1974, they started singing with Johnny Cash. A year later, they issued “Rhythm Guitar” (“Nobody wants to play rhythm guitar behind Jesus”) and won a gospel Grammy Award for their version of Johnny Russell’s country hit “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor.” The Oaks became one of the first American acts to tour the Soviet Union when they travelled there with Roy Clark in 1976.

They repeated their Grammy-winning feat in 1977 and 1978 with “Where the Soul Never Dies” and “Just a Little Taik With Jesus.” Paul Simon featured the group singing harmonies on his 1977 pop hit “Slip Slidin’ Away.”

By then, The Oak Ridge Boys had stopped taking gospel bookings. The group signed with ABC/Dot Records and issued “Y’all Come Back Saloon” in the summer of 1977. It inaugurated a string of 34 top 10 country hits of 1977-1991, including 17 No. 1 smashes.

On stage, Joe Bonsall became the group’s “spark plug,” energetically bouncing along and cheer-leading its performances. Duane Allen usually sang lead, but Bonsall’s high vocals were often just as ear catching. William Lee Golden handled the tricky baritone harmonies and provided a striking visual presence with his “mountain man”/“Biblical-prophet” look. Richard Sterban dressed in dapper designer suits and captivated crowds with his ultra-low bass-vocal dips.

The Oak Ridge Boys. Photo: Brandon Wood

The Oak Ridge Boys were the first country act to incorporate lighting effects and innovative staging into its concerts. Their 1979 trek with Kenny Rogers and Dottie Wast is considered to be country’s first arena tour. The Oaks were named both the CMA and ACM Vocal Group of the Year in 1978.

The four moved to MCA Records just in time for 1980’s chart-topping “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.” The following year, The Oak Ridge Boys became top 10 pop stars with the Platinum-selling “Elvira.” It was named the CMA and ACM Single of the Year and won a Grammy Award.

Among the additional No. 1 country hits that followed were “Fancy Free” (1981), “Bobbie Sue” (1982), “I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes” (1984), “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend” (1985) and the Grammy nominated “Gonna Take a Lot of River” (1988).

“American Made” (1983) became a commercial jingle for Miller Beer. “When You Get to the Heart” 1986) was a collaboration with Barbara Mandrell. On “Broken Trust” (1980), the Oaks memorably harmonized behind Brenda Lee. The group’s rendition of “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration” (1990) was included on the movie soundtrack of My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.

Joe Bonsall. Photo: Jarret Gaza

Shooter Jennings promoted the group and arranged for the quartet to record The Boys Are Back as a comeback album in 2009. It contained their version of The White Stripes rock favorite “Seven Nation Army.” In 2013, The Oak Ridge Boys celebrated the 40th anniversary of their modern lineup with a special tour, a commemorative CD, an Oaks-themed cruise and a TV special.

In addition to his contributions to The Oak Ridge Boys, Bonsall became a prolific author. He wrote 11 books including his upcoming memoir I See Myself, which is scheduled for publication in November.

The Oak Ridge Boys were inducted into the cast of the Grand Ole Opry in 2011. In 2000, the group was elected to the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. The Country Music Hall of Fame followed suit in 2015.

Joe Bonsall announced in January that he was retiring from touring with the group. This was because he was suffering from the neuromuscular affliction Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Bonsall passed away at age 76 due to complications from the disease.

He 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. 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.

Written by admin


This post currently has no comments.

Leave a Reply


Our owner, with a background in Bible studies and communications, has dedicated their career to the art of radio broadcasting. From Southern Gospel stations to producing Christian children’s radio dramas, our journey has been guided by one simple principle: radio is theatre of the mind.





Thank you for being a part of the Watering hole Radio family. Together, let’s continue to make radio an immersive experience that touches hearts and inspires minds.

This area can contain widgets, menus, shortcodes and custom content. You can manage it from the Customizer, in the Second layer section.





  • cover play_circle_filled

    Wateringhole Radio on Live365

play_arrow skip_previous skip_next volume_down