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Joe Bonsall, Longtime Oak Ridge Boys Tenor Vocalist, Dies at 76 from ALS Complications

Joe Bonsall, the revered tenor vocalist of the Oak Ridge Boys, has passed away at the age of 76 due to complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Bonsall, who had been a member of the iconic country and gospel quartet for over 50 years, announced his retirement from touring in January 2024 to focus on his health amid a lengthy battle with the neurological disorder.

Born Joseph S. Bonsall Jr. in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he joined the Oak Ridge Boys in October 1973. Bonsall was the 30th of 35 total performers to have been part of the group since its inception in 1947. His dynamic tenor voice and vibrant stage presence quickly made him an integral part of the band’s success. The group, initially known for its Southern gospel roots, transformed its image in the mid-1970s into a more mainstream pop-ready, GQ-style country act. This evolution spurred a series of hits that included 14 Top 10 Billboard Country chart singles, such as “Elvira” and “American Made.”

Bonsall’s tenure with the Oak Ridge Boys saw the band achieve remarkable success, including induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and the Grand Ole Opry. He was also inducted into the Philadelphia Music Hall of Fame. Reflecting on his career, Bonsall described his experience with the Oak Ridge Boys as an “amazing phenomenon” that “took on a life of its own,” marking countless unique spaces, stories, and times.

In addition to his musical accomplishments, Bonsall was an author of 11 books, including “The Molly Books,” a four-part children’s series, and “GI Joe and Lillie,” which chronicles his parents’ lives during and after World War II. His forthcoming memoir, “I See Myself,” is still scheduled for a November 13, 2024 release.

Bonsall’s impact on the music world extended beyond his performances. In a December 2023 feature, he shared his reflections on playing over 10,000 concerts worldwide, stating, “The Oak Ridge Boys represented the place to be for five decades. Four guys who looked like they shouldn’t even know each other have blended harmonies and had a celebrated career.”

In November 2022, Bonsall had already been replaced on the road by bluegrass and gospel performer Ben James. James, who appeared with the quartet during their farewell tour, was brought onstage to perform their crossover hit “Elvira,” a moment he described as unforgettable.

Bonsall’s death has prompted an outpouring of tributes. Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, remarked, “For 50 years, Joe Bonsall was the Oak Ridge Boys’ sparkplug. His tenor voice was high and clear, and his jovial spirit always provided a jolt of energy, immediately rousing audiences.”

Sarah Trahern, CEO of the Country Music Association, added, “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. His commitment to serving others while developing Country Music into a worldwide sensation will never be forgotten.”

Joe Bonsall is survived by his wife Mary Ann, daughters Jennifer and Sabrina, granddaughter Breanne, grandson Luke, two great-grandsons Chance and Grey, and his sister Nancy. In line with his wishes, no funeral will be held. Instead of flowers, donations may be made to The ALS Association or the Vanderbilt Medical Center ALS and Neuroscience Research Center.

Bonsall’s legacy as a member of the Oak Ridge Boys and his contributions to the music industry will be remembered and cherished by fans and fellow musicians alike. His faith, family devotion, and inspiring spirit will leave an enduring mark on the hearts of many.

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