Tuesday, February 27, 2018


As I start to write this I notice it's the birthday of a man whose voice was often in our house when I was a kid.  Sometimes you get a public impression of a person that is nothing like they are in their personal lives.  I found this to be very true when I delved into the life of this beloved singer who recorded country hits but was mostly associated with wonderful renditions of old standard hymns.  

Ernest Jennings Ford was born to parents Maud Long and Clarence Thomas Ford on February 13, 1919 in the town of Bristol, Tennessee.  He began his career as a radio announcer at WOPI-AM in Bristol at an early age.  In 1939, he left the station to study classical singing at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in Ohio.

When World War II came, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corp.  He had the rank of 1st Lieutenant and served as the bombardier  on a B-29 Superfortress flying missions over Japan.  He also was given the task of bombing instructor at George Air Force Base in Victorville, California.

The war ended and Ford found himself in San Bernadino, California. He got a job as a radio announcer on KFXM where he was the host of an early morning country music program called NOTHIN' RANCH TIME.  To be different from other disc jockeys  he created the character of TENNESSEE ERNIE, a wild, crazy exaggeration of a stereotypical hillbilly.  Tennessee Ernie became very popular in the area and soon received an offer to go to station KXLA in Pasadena.  He repeated the success of the same show at KXLA and soon joined the cast of Cliffie Stone's live country music DINNER BELL ROUNDUP.  He sang on the show while continuing his early morning disc jockey program.  It was during his time at KXLA that he earned the nickname of Pea Picker because he often said "Bless your little pea pickin' hearts!"

Cliffie Stone worked as a talent scout for Capitol Records and brought Ernie to the attention of label executives who signed him to a contract in 1949.  Ernie became a local TV star hosting Stone's popular SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA HOMETOWN JAMBOREE.  RadiOzark recorded 200 35 minute episodes of THE TENNESSEE ERNIE SHOW for national radio syndication.

Capitol released around fifty country singles of him during the early 1950s many of which made the country and crossover pop charts.  His early hits such as SHOTGUN BOOGIE and BLACKBERRY BOOGIE had a driving boogie- woogie sound featuring the HOMETOWN JAMBOREE BAND including Jimmy Bryant on lead guitar and pedal steel pioneer Speedy West.  Ernie's duet with label mate Kay Starr I'LL NEVER BE FREE  was a huge country and pop crossover hit in 1950.  His duet with Ella Mae Morse FALSE HEARTED GIRL was also a top-seller.


He eventually ended both radio shows and moved on to television.  In 1954, he took over for bandleader Kay Kaiser as the host of the NBC quiz show KOLLEGE OF MUSICAL KNOWLEDGE when the show returned briefly after being off the air for four years.  He became well-known all across the country for his portrayal of country bumpkin "Cousin Ernie" on the I LOVE LUCY SHOW.   The character was wildly popular and appeared on three episodes.  Shortly after that, he recorded the song DAVY CROCKETT, KING OF THE WILD FRONTIER.  That song went to number four on the country music charts.  He sang the title song for RIVER OF NO RETURN starring Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe.  The song was released as a single and did well on the charts.

Ernie Ford recorded what was to become his signature song in 1955.  SIXTEEN TONS was written and recorded in 1948 by Merle Travis and reflected his own family's experiences working in the coal mines of Muhlenburg County, KY.   Those of us who even know who Merle Travis is immediately think of his down-to-earth songwriting and his unique style of guitar picking.  Ernie was well aware of Merle and his work too when he recorded the song as they had performed together on HOMETOWN JAMBOREE.  He had not imagined what an immediate hit his rendition would be or the controversy it would generate!  The political climate in the late 1940s and through the mid 1950s was wary of communists and the emerging Cold War.  J. Edgar Hoover and others in the Government saw songs about workers' woes as seditious and singers who sang them were investigated as agitators.  Travis' earlier song NO VACANCY had made him a target of Hoover hysteria and radio stations had been "advised" not to play his songs.  Ford added his snapping fingers to a simple clarinet driven arrangement of the song and created a monster hit which spent ten weeks at number one on  the country charts and seven weeks at number one on the pop charts.  The song made him a crossover star and sold over twenty million copies which earned him a gold disc.  SIXTEEN TONS was also credited with being the first Rock and Roll hit (yeah, before Elvis and those other guys) that officially kicked off the Rock and Rock era!


Ernie released his first gospel album in 1956.  Simply called HYMNS, the album remained on the Billboard charts for 227 consecutive weeks.  This was to be the first of many over the years.  HYMNS and later SING A HYMN WITH ME both earned gold records.  

In September of 1956, Ford Motor Company announced a country-wide search for someone to host a variety TV show they were sponsoring on NBC.  On October 4, 1957 THE FORD SHOW (so named after Ford Motor Company) went on the air starring Tennessee Ernie Ford.  Running a half hour each week, the show had all the features of other popular variety shows, top Hollywood stars, professional production, and great music.  The network and Madison Avenue executives were not in favor but Ernie insisted on ending every show with a hymn or song of faith.  This may have seemed like a bold move from the star but the segment became the most popular part of the show with viewers and brought inspirational music into the mainstream of American Entertainment.  The show ran for five years before ending.



After the show ended, Ernie moved with his wife the former Betty Heminger and their two sons Jeffery and Brion to Portola Valley in Northern California.  He also often retreated to his cabin in Grandjean, Idaho on the Upper South Fork of the Payette River. He shortly became the host of a daytime talk/variety show, THE TENNESSEE ERNIE FORD SHOW ( later called HELLO, PEAPICKERS) on KGO-TV in San Francisco which ran from 1962 until 1965. He published TENNESSEE ERNIE FORD'S BOOK OF FAVORITE HYMNS in 1962 which was followed by a companion record album later that same year.

He continued to record and perform during the years after his show was ended.  He narrated a 1968 Thanksgiving TV special for NBC called THE MOUSE ON THE MAYFLOWER.  The mouse narrator character William the Churchmouse was a caricature of him.   He was the spokesperson for the Pontiac Furniture Company in Pontiac, Illinois in the 1970s.  He became the spokesperson for Martha White Flour in 1972.  Some my favorite performances were on the popular show HEE HAW.  He just seemed to fit right in when he put on overalls to tell jokes with the cast in the cornfield.  But the best segments were when he would join Grandpa Jones, Stringbean, and Roy Clark to sing a gospel quartet song.  He along with Roy Clark and others made the first country music tour of Russia in 1974.


His experience as a navigator and bombardier led to his interest in the Confederate Air Force (now called the Commemorative Air Force) a war plane preservation group in Texas.  He was the celebrity guest announcer at the annual CAF Airshow in Harlingen, Texas from 1976 until 1988.  He donated a once-top-secret Norden Bombsight to their B-29 bomber restoration project.  As a CAF colonel, he recorded the group's theme song BALLAD OF THE GHOST SQUADRON.

During his career, he was awarded many honors among them the PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM given by President Ronald Reagan.  He received three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: one for radio, one for records, and one for television.  He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1994.  His album GREAT GOSPEL SONGS recorded with The Jordonaires received a Grammy in 1964 for for Best Inspirational Recording.  He was the fourth person to receive a Grammy in that category. He was the third person to receive the Minnie Pearl Award for his lifetime achievements in both Country and Popular music.

Even though he was adored by millions and enjoyed great success in his career, Ernie and Betty both had a problem they couldn't seem to shake.  Both were heavy drinkers.  In addition, Betty suffered from emotional issues that made their lives and those of their kids  more difficult.  Her death in 1989 was directly related to her substance abuse.  Ernie married again to Beverly Wood less than four months later.  His love for whiskey never seemed to affect his continuous working nor was it ever made public for fear it wouldn't fit the image his fans had of him.  It did take a toll on his liver and later began to affect his voice.  He did his last public interview with his old friend Dinah Shore on her TV show in 1991.

On September 28 1991, he attended a state dinner dinner at the White House hosted by  President George H. W. Bush.  After leaving the White House that evening he went to Dulles Airport where he collapsed from severe liver failure.  He was rushed to H.C.A. Reston Hospital in Reston, Virginia.

Tennessee Ernie Ford passed away on October 17, 1991 36 years to the day after the release of SIXTEEN TONS.  He was buried in Mesa Memorial Park in Palo Alto, California where he was joined ten years later by Beverly.  He remains on of the most beloved entertainers of all time.




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