Joe Bonsall Tells the Story Behind The Oak Ridge Boys’ Hit Song “Elvira”

When Joe Bonsall sang lead on the Oak Ridge Boys’ signature hit “Elvira” in 1981, it was a bit of a novelty for Bonsall. The Philly native typically ceded lead vocals to bandmate Duane Allen. However, “Elvira,” written and first released by Dallas Frazier in the 1960s, became the Oak Ridge Boys’ most iconic hit.

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Bonsall passed away on July 9 from complications due to ALS. Along with his family, love of animals, and membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Grand Ole Opry, “Elvira” is part of his legacy.
The RIAA certified “Elvira” double platinum for 2 million in sales, a milestone that only “Islands in the Stream” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton had reached at the time. In 1982, the song won the Oak Ridge Boys a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.

Bonsall remembers being in the recording studio finishing recording the “Fancy Free” album when a song plugger arrived and said he’d heard a Texas bar band do a version of Rodney Crowell’s “Elvira” and thought the song was perfect for The Oaks.

Allen first heard the song when Frazier played it on WSM in 1966 and never forgot it, which he said is how to know a song is truly a hit.

When the song plugger suggested it to the group, it wasn’t hard to convince them to record it. Although Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, Frazier, and Crowell had each recorded versions of “Elvira,” Bonsall told NPR that he wanted to reimagine his performance as something new.

“I never did it like the old ‘Elviras,'” Bonsall said. “I kind of did my own take, which, looking back on it, was a good idea.”

Joe Bonsall Thought the Other Versions of “Elvira” Had “Weird” Elements

He said the other versions, including Rogers, presented the song in a “weird kind of minor key.”  
“We just put our spin on it and had a lot of fun in the studio,” Bonsall said.

Allen told The Tennessean the Oaks wanted ‘Elvira’ to be a summer record for families of four. The group imagined Moms singing the verses, the kids singing the  ‘giddy up’ lyrics, and dads swooping in with Richard Sterban’s um-poppa-um-poppa, mow, mow.

“It’s the best planning we ever did,” Allen said.

Bonsall remembered their producer, Ron Chancey, was ready to give the song a go.

“We get in the studio with the musicians, and we sang through it a couple of times,” Bonsall said. “I think we sang through it three times. All I remember about that session was everybody was smiling, everybody was having fun, and it worked out well.”

The Oak Ridge Boys didn’t know how well it worked out until a couple of months later when they were on a tour of the Pacific Northwest. They told fans they’d been rehearsing new songs and asked if they could share them. When the crowd agreed, the men debuted “Fancy Free” and a couple of other songs before they played “Elvira.”

“Holy cow, man,” Bonsall said. “The audience acted like we gave him a

(Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

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