An Interview with Joe Bonsall of The Oak Ridge Boys:
The legacy of The Oak Ridge Boys reaches way back to World War II. The original group was called the Oak Ridge Quartet and performed faithfully at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. They quickly earned recognition as one of the top drawing Gospel groups in the U.S.A. The group managed to sustain a steady following of faithful fans and followers over the next several decades with numerous lineup variations.
In 1973, a new chapter to the Oak Ridge dynasty was written. The Oak Ridge Boys new lineup consisted of … Duane Allen (lead vocals), Joe Bonsall (tenor), William Lee Golden (baritone), and Richard Sterban (bass singer). The new Oak Ridge Boys would also cross-over musically into the realms of country, rock, and pop while preserving their traditional gospel roots. The 1973 legendary formation of The Oak Ridge Boys would eventually earn them status as “American icons.”
In 1977, The Oak Ridge Boys backed up Paul Simon in the studio on his classic hit “Slip Slidin’Away.” The group also recorded with George Jones, Brenda Lee, Johnny Cash, Roy Rogers, Billy Ray Cyrus, Bill Monroe, Ray Charles, and Shooter Jennings. ‘The Boys’ have also appeared before five presidents.
The Oak Ridge Boys incredible string of hit singles include … “Y’all Come Back Saloon,” “You’re The One,” “I’ll Be True to You,” “Cryin Again,” “Come On In,” “Sail Away,” “Dream On,” Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” “Trying to Love Two Women,” “Heart of Mine,” “Beautiful You,” “Elvira,” “(I’m Settin’) Fancy Free,” “Bobbie Sue,” “I Wish You Could Have Turned My Head (And Left My Heart Alone), “American Made,” “Love Song,” “I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes,” “Everyday,” “Make My Life With You,” “Little Things,” “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend,” “Come On In (You Did the Best You Could Do),” “It Takes a Little Rain (To Make Love Grow),” “This Crazy Love,” “True Heart,” “Gonna Take a lot of River,” “An American Family,” and “No Matter How High”… to name a few.
The Oak Ridge Boys have spawned (12) gold, (3) platinum, and one double platinum album. They’ve also generated more than (12) Number One Hit singles and over (30) Top Ten Hits, including one double platinum single. The Oak Ridge Boys recently celebrated the sale of over (41) Million albums worldwide.
Their mega-hit “Elvia” (1981) penned by Dallas Frazier and sung by Joe Bonsall on lead vocals, became one of the group’s biggest hits and their signature song.
The Oak Ridge Boys celebrated their 40th anniversary in 2013 and today are stronger than ever. Their first live album ever entitled Boys Night Out will be released on Cleopatra Records April 15th on three different formats… CD, vinyl and digital download. ‘The Boys’ recently returned from sea on their annual Oak Ridge Boys Rally-at-Sea aboard the Celebrity Reflection with stops in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas; Philipsburg and St. Maarten. The Oak Ridge Boys are currently on the road in support of Boys Night Out.
Tenor Joe Bonsall is also an established author. He’s written a series of children books and several exciting novels including the commercially successful G.I. Joe & Lillie, An American Journey: A Look Back Over Thirty Years with The Oak Ridge Boys, and From My Perspective that includes a foreword by General Chuck Yeager.
I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Joe Bonsall recently while on the road in Laughlin, Nevada. We chatted about … Boys Night Out the new live album, Nashville, Joe’s latest book, The inception of “Elvira,” Phillies baseball… and so much more.
Here’s my interview with legendary Oak Ridge Boys Tenor and Author … JOE BONSALL.
Ray Shasho: Hello Joe!
Joe Bonsall: “Hi Ray, hold on, let me turn this music off here, I’ve got Rosanne Cash blaring on my iTunes today.”
Ray Shasho: That’s a good thing.
Joe Bonsall: “Yea man, she’s got a new album out that’s just great!”
Ray Shasho: So should I call you Joe or Ban-Joey?
Joe Bonsall: “You can call me either one, but I am Ban-Joey though … how did you know that?”
Ray Shasho: I dug deep. (Laughing) I’ve always thought the banjo was a difficult instrument to play.
Joe Bonsall: “I’ve never really played an instrument, I’ve always just sang. I play a little piano but not enough where I can say that I play. When I decided to take up the banjo, I didn’t realize that it would be so hard, if I knew that, I may not have even started it. I’ve been playing banjo for eleven years now and after all the years I should be better … but I can at least take it out of the case and make it sound like a banjo now (All laughing).”
Ray Shasho: Joe, do you still live in Nashville?
Joe Bonsall: “The Oak ridge Boys make their home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, right outside of Nashville, and I’ve lived there for the forty-one years that I’ve been with this group. I’m in Laughlin, Nevada right now and its eighty degrees, I should be feeling guilty. For the fourth or fifth time this year we’ve had a real-real winter in Nashville. We don’t usually get that kind of winter, but a lot of the country just got blasted … I guess its global warming Ray (All Laughing).”
Ray Shasho: My wife and I used to take the kids to Opryland USA Theme Park when they were young and we just loved it. I didn’t realize the park and other important landmarks were closed down primarily due to flooding. I chatted with Tony Joe White recently who actually wrote a song about the Nashville flood on his latest album.
Joe Bonsall: “The flood of several years ago flooded out downtown Nashville. It not only closed the Opry but flooded all the way above the stage and the dressing rooms. It was amazing! Everybody got damage from that flood. It was one of the worst floods in the history of the mid south. There was a big rain that came over and stayed, it did not go away. It was dropping seven to ten inches an hour. Every river, especially the mighty Cumberland River which goes right through Nashville, Tennessee flooded out big time. It created a lot of problems. They’ve got a big mall now where the Theme Park used to be … we call it the Grand Ole Shopry (All laughing).”
Ray Shasho: You and the rest of the group will be sailing out to sea soon for The Oak Ridge Boys Rally-at-Sea II.
Joe Bonsall: “We actually have a show in Key West the night before, and then we depart out of Miami for about seven days on the Celebrity Reflection. A bunch of fans and friends of The Oak Ridge Boys can all come out on the ocean with us for seven days … enjoy some islands, some concerts, and personal time. It’s only the second time we’ve ever done it and quite frankly it’s something I really enjoy doing … just really fun. I think it was a nice experience for the folks who came on the tour and it was good for us. I was reading USA Today the other day and they had the top ten brand new cruise ships on the water today and the Reflection was number one.”
Ray Shasho: So Joe how did a guy from Philly windup in a Country and Gospel group?
Joe Bonsall: “I was always musically inclined and loved singing since I was really little. Growing up in Philly … it was the Mecca of the early rock ‘n’ roll. I loved Elvis and all the Philly acts so being in the Philly Hall of Fame now just blows my mind, as a kid I loved the Philly sound. When I was in my early teens going to church, kids got a hold of me and started driving out to the suburbs of Philadelphia to listen to some of the great Southern Gospel groups. Loving Doo-Wop and the harmony like I did, I thought the power harmonies of these Gospel Quartets just blew my mind. I started charting a path in my life when I was fifteen years old that someday I was going to sing in a quartet like this. So I started my own little quartet in Philly when I was younger and it was a metamorphosis for sure, but to end up today being sixty-five years old and spent my whole life singing in a quartet … so I did what I wanted to do.”
Ray Shasho: Philadelphia is usually known for American Bandstand and Soul music, but the city has also been associated with some of the top Gospels singers in the world like … The Dixie Hummingbirds and Clara Ward ( Famous Ward singers).
Joe Bonsall: “You’re exactly right; a lot of great gospel music came out of Philly. I lived in Philly since I was nineteen years old. Since I lost my parents I don’t get up to Philly as much as I used too. I love the city and growing up there, it’s a melting pot for sure, and I wouldn’t change anything about growing up in Philly. My neighborhood was a little rough and that was good for me too, I learned how to either fight or run and I learned how to do both (All laughing).”
Ray Shasho: I know you’re a huge Philadelphia Phillies fan, have you ever done a fantasy camp with the team?
Joe Bonsall: “I did the ultimate fantasy camp; the Phillies let me hang in the dugout for three straight days. I went out there in a Phillies uniform and took ground balls and fly balls and just hung out with the team, and that was right after they won the World Series with Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Steve Carlton and all that bunch. I became friends with all those guys and they were all Oak Ridge Boys fans. The whole time we were out there taking batting practice, they were blasting “Elvira” over the speakers at the old Veterans stadium. The first piece that I ever wrote, that was published, was a piece called ‘Daydream’ in which I chronicled that event, and it was published in Country Music Magazine at that time. It was a great experience for me and I still love the Phillies.”
Ray Shasho: I also heard that you have nine cats …did you name each cat after a Phillies lineup?
Joe Bonsall: “No, my wife is actually in charge of naming the cats. I’m actually down to seven now. My wife and I are big cat people … I love my cats. Having cats leads to having more cats, and for some reason I think that’s how it happens. My wife Mary and I married in 1982 and we’ve always had cats around. They’re fun and unique in their personalities, traits, and the things they do and I really enjoy watching and studying them. I wrote a series of books on cats back in the early 90’s called Mollie the cat book series where I took the four cats that I had and made a story out of them. I made my little kitty Molly famous at the time; we lost her a couple of years ago. I still get mail from people who read Molly to their kids or grandkids.”
Ray Shasho: You’ve written numerous books as an established author … but I believe your most popular novel to date is GI Joe and Lillie.
Joe Bonsall: “It’s my best-selling book, it came out in 2003 and it still has legs. It’s a story based on the life of my parents. My father was there at D-Day on Utah Beach on the first day of the invasion on June 6th. He fought about fifty days and then got hit at St. Lo. He won a Silver and Bronze Star, a Purple Heart. My mother was in the Women’s Army Core, she was a (WAC).They met after the war and what I do in the book is follow her life growing up and his growing up, both of them and their war experiences, then them meeting and going on as a family. I wrote it as a third person. People that know that the writer is the son doesn’t really hurt the story any. Most people if they read the book and really don’t know me, at the end will realize that it’s the son that’s writing the story for the parents. For me it was a rare opportunity that very few of us ever get to honor our parents. They both rest in Arlington today. I think the story hit a lot of positive chords with people because so many people from that generation lived that same exact life.”
“Today at our show, General Chuck Yeager will be here. He’s 91 years old today. For the fourth consecutive year, he will be celebrating his birthday with The Oak Ridge Boys. He’ll be here with us tonight in Laughlin, Nevada. He’s an amazing human being. He was just in South Africa training young South African pilots to fly F-14’s.”
Ray Shasho: Joe, The Oak Ridge Boys recently signed with Cleopatra Records and are finally releasing a Live album on April 15th… what took you so long man?
Joe Bonsall: “You know that’s a real good question. Over all of these years, I can’t tell you how many fans and friends have asked us …when are you going to do a live album? I guess it never felt right to do it. A live album idea was always put on the shelf. We got the idea last year after our manager Jim Halsey started talking with Cleopatra Records. After we came up with the idea of a live album …they loved it! So what we did is take recording equipment out and started recording shows one after another and had some forty some songs in the can. We picked out the best twelve or thirteen, best ones and biggest hits. We tweaked and remixed them, then turned it in to the record company and they just loved the album. We’re all real happy with it … it came out just great!”
“The album will be released worldwide and even be available on vinyl. It could even start a series of live albums because believe me we’ve got the songs now. We’ve been listening to some great old classics that weren’t hits that people love. Songs like … “Dig A Little Deeper in the Well” for instance, it was never a single but it’s an Oak Ridge Boys song that everybody knows. So we’re trying to bring songs like that back on stage and record them live too. Who knows within the next year or so we could have a whole box set of live music, it could be an anthology like you will not believe. The album will be available on tax day April 15th, so if anyone has any money left, they can buy the album. We’ll be promoting it pretty heavily and hitting the road really hard this year.”
Ray Shasho: Everyone loves “Elvira” but my favorite Oak Ridge Boys tune is the group’s rendition of Wood Newton’s “Bobbie Sue” The Oak Ridge Boys definitely rock on that one.
Joe Bonsall: “Speaking of that …right after we turned this album over to Cleopatra, they came back to us and said we’re going to do a tribute album to The Allman Brothers, would you guys like to be a part of that. So we recorded “Ramblin’ Man” and our version rocks! We’re also staging it. We’re pinning people’s ears back with “Ramblin’ Man” right now.”
Ray Shasho: Did The Oak Ridge Boys back up Paul Simon on “Slip Slidin’ Away”?
Joe Bonsall: “We sure did. That was a great experience… we were starving to death yet we sang with Paul Simon. It really put some fire under us to get us through another year.”
Ray Shasho: Was it the Dallas Frazier version of “Elvira” that inspired the group to record it?
Joe Bonsall: “I had heard “Elvira” by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition; I also heard Rodney Crowell and was familiar with the old Dallas Frazier cut. When Ron Chancey our producer back then pitched the song, he played us the Dallas Frazier cut and I listened to it only one time. I knew if we were going to do it, we’d have to do it different. We’d need to feel it like we feel it. If you notice there’s some melody changes and a few things in there that aren’t like the other Elvira’s. But it was the Dallas Frazier cut that Ron Chancey pitched to us. Dallas is still around and still writing. We ran into him not too long ago. He wrote a couple of other songs for us …a gospel song called “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor” which was a big record and won us a Grammy. He also wrote a song that’s on our The Boys Are Back album called “You Ain’t Gonna Blow My House Down.”
Ray Shasho: Joe, here’s a question that I ask everyone that I interview. If you had a ‘Field of Dreams’ wish like the movie, to play, sing or collaborate with anyone from the past or present, who would that be?
Joe Bonsall: “There are so many people I already have collaborated with. I sung with our longtime friend George Jones on a record and then our history with Johnny Cash. I never knew Elvis like Richard (Richard Sterban) did, but I kind of feel like I knew Elvis because Richard spent a couple of years with him. I know all the stories and of course was a big Elvis fan. I sometimes envy Richard singing gospel songs around the piano with the Stamps Quartet and Elvis. I would have loved being around that circle and singing with Elvis.”
“To tell you the truth, I wish we could have done something with Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen is a real hero of mine …actually Springsteen or Bob Seger. Those two guys come to mind because I love that style of what they do and how they write. It would have been fun to collaborate with either or both of those guys.”
Ray Shasho: Joe, thank you for being on the call today but more importantly for all the incredible Oak Ridge Boys music you’ve given us and continue to bring.
Joe Bonsall: “I enjoyed talking with you Ray, and your personality, insight and preparation… thank you! I’m so proud to be with The Oak Ridge Boys, I joined the group in 1973 and I was 25 years old. I’m 65 today and my group is still out there. We’re singing good, we’re feeling good, and very blessed with good health.”
THE OAK RIDGE BOYS LIVE -BOYS NIGHT OUT (Track list) …1) You’re The One 2)American Made 3)(I’m Settin’) Fancy Free 4)Love Song 5)Y’all Come Back Saloon 6)Sail Away 7)Dream On 8)This Crazy Love 9)Trying To Love Two Women 10)Come On In 11)Make My Life With You 12)Thank God For Kids 13)Elvira 14) Bobbie Sue … Pre-order your copy here
The Oak Ridge Boys official website
The Oak Ridge Boys concert dates
Author Joe Bonsall on amazon
The Oak Ridge Boys on Facebook
The Oak Ridge Boys on Twitter
The Oak Ridge Boys on Myspace
Very special thanks to Billy James of Glass Onyon PR
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