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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, he is remembered for his hit recordings of "The Shotgun Boogie" and "Sixteen Tons".
Ford was born in Bristol, Tennessee, to Maud (ne;e Long) and Clarence Thomas Ford. The 1940 census shows that he had an older brother named Stanley H. Ford.
Ford began his radio career as an announcer at WOPI-AM in Bristol. In 1939, the young bass-baritone left the station to study classical singing at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in Ohio. A First Lieutenant, he served in the United States Army Air Corps in World War II as the bombardier on a B-29 Superfortress flying missions over Japan. He was also a bombing instructor at George Air Force Base, in Victorville, California.
After the war, Ford worked at radio stations in San Bernardino and Pasadena, California. At KFXM, in San Bernardino, Ford was hired as a radio announcer. He was assigned to host an early morning country music disc jockey program, 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. He 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, 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 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" and "Blackberry Boogie", 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, 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, and has been evaluated as an early tune.
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 portrayal in 1954 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 music chart) with "Farewell to the Mountains" on side B.
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, although Travis is recognized as the sole author on the recording itself, by BMI and in virtually all reference works. The song's fatalistic tone contrasted vividly with the sugary pop ballads and rock & roll just starting to dominate the charts at the time:
With Ford's snapping fingers and a unique clarinet-driven pop arrangement by Ford's music director, Jack Fascinato, "Sixteen Tons" spent ten weeks at number one on the country charts and seven weeks at number one on the pop charts. The record sold over twenty million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. The song made Ford a crossover star, and became his signature song.
Ford subsequently hosted his own prime-time variety program, The Ford Show, which ran on NBC television from October 4, 1956, to June 29, 1961. Ford's last name allowed the show title to carry a unique double entendre by selling the naming rights to the Ford Motor Company (Ford had no known relation to the Ford family that founded that company). The Ford Theatre, an anthology series also sponsored by the company, 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.
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. In 1968, Ford narrated the Rankin/Bass Thanksgiving TV special The Mouse on the Mayflower for NBC. The mouse narrator seen at the beginning of the special, William the Churchmouse, was a caricature of Ford, in keeping with a Rankin/Bass tradition. Ford was the spokesman for the Pontiac Furniture Company in Pontiac, Illinois in the 1970s. He also became the spokesman for Martha White brand flour in 1972.
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 1976-88. 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.
Ford and wife Betty contended with serious alcohol problems; Betty had had the problem since the 1950s as well as emotional issues that complicated both their lives and that of their sons. 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. His last interview was taped in September 1991 by his long-time friend Dinah Shore for her TV show.
Ford was married to Betty Heminger from September 18, 1942, until her death on February 26, 1989; they had two sons - 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 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. Ford was interred at Alta Mesa Memorial Park, Palo Alto, California. His second wife, Beverly Wood Ford (1921-2001), died ten years after Ernie and her body was interred with her husband's.
|1956||This Lusty Land||12||Capitol Records|
|Ol' Rockin' Ern|
|1958||Nearer the Cross||5||Gold|
|The Star Carol||4||Platinum|
|Friend We Have|
|1960||Sing a Hymn with Me||23|
|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|
|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|
|Bless Your Pea Pickin' Heart|
|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|
|1970||America the Beautiful||192|
|Everything Is Beautiful|
|1971||Abide with Me|
|1972||Mr. Words and Music|
|Standin' in the Need of Prayer|
|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|
|1979||Ramblin' Down Country Roads With Tennessee Ernie Ford|
|1980||Tell Me the Old Story|
|1984||Keep Looking Back|
|2014||Amazing Grace: 14 Treasured Hymns||19||159||Gaither Music|
|Year||Single (A-side, B-side)
Both sides from same album except where indicated
|1949||"Tennessee Border" /||8||Non-album track|
|"Milk 'Em In The Morning Blues"||15||Ol' Rockin' Em|
|"Country Junction" /||14|
|"Philadelphia Lawyer"||Sixteen Tons|
|"Smokey Mountain Boogie"
b/w "Country Junction"
|8||Ol' Rockin' Em|
|"Mule Train" /||1||9||Sixteen Tons|
|"Anticipation Blues"||3||Ol' Rockin' Em|
|1950||"The Cry Of The Wild Goose"
b/w "The Donkey Serenade"
b/w "I've Got To Feed'em In The Morning"
|"Ain't Nobody's Business But My Own" (with Kay Starr) /||5||22|
|"I'll Never Be Free" (with Kay Starr)||2||3|
|"What This Country Needs"
b/w "The Lord's Lariat" (from Ol' Rockin' Em)
|"Cincinnati Dancing Pig"
b/w "Bright Lights and Blonde Haired Women"
Both sides with The Starlighters
|"Little Juan Pedro"
b/w "Bryant's Boogie"
|"The Shotgun Boogie" /||1||14||Ol' Rockin' Em|
|"I Ain't Gonna Let It Happen (No More)"||flip|
|1951||"Tailor Made Woman" (with Joe "Fingers" Carr) /||8||Non-album tracks|
|"Stack-O-Lee" (with Joe "Fingers" Carr)|
|"Ocean of Tears" (with Kay Starr) /||15|
|"You're My Sugar" (with Kay Starr)||22|
|"Mr. and Mississippi"
b/w "She's My Baby" (from Ol' Rockin' Em)
|"The Strange Little Girl" /||9|
|"Kissin' Bug Boogie"
b/w "Woman Is A Five Letter Word"
|"Hey Good Lookin'"
b/w "Cool, Cool Kisses"
Both sides with Helen O'Connell
|"Rock City Boogie"
b/w "Streamlined Cannonball"
Both sides with The Dinning Sisters
b/w "A Rootin' Tootin' Santa Claus"
|1952||"Hambone" (with Bucky Tibbs)
b/w "The Gandy Dancer's Ball"
|"Everybody's Got A Girl But Me"A
b/w "Put Your Arms Around Me"
b/w "Fatback Louisiana USA"
b/w "Tennessee Local" (Non-album track)
|6||Ol' Rockin' Em|
|"Hog-Tied Over You"
b/w "False Hearted Girl"
Both sides with Ella Mae Morse
|1953||"I Don't Know"
b/w "Sweet Temptation"
|"Hey, Mr. Cotton Picker"
b/w "Three Things (A Man Must Do)"
|"Don't Start Courtin' In A Hot Rod Ford"
b/w "We're A-Growin' Up"
Both sides with Molly Bee
|"Kiss Me Big" /||Ol' Rockin' Em|
b/w "This Must Be The Place"
Both sides with Betty Hutton
|"River Of No Return"
b/w "Give Me Your Word"
|"Ein Zwei Drei"
b/w "Losing You"
|"Somebody Bigger Than You Or I"
b/w "There Is Beauty In Everything"
|1955||"The Ballad Of Davy Crockett"
b/w "I Am A Pilgrim"
|"Sixteen Tons" /||1||1||Ford Favorites|
|1956||"You Don't Have To Be A Baby To Cry"||78|
b/w "Bright Lights and Blonde Haired Women" (from Sixteen Tons)
b/w "John Henry"
|60||This Lusty Land!|
|"Rock and Roll Boogie"
b/w "Call Me Darling, Call Me Sweetheart" (from Ford Favorites)
b/w "Have You Seen Her"
|1957||"Watermelon Song" /||87|
|"False Hearted Girl"
b/w "Lonely Man" (from Bless Your Pea Pickin' Heart!)
|This Lusty Land!|
|"In The Middle Of An Island" /||23||Non-album track|
|"Ivy League"||Bless Your Pea Pickin' Heart!|
|1958||"Bless Your Pea Pickin' Heart"
b/w "Down Deep"
b/w "Love Makes The World Go Round"
b/w "Sleepin' At The Foot Of The Bed" (Non-album track)
b/w "Code Of The Mountains"
|I Love You So Much It Hurts Me|
|"Love Is The Only Thing"
b/w "Sunny Side Of Heaven"
|1960||"O Mary Don't You Weep"
b/w "Joshua Fit The Battle"
|Sing A Spiritual With Me|
|"Bless This Land"
b/w "Lord Of All Creation"
|1961||"Dark As A Dungeon"
b/w "His Love (Makes The World Go Round)" (Non-album track)
|This Lusty Land!|
|"Little Red Rockin' Hood"
b/w "I Gotta Have My Baby Back" (from Ernie Looks At Love)
|1962||"Take Your Girlie To The Movies"
b/w "There'll Be No New Piano Tunes On This Old Piano"
|Here Comes The Tennessee Ernie Ford Mississippi Showboat|
b/w "Rags and Old Iron" (from I Love You So Much It Hurts Me)
|Everything Is Beautiful|
|"How Great Thou Art"
b/w "Eternal Life" (from God Lives!)
|I Love To Tell The Story|
b/w "Sixteen Tons" (from Sixteen Tons)
|"Girl Don't You Know"
b/w "Now It's All Over" (from I Love You So Much It Hurts Me)
|"Sing We Now Of Christmas"B
b/w "The Little Drummer Boy"
|Sing We Now Of Christmas|
b/w "How Great Thou Art"
b/w "Pearly Shells"
|Aloha From Tennessee Ernie Ford|
b/w "Hand-Me-Down Things"
|1968||"Talk To The Animals"
b/w "What A Wonderful World"
|World Of Pop and Country Hits|
|1969||"Honey-Eyed Girl (That's You That's You)"
b/w "Good Morning, Dear"
|54||The New Wave|
|1970||"Rainy Night In Georgia"
b/w "Let The Lovelight In Your Eyes Lead Me On"
|Everything Is Beautiful|
|1971||"Happy Songs Of Love"
b/w "Don't Let The Good Life Pass You By" (from 25th Anniversary Yesterday--Today)
b/w "The Song" (Non-album track)
|It's A Ford|
|1973||"Printers Alley Stars"
|"Farther Down The River (Where The Fishin's Good)"
b/w "You've Still Got Love All Over You"
|"Colorado Country Morning"C
b/w "Daddy Usta Say"
|1974||"Sweet Child Of Sunshine"
b/w "She Picked Up The Pieces" (Non-album track)
|"I've Got Confidence"
b/w "I'd Like To Be" (from Country Morning)
|Make A Joyful Noise|
|1975||"Come On Down"
b/w "Bits and Pieces Of Life" (Non-album track)
b/w "I'd Like To Be"
Both sides with Andra Willis
|"The Devil Ain't A Lonely Woman's Friend"
b/w "Smokey Taverns, Bar Room Girls"
|1976||"I Been To Georgia On A Fast Train"
b/w "Baby's Home" (Non-album track)
|95||For The 83rd Time|
b/w "Dogs and Sheriff John"