EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: As a member of The Oak Ridge boys, Joe Bonsall has traveled all over the world. He’s performed for six presidents, written eight books and shows no signs of slowing down, still doing 150 dates a year. From humble beginnings Joe was raised in a row house in Philly. Joe sat down with Nashville.com earlier this year to tell what us what it was like being a member of the legendary band. Don’t forget to check back next month to read David Scarlett’s exclusive interview with all of the Oaks who talk about their new CD and what it’s like being the newest Opry members.
Nash: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you find the Oak Ridge Boys or how did they find you?
Bonsall: Well that’s a long story, you probably need to read the book “An American Journey” that I wrote about the Oaks to figure that out. It’s a very unique situation. Richard Sterban and I sang in a Gospel group called the Keystone quartet starting around 1968. We sang together for several years and Richard eventually left the group and joined J.D. Sumner and the Stamps quartet around 1970. J.D. Sumner backed up Elvis so Richard was on the big Elvis tours. When Richard left the Keystones I turned us (The Keystone Quartet) more into a Gospel rock group. The Oak Ridge Boys were the cool act and the group we tried to emulate the most. The Oaks were the Gospel music rebels of the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s. They were the guys that didn’t dress alike and grew their hair longer. They were my heroes so I started promoting the Oaks and I got to know them real well. Duane Allen started a record label so we started coming down to his studio to record. Duane probably recorded nine Keystone albums. Then in 1972, the long time bass singer for the Oaks, Noel Fox, decided to get off of the road so Golden (William Lee) hired Richard Sturbin. The very next year, Willie Wynn left the group and they invited me to join. That was ’73. I was 25 years old. I am now 63 and I’m still with the Oak Ridge Boys. Those other three, they’re still here too.
Nash: You guys are pretty legendary. There’s a lot of history there.
Bonsall: Yes there is, and I love Twitter so I do these things called “ORB tidbits” or “Oak Ridge Boys history” and it always gets a ton of response. So this morning I Tweeted “Where were you in 1981? Bet you were singing oom pah pah mow mow with us”. [this year marks the 30th anniversary of “Elvira”]. Elvira won every music award given out in 1981.
Nash: Elvira was a huge song. Did that change everything?
Bonsall: Well, we had five gold albums at the time and were doing great but when we recorded Elvira, we found out how big a song could be. We could not believe the response to it. From February ‘til June it was number one on the country charts and then it slipped over to the pop market and was on the charts until October.
Nash: When you’re with three guys that much and that long, how do you not drive each other crazy?
Bonsall: I think it actually gets easier and easier. We all give each other our space. It’s a cool thing for me because I’m surrounded by like minds. And that’s an important thing for longevity.
Nash: So are the rest of the guys like family?
Bonsall: Better than family. We don’t argue as much as family. My middle name is “of the”. People are always saying “aren’t you one of the . . .?” There goes “one of the”. I think it’s an honor to be “one of the” Oak Ridge Boys.
Nash: Do you do much songwriting?
Bonsall: I don’t write a lot. I’ve written a handful of good songs. I have to be inspired.
Nash: The Oaks have done about everything. Is there anything that you haven’t done that you’d like to do?
Bonsall: We’ve done a lot of singing for our troops over here as a part of the “Spirit Of America Tour. ” And every once in a while it comes up, “Why don’t you guys go over to Iraq or Afghanistan and sing for the troops over there?” But it never seems to work out for some reason. I like to do that.
Nash: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Bonsall: If I had to pick one . . . our friendship with George and Barbara Bush. In 1982 Ronald Reagan invited us to sing on the lawn of the White house for the congressional barbeque. And here came this tall, thin vice president running at us, telling us he wasn’t going to be able to make the show that night but that he was a huge fan. He started naming album cuts so we knew he really was a fan. So for all of these years we’ve been friends. We stayed in touch and we campained for him when he ran for president and we campaigned for him the second time when he lost to Clinton. They invite us to Kennebunkport, and our wives, every couple of years. Him and his wife are such great servants of this country, great patriots. If it weren’t for him we wouldn’t have done a lot of things. We all [The Oak Ridge Boys] came from humble beginnings. And then to find ourselves sleeping in the White house at one point . . . my wife cried all night.
Nash: Are you surprised at the amount of success that the Oaks have had and the things you’ve been able to do?
Bonsall: Not exactly. I knew I wanted to be in music. When I left my real job at Jack Frost Sugar in ’68 and joined the Keystones with Richard and starved to death for six or seven years, I was still happy because I was singing. Money didn’t matter. So I feel blessed, thrilled but not surprised for some reason. The book thing surprised me more.
Nash: Let’s talk about the books. You had a lot of success with GI Joe And Lilly.
Bonsall: Yes, the book thing surprised me more than anything. If my old English teachers knew I had a byline on anything they’d be spinning in their graves. The coolest thing about writing GI Joe And Lilly is that it gave me the opportunity to go back and meet my parents as young people and write about them as young people. There was so much sickness in their live towards the end. My dad had a stroke at 39 and he was infirmed the rest of his life. Mom looked after him and she was never totally well either. It’s hard to go back and see your father at 19 storming the beach at Normandy. And it’s hard to see your mother as a young WAC (Women’s Army Corps) and then meeting at an airbase at Mitchell field. I never wrote a word of GI Joe And Lilly at home. I wrote it all on the road. I wrote it mainly utilizing my mom’s memoirs. Without them I don’t know I could have wrote the book. To me, my goal in writing is to inpsire.