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Joe Bonsall, celebrated tenor in the country and gospel group the Oak Ridge Boys, dies at 76

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

Bonsall died from complications of the neuromuscular disorder Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, 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 originally 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 No. 1 on the country chart and No. 5 on Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or 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.

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.”

In June 2022, Bonsall shared on X, formerly Twitter, that he "could have easily died" after suffering pulmonary embolisms.

His memoir, “I See Myself,” will be released posthumously in November. It is his 11th book, a collection which includes the four-part children's series, “The Molly Books.”

During his five decades with the Oak Ridge Boys, Bonsall was a member of the Grand Ole Opry. He was inducted into the Philadelphia Music Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame.

“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," Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said in a written statement. "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.”

John Rich of country music duo Big & Rich shared a remembrance on X. Country music is crying today," he wrote. "Joe was a real friend, and someone I looked up to not only as an artist, but as a man. He's left a legacy of incredible music, and endless accounts of his kind heartedness."

Country musician Travis Tritt also posted a tribute to Bonsall on X, writing, "Joe had amazing talent and a wonderful personality and he will be missed terribly by everyone who knew him."

Bonsall is survived by his wife, Mary Ann; daughters Jennifer and Sabrina; sister Nancy; granddaughter Breanne; grandson Luke; and great grandsons, Chance and Grey.

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