RIP Joe Bonsall: De Facto Frontman & Fulcrum of The Oak Ridge Boys

Since 1943, one version or another of The Oak Ridge Boys has been around in country and Gospel music, making them a mainstay of the American musical experience. And since October of 1973, Joe Bonsall had been a part of the group’s most legendary lineup along with Duane Allen, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban, joining the group when he was 25.

The Country Music Hall of Famers and Grand Ole Opry members have always been more of a collective than anything, with all four men bringing that special magic that kept them together for so long, and kept the music and the majesty of their four-part harmonies resonant for half a century.

But if the band had a leader for the last 50 years, it was Joe. It was often Joe who would speak for the group, both from the stage and to the press. It was Joe who had such a personable way that no matter what he was speaking about, you found it agreeable. It was Joe who kept an online presence, even interacting with Saving Country Music upon occasion. It was Joe who was one of the few performers who could find common ground across ideological lines, once coming to a rare agreement with Jason Isbell.

Sure, it’s William Lee Golden’s beard that is forever etched in our memories as an iconic symbol of The Oaks, and Richard Sterban’s “Om Papa Mow Mow” bass voice that many remember immediately. But it was Joe Bonsall’s smile, and his tenor parts that were the fulcrum that everything else in The Oak Ridge Boys was built around.

Born May 18, 1948 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he was raised by military parents that are both buried in the Arlington National Cemetery. This would infer Bonsall’s patriotism throughout his career. Bonsall did not start his career with The Oak Ridge Boys, but with the gospel quartet The Keystones. When an opening came available in The Oaks, he took advantage, and would ride it to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

With Joe Bonsall, The Oak Ridge Boys would sell over 41 million albums worldwide, anchored by 17 #1 songs like “American Made” and “Elvira,” and continued to record and release albums, and tour up to this day. Along with being enshrined in the Country music Hall of Fame, The Oak Ridge Boys are also members of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

In 2023, The Oak Ridge Boys announced a farewell, 50th Anniversary tour. At the time, bass singer Richard Sterban was already being spelled by bass singer Aaron McCune upon occasion. Then in January of this year, Joe Bonsall announced he would no longer be touring with the group, with singer Ben James filling in. Joe played his final show with the group on December 17th, 2023 at the Egyptian Theatre in Dekalb, Illinois.

“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. “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.”

It was an unannounced muscular disorder that was impairing Bonsall. We now know that ailment was ALS, which Bonsall succumbed to on Tuesday, July 9th at the age of 76.

The oldest tenured member of The Oak Ridge Boys remains William Lee Golden, who first joined the group in 1965. Golden suffered his own tragedy recently when his son, and fellow performer/songwriter Rusty Golden passed away at the age of 65 on July 1st.

Joe 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.

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