Ernest Jennings Ford (February 13, 1919 - October 17, 1991), better known by the stage name Tennessee Ernie Ford, was a pioneering U.S. recording artist and television host who enjoyed success in the country and western, pop, and gospel musical genres. Best known for his crossover hit recording of "Sixteen Tons," his later career was largely devoted to gospel music.
After serving in the Army Air Corps, Ford moved to California to work at radio stations and developed the "Tennessee Ernie Ford" character with his "pea-picker" image as an overalls-wearing local yokel. He soon caught the attention of a record executive and had several hits, mostly upbeat country-style boogie-woogie tunes. He also became a popular television personality in the Los Angeles area and reached a national audience as "Cousin Ernie" on the I Love Lucy show.
His version of "Sixteen Tons" was a huge hit in 1955 on both the country and pop charts, where it remained at number one for eight weeks. Hosting his own television show from 1956 to 1961, Ford closed each show ended with a hymn, creating the foundation for his later career as a gospel singer. In the 1960s, he continued recording country and pop songs but concentrated on the gospel genre, recording more than 400 gospel songs
Ford has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame one each for radio, television, and records. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990. He died in 1991 and was inducted posthumously into the Gospel Hall of Fame as well.
Born in the small town of Bristol, located in Sullivan County in far northeastern Tennessee, Ford's parents were the former Maud Long and Clarence Thomas Ford. He began singing at age four when he learned the words to "The Old Rugged Cross."
Ford began his radio career as an announcer at station WOPI in Bristol. In 1939, he left the station to pursue classical music and voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in Ohio. Ford served in World War II as a bombardier on a B-29 Superfortress flying missions over Japan, with the rank of first lieutenant. After the war, Ford was hired as an announcer at a radio station in then-rural San Bernardino, California and assigned to host an early morning country music program called "Bar Nothin' Ranch Time." To distinguish himself, he created the personality of "Tennessee Ernie," a madcap, exaggerated hillbilly. He became popular in the area and was soon hired away by Pasadena's KXLA radio.
At KXLA, he joined the cast of Cliffie Stone's popular live KXLA country show "Dinner Bell Roundup" as a vocalist, while still doing an early morning broadcast. Stone, a part-time talent scout for Capitol Records, brought him to the attention of the label. In 1949, Ford signed a contract with Capitol. He also became a local TV personality as the star of Stone's popular Southern California Hometown Jamboree TV show.
Ford's first record was Milk 'Em In The Morning Blues. Many of Ford's early records, including "Shotgun Boogie," "Blackberry Boogie," and others were driving, country style boogie-woogie songs featuring upbeat accompaniment by the Hometown Jamboree band, which included Jimmy Bryant on lead guitar and pioneer pedal-steel guitarist Speedy West. "I'll Never Be Free," a duet pairing Ford with pop singer Kay Starr, became a crossover hit in 1950. In the early 50s, several of Ford's other records also made the country charts, his version of "Mule Train" reaching number one.
Ford soon ended his KXLA morning show and moved on from Hometown Jamboree. He hosted the TV version of NBC quiz show Kollege of Musical Knowledge in 1954, and became a household name in the U.S. as a result of his portrayal of the country bumpkin, "Cousin Ernie," on I Love Lucy.
Ford scored an unexpected major hit on the pop charts in 1955 with his rendition of "Sixteen Tons," a sparsely arranged coal-miner's lament written by Merle Travis in 1946. Based on Tavis' own family's experience in the mines of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, the song's fatalistic tone contrasted vividly with the sugary pop ballads and the new rock and roll songs just starting to dominate the charts at the time:You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
"Sixteen Tons" spent ten weeks at number one on the country charts and eight weeks at number one on the pop charts, making Ford a star in both genres. He subsequently hosted his own primetime variety program, The Ford Show, which ran on NBC from 1956 to 1961. The program was notable for the inclusion of a religious song at the end of every show. Ford insisted on this despite objections from network officials who feared it might provoke controversy.
In 1956, he released Hymns, his first gospel album, which remained on Billboard's charts for a remarkable 277 consecutive weeks. After the NBC show ended, Ford moved his family to Woodside in Northern California. He also owned a cabin near Grandjean, Idaho on the upper South Fork of the Payette River where he would regularly retreat. His album, Great Gospel Songs, won a Grammy Award in 1964.
From 1962-65, Ford hosted a daytime talk show The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show from KGO-TV in San Francisco, broadcast over the ABC television network. In the 70s, Ford was the spokesman for the Pontiac Furniture Company in Pontiac, Illinois.
Final years and death
Offstage, both Ford and wife Beverly contended with serious alcohol problems. He was able to work for years, but by the 70s it had begun to take an increasing toll on his health and ability to sing. Beverly's substance abuse-related death in 1989 was followed by a worsening of Ernie's alcohol-related liver problems. His last interview was taped in September 1991 by his old friend Dinah Shore for her TV show. His physical deterioration by then was quite obvious.
In October 1991, Ford fell into severe liver failure at Dulles Airport, after leaving a state dinner at the White House hosted by President George H. W. Bush. He died in a Virginia hospital on October 17, exactly 36 years after "Sixteen Tons" was released and one day shy of the first anniversary of his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
He was interred at Alta Mesa Memorial Park, Palo Alto, California. Plot: Lot 242 Sub 1, urn Garden. His wife, Beverly (Wood) Ford (b. 1921) died in 2001 and her body was interred with her husband.
Tennessee Ernie Ford's version of "Sixteen Tons," written by Merle Travis, is an iconic American musical treasure, transcending classification in any particular genre. In his five decades in show business, Ford's multiple talents won him three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame-for radio, records, and television. On March 26, 1984, President Ronald Reagan presented Ford with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor any sitting president can grant a private citizen. Ford was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990. He was posthumously recognized for his gospel music contributions at the Gospel Music Association's Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1994.
Beyond his numerous awards, and honors, for many it is Ford's strong expression of faith, expressed through his 400 gospel recordings, that are his greatest legacy.
- 1948 Keep Lookin' Up - Word
- 1955 This Lusty Land! - Capitol
- 1956 Hymns - Capitol
- 1957 Ol' Rockin' Ern' - Capitol
- 1957 Spirituals - Capitol
- 1958 Nearer the Cross - Capitol
- 1958 The Star Carol - Capitol
- 1959 Gather 'Round - Capitol
- 1960 Come to the Fair - Capitol
- 1960 Sixteen Tons - Capitol
- 1960 What a Friend We Have - Capitol
- 1961 Civil War Songs of the North - Capitol
- 1961 Civil War Songs of the South - Capitol
- 1961 Hymns at Home - Capitol
- 1962 Book of Favorite Hymns - Capitol
- 1962 Here Comes the Mississippi Showboat - Capitol
- 1962 I Love to Tell the Story - Capitol
- 1963 Long, Long Ago - Capitol
- 1963 The Story of Christmas - Capitol
- 1965 Sing We Now of Christmas - Capitol
- 1966 Bless Your Pea Pickin' Heart! - Pickwick
- 1966 My Favorite Things - Capitol
- 1967 Civil War Songs of the South - Capitol
- 1967 Aloha from Tennessee Ernie Ford - Capitol
- 1968 Tennessee Ernie Ford Deluxe Set - Capitol
- 196? I Love You So Much It Hurts Me - Pickwick
- 1970 America the Beautiful - Capitol
- 1970 Sweet Hour of Prayer - CEMA* 1973 Country Morning - Capitol
- 1975 Ernie Sings & Glen Picks - Capitol
- 1975 Make a Joyful Noise - Capitol
- 1975 Precious Memories - Capitol
- 1976 For The 83rd Time - Capitol
- 1977 He Touched Me - Word
- 1978 Swing Wide Your Golden Gate - Word
- 1981 Tell Me the Old, Old Story - Word
- 1991 Sings Songs of the Civil War - Capitol
- 1991 Red, White & Blue - Capitol
- 1991 The Heart of Christmas - Capitol
- 1992 Favorite Hymns - Vanguard
- 1992 My Christmas Favorites - CEMA
- 1994 Showtime A Touch Of Magic
- 1995 What a Friend We Have in Jesus - Arrival
- 1995 Christmas with Tennessee Ernie Ford & Wayne Newton - Cema Special Markets
- 1995 Christmas - Cema Special Markets
- 1995 Favorite Songs of Christmas - Cema Special Markets
- 2004 For the New Crop - Heartcore
- 2006 The HoneyMoon's Over - Pegasus
- Ford, Jeffrey Buckner. River of No Return: Tennessee Ernie Ford and the Woman He Loved. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House Pub., 2008. ISBN 9781581826531.
- Ford, Tennessee Ernie. This Is My Story: This is My song. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963. OCLC 1327749
- Hilgenstuhler, Ted. Tennessee Ernie Ford. Los Angeles: Petersen Pub. Co., 1957. OCLC 30937391
- LaBlanc, Michael L. Contemporary Musicians: Profiles of the People in Music (Vol. 3). Detroit, MI: Gale Research, Inc., 1990. ISBN 9780810322134.
- McCloud, Barry, et al. Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and Its Performers. New York: Berkley Pub. Group, 1995. ISBN 9780399518904.
- Whiteside, Johnny. "Tennessee Ernie Ford." In The Encyclopedia of Country Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 9780195116717.
All links retrieved November 7, 2013.
- Official Website
- Tennessee Ernie Ford at All Music Guide
- Tennessee Ernie Ford at the Internet Movie Database