Joe Bonsall Interview
(The Oak Ridge Boys)
Since scoring their
first country hit in 1977, the Oak Ridge Boys have been the recipients of dozens
of prestigious awards, including five Grammys, twelve gospel music Dove Awards,
four Country Music Association awards and two American Music awards. They have
sold more than ten million records and performed for five presidents. In 1998,
the Boys starred in their first weekly television series, "The Oaks Live In Las
Vegas" on CBS Cable, The Nashville Network.
In addition to singing and performing with the Oak Ridge Boys, Joe Bonsall is
also the author of a series of children's books, chronicling the story of a lovable
cat based on his cat named Molly.
We talked with Joe Bonsall about his cat Molly and about his career with The
Oak Ridge Boys.
Q. Joe, last time I saw you was at the New York State Fair
in 1978. You were on the bill with Kenny Rogers and Dottie West. What do
you remember about that tour?
A. Wow! That was the "Full House Tour". That was one of the biggest things
in our career. During those years the Oak Ridge Boys were just like the new
hit act in the business. We had our first hit in '77. We followed it up with
three or four more. In '78 and '79 Kenny had his "Lucille" and "Gambler" going
and his duets with Dottie happening. He did a tour called "The Full House Tour".
Altogether, we worked about ninety cities then. We were on that tour. It was
a very, very big thing for us to be a part of such a big tour at that time
in our career. The exposure and sheer knowledge that we learned from Kenny
from working with him for almost two years was very big for us. By 1981, we'd
had five Gold albums. We had a string of hits. Awards. All that stuff was going
our way. In '81 when "Elvira" came out, and took us from being just a big country
act to a household name, we were then able to do the coliseum thing and pretty
much knew how it was done, because of the Kenny tour. So, that was a very important
time in our career.
Q. Were you always a cat lover? When did you first appreciate
A. I've always found cats fascinating, even growing up in Philadelphia. To
me, mean old alley cats they represented some kind of tough guy thing that
I used to think was amazing. Their survival out there in the wild was just
incredible. Now, my cats are indoor kitties. You have indoor kitties. You have
outdoor kitties. One of the problems Molly has in one of my books, is this
overwhelming desire to go out and run with the wild ones. In the second book "Home",
she makes that pretty evident, to the other cats that live in the house, that
she wants to get out, and see what's out there. The world looks wonderful to
her. 'Why can't I go out there and have some fun?' (Laughs.) Book three comes
out this summer, this August.
It's called "Outside". Obviously, Molly gets out. There's more characters in
the story that start to emerge. I have so enjoyed writing these books and working
on these books. It's amazing. You talk about Oak Ridge Boys. I've been with
the Oak Ridge Boys twenty-five years. It's my day job. And right now, we're
experiencing with the success of our television show on TNN, and talking with
Curb Records, it's not sealed yet, but I think Mike Curb as well as Jim and
Sherman Halsey have a little vision for the Oaks here, but in the recording
arena again. We haven't really been there in a couple of years.
Q. I hope Curb does a better job for you than they did for
A. Yeah, well, they didn't do much of a job for Benny, 'cause I don't know
who Benny is, although, I have heard the name. I know MCA did a great job for
us for many, many years. We ended up with RCA. We had one big hit with RCA
and the rest of our relationship with RCA was dumped. Jimmy Bowen signed us
to Capitol a few years back. We were with Capitol Records, I don't know, two
days? (Laughs.) We made a Christmas album and then Jimmy Bowen left. All the
new, young regime came in there, like what's happened to most of the town here
(Nashville) and we backed away from Capitol. We got out of that deal quick.
It's better not to be on a record label, than be on a label that doesn't know
what the heck to do with you. So, the last few years we've maintained our career.
We've performed well. We've stayed booked. We still have a great following
in the country. We've been back to the New York State Fair. We were there last
summer (1997). We didn't play in the big grandstand, but we played the outdoor
deal there and had the biggest crowd there that they've had. What I'm saying
is, the Oaks are still doing well. I will sing with the Oak Ridge Boys until
we absolutely drop or if we don't have a following anymore. Then obviously,
you have to pull in the tents. Being, that that's not happening, the Oak Ridge
Boys will go on.
Q. Where did Molly come from? Was she a stray?
A. Yes, she was. In the first book you find out how Molly came to be at the
home. Four and a half years ago, my nephew, Gabriel, brought Molly to the
door. They were trick or treating on Halloween and found this little kitten
all soak and wet under a tree. He brought it to Aunt Mary, 'cause gosh Aunt
Mary I know my mother wouldn't let me keep her, so I brought her to you.
My wife being the all time cat lover. And of course, we took Molly in and
she really was a special little cat.
Q. How many cats do you have now?
A. Five cats.
Q. Are you an animal rights activist?
A. I am to the point where I believe that people should look after their pets
and be responsible pet owners. Do animals have rights? Yes, they do. They
have the right to live in their realm as an animal just as I think children's
rights should allow children to be children. I don't think people should
be abusing their pets or their children to be honest with you. I think responsible
pet ownership is the thing I try to emphasize. I think if people are gonna
adopt pets they should realize this is a long term commitment also. You don't
adopt a pet and after a month, get rid of it, or you're not responsible enough
to get your animal spayed or neutered. I think all of that is a part of respon¬sible
pet ownership which pays off for the pet in the long run.
Q. Is it easy for you to write the cat stories? Do you find
you're pushing yourself because of the Oak Ridge Boys commitments?
A. The writing comes very easy to me. I have not had a hard time writing these
stories. I'm also working on two other books. The writing is not coming as
easy to this gigantic novel I first started with years ago about six young
guys growing up in Philly in the '60's. This is a serious novel. If it ever
comes out, I'll be shocked. But, it's the unfinished novel and it really keeps
my creative juices going. The Molly stories have not been very difficult for
me to write, but it has been time consuming, especially re-formatting my original
manuscript into the series it is. There's a lot of time you've got on the road
when you're an act like us. You spend a lot of it doing publicity. You spend
a lot of it doing shows, and meets and greets and everything else. You also
spend a lot of it in down time on airplanes and on the bus and in hotel rooms.
I try to use all my time as constructively as I can. You can sit in the room
all day and watch ESPN I guess. I try to take long walks, play tennis, and
take the laptop out there with me and try to keep on writing and working and
communicating. I enjoy that.
Q. You've said, "I always knew I would be a singer." How did
you know that?
A. I always loved singing. When I was four years old, I was in talent contests;
I didn't win, but I sang. The only time I got away from it, a little bit, was
through some hoodlum years around twelve, thirteen, fourteen. But even then
the rock 'n' roll of the era just turned me on to no end. I wanted to be Elvis.
I could do a better Elvis show in my room, than Elvis ever did. So music was
always the bottom line there. When I first started hearing my first gospel
quartet, it pushed me right over the edge. I knew someday I wanted to sing
in a big harmony group like that. It changed my life, too. I was really struggling
at fourteen, fifteen. My father had a debilitating stroke. He's disabled to
this day. I was hanging out with the wrong crowd. I really needed something
in my life. Some Christian kids in my neighborhood said over in Harrisburg,
PA they have these big gospel quartet shows. The Blackwood Brothers, The Statesmen,
The Oak Ridge Boys. I never heard of none of 'em. So, I said I'll check "em
out. From a musical standpoint, that's also the same time the British Invasion
was happening, and as a young fifteen, sixteen year old in Philadelphia, I
hated the Beatles.
A. To me, they could've just crashed as far as I was concerned. All the girls
screaming at these guys - to me it was the end of rock "n' roll. Of course,
I appreciate what they've done years later.
Q. I still don't get it.
A. To me, the Bristol Stomp was now gone. The era of Elvis was now gone. We've
got the Dave Clark Five. We've got the Beatles. We've got Herman's Hermits.
If I could have gotten my hands around the neck of that little guy, I would've
Q. Now see, I would've thought you would have loved the British
A. No. I hated it. I absolutely despised everything about it. When they talked
with an English accent in the interviews I hated it. That's the truth.
Q. I thought it was a welcome relief from the Fabians, the
Frankie Avalons, and the Beach Boys of the world.
A. See, to me, I'd take Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and the Beach Boys. I was a
Philly guy. I went down and hung outside the door of "Bandstand". Give me Chubby
Checker. Give me Freddy Cannon. Give me Dion and the Belmonts. The Beatles
can kiss my tail end. That's the way I really felt about it.
Q. When did you join the Oaks?
A. I joined the Oaks in '73. I starved to death until I was about thirty-three.
All the way through my '20's it was just working hard and sacrificing and
staying with it. I never gave up.
Q. That's probably the key right there. You never gave up.
A. It is the key. I never gave up. To me success in anything in life requires
hard work, sacrifice, and the word to me is willing. You must be willing
to sacrifice. I'd go back to my old neighborhood in Philadelphia in those
days and everybody thought I was crazy. "When you gonna get a job?" I stayed
with it. I joined the
Oak Ridge Boys when I was twenty-five. I'm fifty now. Still with the group.
We're legends now. Yeah, we're having a ball! We still got our hands in the
cookie jar and no one has caught us yet.
Q. Name the five Presidents you've performed for.
A. We performed for Gerald Ford when he wasn't a president, so that counts.
But he had been president. That was at a big to-do in Tulsa once. We've met
him a cou¬ple times since at several George Bush affairs. We performed
for Jimmy Carter when he was in office. We performed for Ronald Reagan for
the Congressional barbecue in 1983, on the lawn of the White House. Years
later, George Bush invited us to the same barbecue. Of course, we've sung
for George Bush many, many times. I guess you could count President Clinton
because we sang at a big event last spring when it was the Summit in Philadelphia.
General Powell's deal. We performed at that and a bunch of Presidents were
at that. In fact, they were all there. So, I guess we could say we hit 'em
all in one night. President Clinton did come up that night and shake our
hands. He'd come to see us in Little Rock years ago at the Barton Coliseum
at the Arkansas State Fair when he was governor. So, I guess that's the five.
The president we've gotten to know and have performed for many times on a
personal, private level and at different events is George Bush. Barbara (Bush)
loves my books. It's such an honor to me that Barbara loves my Molly books.
Q. Joe, do you ever tire of being a part of the Oak Ridge
A. No. I enjoy being with the Oak Ridge Boys. It's an honor to me to be with
this group. They're my best friends. They're good men. We have a lot of fun
singing together. I think we're very fortunate to have had the career we've
had to this point. Whatever we have from here on in is bonus time anyway. I
love every minute of it.
Q. Is there anything you'd like to achieve that you haven't
A. We've achieved everything there is to achieve. If I hung up my singing shoes
tomorrow, I've done it all. I've been at every level of this business. I've
starved to death. I've been the biggest act there was, '81, '82, '83, we were
Garth Brooks. I know what it's like to be at the very top. I know what it's
like to hang around the middle. I know what it's like to be considered legendary.
So, I've done it all. We've performed for presidents. I haven't been all over
the world, but I've hoofed a good part of it. We've done every kind of tour
there is. We've sung every kind of concert there is. So, I guess in some ways
we could say we've done it. But, this group has never been able to sit back
and say we've done it. We're always pressing on. It's the nature of the Oak
© Gary James All Rights Reserved