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Oak Ridge Boys member, Country Hall of Famer at age 76

Joe Bonsall, a mainstay of country music’s seminal vocal group the Oak Ridge Boys for 51 years, died Tuesday at the age of 76. The cause of death was complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

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

The group is best known to the general public for their 1981 hit “Elvira”, which not only reached number one on the country charts, but also found success in pop, peaking at number five on the Billboard Hot 100. The following year, “Bobbie Sue” also found success in pop as well as country, peaking at number 12 on the Hot 100 and topping the charts on the group’s home format. In total, the group has had 17 number one country songs and 34 top 10 country hits.

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 to the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2000.

“For 50 years, Joe Bonsall was the driving force behind the Oak Ridge Boys,” Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young said in a statement honoring the singer. “He was as exciting a performer as any who ever graced the gospel or country stage. His tenor voice was high and clear, and his jovial spirit always provided a burst of energy, immediately inviting the audience to come and relax. He certainly lightened our worries every time he sang.”

The Oak Ridge Boys’ origins date back to the 1940s, and the group took on the name in the mid-1960s, but the combo was primarily known as a gospel group before Bonsall joined them in 1973. Johnny Cash helped sign them to Columbia Records after enlisting them as guests on his single “Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup,” but the group did not find major secular success until a later signing with Dot/ABC and the release of a song called “Y’all Come Back Saloon” that reached No. 3 on the country charts in 1977. Subsequent No. 1 songs 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 hits by the group during 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 No. 1 country hit with “No Matter How High” in 1989, but have continued to be a successful touring band – and to be welcomed as guests at country awards shows and other special occasions – to this day.

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

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

In 2022, Bonsall said he nearly died of a pulmonary embolism. “I could have easily died last weekend, but God is not done with me yet,” Bonsall said. tweeted“I am now home after 6 days in the hospital battling pulmonary embolisms…my recovery may take some time…thank you for the prayers and love shown!”

He recovered and was able to perform the first dates of what has been dubbed the “American Made: Farewell Tour,” starting in September 2023.

In January, Bonsall posted on X (formerly Twitter): “As many of you know I have been battling a slowly developing neuromuscular disease (for over 4 years now). I am now at the point where walking is impossible so I have retired from the road. It has become too difficult… There is a young man named Ben James singing for me out there and he needs your love and encouragement… his voice is different than mine but he brings a ton of talent to the table! The @oakridgeboys will be finishing the farewell tour without me but rest assured I am okay with all of this! God has 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, “Joe’s big smile and boundless energy clearly come to mind. His commitment to serving others while making country music a global sensation will never be forgotten and our industry was made better because of him. Today, we have lost an energy and a voice that is unmatched in the music world. He will be greatly missed by all who were fortunate enough to know him.”

An obituary issued by Bonsall’s representatives said: “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. 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 sister, Nancy. He was preceded in death by his parents Joseph S. Bonsall Sr. and Lillie Bonsall.

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