Tributes Flow For Oak Ridge Boys’ Joe Bonsall

10 July 2024 | 10:49 am | Mary Varvaris

Members of The Oak Ridge Boys, 'American Pie' singer Don McLean, and more shared touching tributes for Joe Bonsall.

Joe Bonsall

Joe Bonsall (Credit: Jon Mir)

Joe Bonsall, a tenor vocalist in the country-meets-gospel group The Oak Ridge Boys, has passed away. He was 76 years old.

Bonsall died from complications of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. In January, he retired from performing with The Oak Ridge Boys after a near-51-year career in the group. Variety reports that the band continued on their farewell tour, and it was possible that Bonsall planned to record a new album with them this year.

Founded in 1943 as the Oak Ridge Quartet and discovering popularity in Southern Gospel music in the 1950s, the band changed its name to the Oak Ridge Boys in the early 1960s. Remaining a gospel outfit until the 1970s, The Oak Ridge Boys then switched their image and pivoted to country music.

With a line-up comprising Bonsall, lead vocalist Duane Allen, baritone singer William Lee Golden, and bass singer Richard Sterban, The Oak Ridge Boys released successful hits such as Elvira (1981), Bobbie Sue (1982), and American Made (1983). In 2015, The Oak Ridge Boys were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Tributes Flow For Joe Bonsall

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Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, leads the tributes for Bonsall.

In a statement, Young said, “For 50 years, Joe Bonsall was the Oak Ridge Boys’ sparkplug. He was as exciting a performer as any who ever hit a gospel or country stage. His tenor voice was high and clear, and his jovial spirit always provided a jolt of energy, immediately rousing audiences to come on in and take a load off. He certainly lightened our cares every time he sang.”

The country music community is in mourning, and none grieve Bonsall more than his family and Oak Ridge Boys bandmates.

Duane Allen said, “When I look at Joe Bonsall’s life, I see a life fulfilled. The son of two military veterans, raised to become street-smart in the hood-influenced neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His parents taught him that he could be anything he wished to be if he worked hard, told the truth, and trusted in God.

“Joe could do anything he set his mind to do, but what impressed me the most was the energy, love, and compassion he put into everything he did and his unique gift to communicate those emotions and feelings into every performance, song, and book. Joe was ‘that’ best friend that every person hopes to have in his life.”

William Lee Golden wrote, “This has been a week of sadness with the loss of my son, Rusty Golden, and now the loss of our brother and our partner of over 50 years, Joe Bonsall. Thankfully we have the memories made and the songs that we’ve sang together to get us through. It gives me comfort to know that Joe and Rusty are together again. Our prayers are with his family.”

Richard Sterban said, “For many years, Joe was my best friend. We knew each other long before we both became members of The Oak Ridge Boys. He was a special person, who was loved by everyone and was a true inspiration to us all. He was also the best singing partner a person could have. For several years he bravely fought a terrible disease and was a trooper right up until the very end. There is no doubt that today, he is in a much better place - at HOME with Jesus. I will see you soon my dear friend.”

Jim Halsey, Manager of The Oak Ridge Boys, added: “God love you, Joe Bonsall. You have been an inspiration to fans, friends, and family, especially to me for 52 years. This is a very rough day.”

American Pie singer Don McLean said, “Musicians like Joe Bonsall are not able to be replaced because gospel harmony is quite an art form. Unlike 3-part harmony or 4-part harmony is a whole different kind of mathematics. Joe was a true pioneer and original.”

Singer Tim Atwood commented, “My heart is breaking. BREAKING! Joe Bonsall's talent was beyond compare, matched only by his kindness, compassion, humor, and love. He loved his family--which after 50 years included The Oak Ridge Boys family. He loved his friends, his fans, and my goodness, he loved his country. He was a patriot. He performed before Presidents and Kings, but he made me feel like royalty every time I was fortunate to perform alongside him.

“We even shot a television pilot together where I was Joe's sidekick. What an honor. I loved Joe since the first time I heard him sing with the Keystones. I am praying for all of us who loved this wonderful man especially his wife and children, Duane, William Lee, and Richard. No doubt there's a new tenor in Heaven's choir today.”

Joe Bonsall’s family asked for privacy at this time and, at his request, won’t be holding a funeral. Rather than send flowers, donations can be made to the ALS Association or the Vanderbilt Medical Center ALS and Neuroscience Research Center.