Tennessee Ernie Ford

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Tennessee Ernie Ford
Tennessee Ernie Ford 1957.JPG
Background information
Birth name Ernest Jennings Ford
Born (1919-02-13)February 13, 1919
Bristol, Tennessee, United States
Died October 17, 1991(1991-10-17) (aged 72)
Reston, Virginia, United States
Genres Country & Western, Pop, Gospel
Occupations Singer, actor
Instruments Vocals, Guitar, violin

Ernest Jennings Ford (February 13, 1919 – October 17, 1991), known professionally as Tennessee Ernie Ford, was an American recording artist and television host who enjoyed success in the country and Western, pop, and gospel musical genres. Noted for his rich bass-baritone voice and down-home humor, today, he is best remembered for his hit recordings of "The Shotgun Boogie" and "Sixteen Tons".

Biography[edit]

Early years[edit]

Born in Bristol, Tennessee, to Clarence Thomas Ford and Maud Long, Ford began his radio career as an announcer at WOPI-AM in Bristol, Tennessee. In 1939, the young bass-baritone left the station to study classical singing at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in Ohio. First Lieutenant Ford served in World War II as the bombardier on a B-29 Superfortress flying missions over Japan. After the war, Ford worked at radio stations in San Bernardino and Pasadena, California. In San Bernardino, Ford was hired as a radio announcer. He was assigned to host an early morning country music disc jockey program titled Bar Nothin' Ranch Time. To differentiate himself, he created the personality of "Tennessee Ernie," a wild, madcap exaggerated hillbilly. He became popular in the area and was soon hired away by Pasadena's KXLA radio.

Ford also did musical tours. The Mayfield Brothers of West Texas, including Smokey Mayfield, Thomas Edd Mayfield, and Herbert Mayfield, were among Ford's warmup bands, having played for him in concerts in Amarillo and Lubbock, Texas, during the late 1940s. At KXLA, Ford continued doing the same show and also joined the cast of Cliffie Stone's popular live KXLA country show Dinner Bell Roundup as a vocalist while still doing the early morning broadcast. Cliffie Stone, a part-time talent scout for Capitol Records, brought him to the attention of the label. In 1949, while still doing his morning show, he signed a contract with Capitol. He also became a local TV star as the star of Stone's popular Southern California Hometown Jamboree show. RadiOzark produced 260 15-minute episodes of The Tennessee Ernie Show on transcription disks for national radio syndication.

He released almost 50 country singles through the early 1950s, several of which made the charts. Many of his early records, including "The Shotgun Boogie", "Blackberry Boogie," and so on were exciting, driving boogie-woogie records featuring 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 Capitol Records pop singer Kay Starr,[1] became a huge country and pop crossover hit in 1950. A duet with Ella Mae Morse, False Hearted Girl was a top seller for the Capitol Country and Hillbilly division,[2] and has been evaluated as an early tune.[3]

Ford eventually ended his KXLA morning show and in the early 1950s, moved on from Hometown Jamboree. He took over from band-leader Kay Kyser as host of the TV version of NBC quiz show Kollege of Musical Knowledge when it returned briefly in 1954 after a four-year hiatus. He became a household name in the U.S. largely as a result of his hilarious portrayal of the 'country bumpkin,' "Cousin Ernie" on three episodes of I Love Lucy.

In 1955, Ford recorded "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier" (which reached number 4 on the country chart) with "Farewell to the Mountains" on side B.

"Sixteen Tons"[edit]

Sixteen Tons album cover

Ford scored an unexpected hit on the pop charts in 1955 with his rendering of "Sixteen Tons", a sparsely arranged coal-miner's lament, that Merle Travis first recorded in 1946 reflecting his own family's experience in the mines of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. The song's authorship has been claimed by both Travis and George S. Davis. Its fatalistic tone contrasted vividly with the sugary pop ballads and rock & roll just starting to dominate the charts at the time:

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don't you call me, 'cause I can't go;
I owe my soul to the company store...[4]

With Ford's snapping fingers[4] and a unique clarinet-driven pop arrangement by Ford's musical director, Jack Fascinato, "Sixteen Tons" spent ten weeks at number one on the country charts and eight weeks at number one on the pop charts, and made Ford a crossover star. It became Ford's 'signature song.'

Later years[edit]

Ford subsequently helmed his own prime-time variety program, The Ford Show, which ran on NBC television from October 4, 1956, to June 29, 1961. The show was named not after Ernie, but rather, the sponsor – Ford automobiles. Ford Theatre, an anthology series, had run in the same time slot on NBC in the preceding 1955–1956 season. Ford's 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. This became the most popular segment of his show. He earned the nickname "The Ol' Pea-Picker" due to his catch-phrase, "Bless your pea-pickin' heart!" He began using the term during his disc jockey days on KXLA.

In 1956 he released Hymns, his first gospel music album, which remained on Billboard's Top Album charts for 277 consecutive weeks; his album "Great Gospel Songs" won a Grammy Award in 1964. After the NBC show ended, Ford moved his family to Portola Valley 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.

A photo of Ford with country singer Hank Thompson and Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby appeared in the 1988 book, The Ruby-Oswald Affair, by Alan Adelson.

From 1962-65, Ford hosted a daytime talk/variety show, The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show (later known as Hello, Peapickers) from KGO-TV in San Francisco, broadcast over the ABC television network.

Ford was the spokesman for the Pontiac Furniture Company in Pontiac, Illinois in the 1970s.

Ford's experiences as a navigator and bombardier in World War II led to his involvement with the Confederate Air Force (now the Commemorative Air Force), a war plane preservation group in Texas. He was a featured announcer and celebrity guest at the annual CAF Airshow in Harlingen, Texas, from 1976 to 1988. He donated a once-top-secret Norden Bombsight to the CAF's B-29 bomber restoration project. In the late 1970s, as a CAF colonel, Ford recorded the organization's theme song "Ballad of the Ghost Squadron."

Over the years, Ford was awarded three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for radio, records, and television. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990.

Offstage, both Ford and wife Betty contended with serious alcohol problems; Betty had the problem since the 1950s. Though his drinking worsened in the 60s, he worked continuously, seemingly unaffected by his heavy intake of whiskey. By the 1970s, however, it had begun to take an increasing toll on his health and ability to sing. After Betty's substance abuse-related death in 1989, Ernie's liver problems, diagnosed years earlier, became more apparent, but he refused to reduce his drinking despite repeated doctors' warnings. In 1990, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His last interview was taped in September 1991 by his long-time friend Dinah Shore for her TV show. His physical deterioration by then was quite obvious.

Ford received posthumous recognition for his gospel music contributions by adding him to the Gospel Music Association's Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1994.

Personal life[edit]

Ernie and Betty Ford at home in 1962.

Ford was married to Betty Heminger from September 18, 1942, until her death on February 26, 1989; they had two children – Jeffrey Buckner “Buck” Ford (born January 6, 1950) and Brion Leonard Ford (born September 3, 1952 in San Gabriel, California – died October 24, 2008 in White House, Tennessee, of lung cancer at age 56).

Less than four months after Betty's death, Ford, who had long suffered from severe alcoholism, married again. On September 28, 1991, he fell into severe liver failure at Dulles Airport, shortly after leaving a state dinner at the White House hosted by then President George H. W. Bush. Ford died in H. C. A. Reston Hospital Center, in Reston, Virginia, 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.[5] Ford was interred at Alta Mesa Memorial Park, Palo Alto, California.[6] His second wife, Beverly Wood Ford (1921–2001), died ten years after Ernie and her body was interred with her husband's.[7]

Discography[edit]

Albums[edit]

Year Album Chart Positions RIAA Label
US Country US
1956 This Lusty Land 12 Capitol Records
Hymns 2 Platinum
1957 Spirituals 5 Gold
Ford Favorites
Ol' Rockin' Ern
1958 Nearer the Cross 5 Gold
Star Carol 4 Platinum
1959 Gather Round
Friend We Have
1960 Sing a Hymn with Me 23
Sixteen Tons
Sing a Spiritual with Me
Come to the Fair
1961 Civil War Songs of the North
Civil War Songs of the South
Looks at Love
Hymns at Home 67
1962 Mississippi Showboat 110
I Love to Tell the Story 43
Book of Favorite Hymns 71
1963 Long Long Ago
We Gather Together
Story of Christmas 14
1964 Great Gospel Songs
Country Hits Feelin' Blue
World's Best Loved Hymns
1965 Let Me Walk with Thee
Sing We Now of Christmas 31
1966 My Favorite Things
Wonderful Place
God Lives
Bless Your Pea Pickin' Heart
1967 Aloha
Faith of Our Fathers
1968 Our Garden of Hymns (w/ Marilyn Horne)
World of Pop and Country Hits
O Come All Ye Faithful
The Best of Tennessee Ernie Ford Hymns
1969 Songs I Like to Sing
New Wave
Holy Holy
1970 America the Beautiful 192
Everything Is Beautiful
1971 Abide with Me
C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S
Folk Album
1972 Mr. Words and Music
Standin' in the Need of Prayer
1973 Country Morning 46
Sings About Jesus
1974 Make A Joyful Noise 35
1975 Ernie Sings & Glen Picks (w/ Glen Campbell)
1976 His Great Love
For the 83rd Time
1977 He Touched Me Word Records
1978 Swing Wide Your Golden Gate
1980 Tell Me the Old Story
1984 Keep Looking Back
2014 Amazing Grace: 14 Treasured Hymns 19 159 Gaither Music

Singles[edit]

Year Single Chart Positions Album
US Country US
1949 "Tennessee Border" 8 singles only
"Country Junction" 14
"Smokey Mountain Boogie" 8
"Blues Stay Away from Me" (w/ Merle Travis)
"Mule Train" 1 9
"Anticipation Blues" 3
1950 "The Cry of the Wild Goose" 2 15
"Feed'em in the Morning"
"Ain't Nobody's Business But My Own" (w/ Kay Starr) 5 22
"I'll Never Be Free" (w/ Kay Starr) 2 3
"What This Country Needs"
"Cincinnati Dancing Pig" (w/ The Starlighters)
"Little Juan Pedro"
1951 "The Shotgun Boogie" 1 14
"Tailor Made Woman" (w/ Joe "Fingers" Carr) 8
"Ocean of Tears" (w/ Kay Starr) 15
"You're My Sugar" (w/ Kay Starr) 22
"Mr. and Mississippi" 2 18
"The Strange Little Girl" 9
"Kissin' Bug Boogie"
"Hey Good Lookin'" (w/ Helen O'Connell)
"Rock City Boogie" (w/ The Dinning Sisters)
1952 "Hambone"
"Everybody's Got Girl But Me"
"Snowshoe Thompson"
"Blackberry Boogie" 6
"False Hearted Girl" (w/ Ella Mae Morse)
1953 "I Don't Know"
"Hey, Mr. Cotton Picker" 8
"Don't Start Courtin' in a Hot Rod Ford" (w/ Molly Bee)
"Kiss Me Big"
1954 "Honeymoon's Over" (w/ Betty Hutton) 16
"River of No Return" 9
"Ein Zwei Drei"
"Somebody Bigger Than You or I"
1955 "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" 4 5
"His Hands" 13 Spirituals
"Sixteen Tons" 1 1 Ford Favorites
1956 "You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry" 78
"That's All" 12 17
"John Henry" This Lusty Land
"Rovin' Gambler" 60
"Rock and Roll Boogie" single only
"First Born" 46 Ford Favorites
1957 "Watermelon Song" 87
"One Suit" 93
"False Hearted Girl" This Lusty Land
"In the Middle of an Island" 23 singles only
"Ivy League"
1958 "Bless Your Pea Pickin' Heart" singles only
"Sunday Barbeque" 97
"Glad Rags" 100
1959 "Black-Eyed Susie"
"Sunny Side of Heaven"
1960 "O Mary Don't You Weep" Sing a Spiritual with Me
"Little Klinker" singles only
"Bless the Land"
1961 "Dark as a Dungeon"
"Little Red Rockin' Hood"
1962 "Take Your Girlie to the Movies" Mississippi Showboat
"Rags an Old Iron" single only
"How Great Thou Art" I Love to Tell the Story
1965 "Hicktown" 9 single only
"Now It's All Over" Bless Your Pickin' Heart
"Sing We Now of Christmas"A Sing We Now of Christmas
1966 "God Lives" God Lives
1967 "Lahaina Luna" Aloha
"Hand-Me-Down Things" single only
1968 "Talk to the Animals" World of Pop and Country Hits
1969 "Honey-Eyed Girl (That's You That's You)" 54 New Wave
1970 "Rainy Night in Georgia" Everything Is Beautiful
1971 "Happy Songs of Love" 58 singles only
1972 "Pea-Pickin' Cock"
1973 "Printers Alley Stars" 66 Country Morning
"Farther Down the River (Where the Fishin's Good)" 73
"Colorado Country Morning"B 70
1974 "Sweet Child of Sunshine"
"I've Got Confidence" Make a Joyful Noise
1975 "Come On Down" 52
"Baby" (w/ Andra Willis) 63 Country Morning
"The Devil Ain't a Lonely Woman's Friend" 96 single only
1976 "I Been to Georgia On a Fast Train" 95 For the 83rd Time
"Dogs and Sheriff John"
  • A"Sing We Now of Christmas" peaked at No. 2 on the RPM Top Singles chart in Canada.
  • B"Colorado Country Morning" peaked at No. 85 on the RPM Country Tracks chart in Canada.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 2 - Play A Simple Melody: American pop music in the early fifties. [Part 2]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. Digital.library.unt.edu. 
  2. ^ Billboard October 4, 1952. page 31.
  3. ^ Rockin Country Style @ Emory University
  4. ^ a b Tennessee Ernie Ford interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969)
  5. ^ Glenn Collins (October 18, 1991). "Tennessee Ernie Ford Dies at 72; Folksy Singer Recorded '16 Tons'". The New York Times. Retrieved December 27, 2008. 
  6. ^ Ernie "Tennessee Ernie" Ford at Find a Grave
  7. ^ Beverly Wood Ford at Find a Grave

References[edit]

  • Whiteside, Johnny; Kingsbury, Paul (ed.) (1998). "Tennessee Ernie Ford". The Encyclopedia of Country Music. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 176–7. ISBN 0-19-511671-2. 

External links[edit]