Why Joe Bonsall stood out among the long list of Oak Ridge Boys members

On Tuesday, Oak Ridge Boys member Joe Bonsall died of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at the age of 76. In the wake of the tenor singer’s death, longtime members of his band are mourning his loss.

The Oak Ridge Boys posted a message on Instagram, informing their fans of Bonsall’s death.

The caption read: “As a 50-year member of the American music group The Oak Ridge Boys, Joe 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 prestigious Country Music Hall of Fame.”

The message said Joseph S. 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.

At this point, the family asks for privacy.

“Joseph is also the author of 11 books, including his latest, a memoir called I See Myself, which will be released in November,” the caption continues.

“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’ll see him again on the Promised Day.”

Band members said that at Bonsall’s request, there would be no funeral.

In lieu of flowers, they are asking fans to donate to the ALS Association or the Vanderbilt Medical Center ALS and Neuroscience Research Center.

Bonsall was a singer, songwriter and father who lived in Hendersonville, TN.

A native of Philadelphia, Bonsall became the 30th of 35 artists to join the Oak Ridge Boys. Bonsall joined the group in 1973 and was a member of the Oak Ridge Boys for 50 years.

Joe Bonsall has announced his retirement from the band in December 2023.

In a press release, he said: “Many of you know that I have been dealing with a slowly developing neuromuscular disease (for over four years now). I am now at a point where I am unable to walk, so I have pretty much stopped riding on the road.”

“It just got too hard. It’s been a great 50 years and I’m grateful to all the Oak Ridge Boys, the band, crew and staff for the constant love and support they’ve shown me throughout this time,” he continued.

“I will never forget, and for those of you who have constantly supported me in prayer, I thank you and ask that you continue to pray. The Oak Ridge Boys will be finishing the farewell tour without me, but rest assured I am okay with all of this! God has it!!!”

He was replaced by singer Ben James upon his retirement.

The Oak Ridge Boys formed in 1943 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

They became popular in the 1950s, thanks to the success of Southern gospel music. Later, they turned to country music.

Over the years, approximately 35 members have come and gone, both as short-term replacements and as long-term members of the group.

Current members of the Oak Ridge Boys are baritone William Lee Golden, lead singer Duane Allen, bass singer Richard Sterban, and Ben James, who replaced Joe Bonsall.

Golden joined the team in 1965, Allen in 1966, Bonsall in 1973 and Sterban in 1972.

Who were the former members of the Oak Ridge Boys?

The quartet has hosted many singers on stage since 1943, and the three current members represent only a small fraction of the Oak Ridge Boys’ long list.

Here are some of the members over the years from 1956 onwards, as documented by Oaks Discography:

  • Smitty Gatlin (lead vocals, baritone, tenor), 1956-1966
  • Ronnie Page (baritone), 1956-1962
  • Hobart Evans (tenor), 1956-1957
  • Bill Smith (bass), 1956-1957
  • Herman Harper (bass), 1957-1968
  • Bobby Clark (tenor), 1957-1957
  • Willie Wynn (tenor), 1958-1973
  • Gary McSpadden (baritone), 1962-1964
  • Jim Hammill (baritone), 1964-1964
  • William Lee Golden (baritone), 1965-1987, 1996-present
  • Duane Allen (lead vocals, baritone, 2nd tenor), 1966-present
  • Noel Fox (bass), 1968-1972
  • Richard Sterban (bass), 1972-present
  • Joe Bonsall (tenor), 1973-2023
  • Steve Sanders (baritone), 1987-1995
  • Ben James (tenor), 2023-present

Who founded the Oak Ridge Boys?

The quartet formed in 1943 as Wally Fowler and the Georgia Clodhoppers. They began recording music in 1947.

The original quartet consisted of Wally Fowler, Lon “Deacon” Freeman, Curly Kinsey and Johnny New.

The quartet began calling itself the Oak Ridge Quartet and in 1962 it began calling itself the Oak Ridge Boys.

“Elvira” and the Oak Ridge Boys’ Greatest Hits and Accolades

The Oak Ridge Boys are known for the songs “Elvira”, “Bobbie Sue”, “American Made”, “Y’all Come Back Saloon” and “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight”.

The group was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015 and has won three Grammy Awards, multiple Dove Awards, Academy of Country Music Awards and Country Music Association Awards.

Audrey Gibbs is a music journalist at The Tennessean. You can reach her at [email protected].