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Joe Bonsall, Longtime Tenor for the Oak Ridge Boys, Dies at 76

Joe Bonsall Longtime Tenor for the Oak Ridge Boys Dies at 76
The Grammy Award–winning country and gospel artist battled ALS

Joe Bonsall, Grammy Award winner and celebrated tenor of country and gospel group the Oak Ridge Boys, died Tuesday. He was 76.​

​Bonsall died from complications of the neuromuscular disorder amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), according to a statement from representatives of his family.​

​“Joe loved to sing. He loved to read. He loved to write,” the statement read. “He loved to play banjo. He loved working 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.”​

​A Philadelphia native and resident of Hendersonville, Tennessee, Bonsall left his gospel group the Keystones in 1973 to join the Oak Ridge Boys, which formed in the 1940s. He saw the band through its golden period in the ’80s and beyond, which included its signature 1981 song, “Elvira,” its 1982 hit “Bobbie Sue” and 1983’s “American Made.”

“Elvira” marked a massive crossover moment for the group, reaching number 1 on the country chart and number 5 on Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100.​

​ALS is a disease that damages nerve cells and connections that are necessary to control muscles for movements such as walking, talking and breathing. Most patients die within three to five years of a diagnosis. The illness became known as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the star baseball player was diagnosed in 1939.​

Bonsall also had a passion for fighting fraud. In 2019, the Oak Ridge Boys teamed up with the Department of Justice and the AARP Fraud Watch Network to develop a public service announcement to bring awareness to elder fraud. Together with AARP, the quartet lent their voice to help protect older Americans from fraud through appearances on Rural America Live, posting alerts on social media and sharing fraud prevention tips at their concerts.

the oak ridge boys

(Left to right) Joe Bonsall, Duane Allen, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban of the Oak Ridge Boys at the 24th Annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 24, 1982 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

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​In September 2023, the Oak Ridge Boys embarked on a farewell tour that was scheduled to last into 2024. But in January, Bonsall announced his retirement from touring, saying it was too difficult for him physically after a four-year battle with ALS. Ben James, who has performed with Doyle Lawson and Dailey & Vincent, was announced as his replacement.​

​“I am now at a point where walking is impossible, so I have basically retired from the road. It has just gotten too difficult,” Bonsall said at the time of his retirement. “It has been a great 50 years, and I am thankful to all the Oak Ridge Boys, band, crew and staff for the constant love and support shown to me through it all. I will never forget, and for those of you who have been constantly holding me up in prayer, I thank you and ask for you to keep on praying.”​

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