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Ernest Jennings Ford (February 13, 1919 – October 17, 1991), better known 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.


Early years

Born in Bristolmarker, Tennesseemarker, to Clarence Thomas Ford and Maud Long, Ford began his radio career as an announcer at WOPI-AMmarker in Bristol, Virginia. In 1939, he left the station to pursue classical music and voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in Ohiomarker. First Lieutenant Ford served in World War II as the bombardier on a B-29 Superfortress flying missions over Japanmarker. After the war, Ford worked at radio stations in San Bernardinomarker and Pasadena, Californiamarker. 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 Amarillomarker and Lubbock, Texasmarker, during the late 1940s. At KXLA, Ford continued doing the same show and also joined the cast of Cliffie Stone's popular live KXLAmarker country show Dinner Bell Roundup as a vocalist while still doing the early morning broadcast. Cliffie Stone, a part-time talent scout for Capitol Recordsmarker, 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 "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, became a huge country and pop crossover hit in 1950.

Ford eventually ended his KXLA morning show and in the early 1950s, moved on from Hometown Jamboree. He took over from bandleader 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 of the 'country bumpkin,' "Cousin Ernie" on I Love Lucy. He called Ricky Ricardo "Cousin Rickido."

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"

Sixteen Tons album cover
scored an unexpected hit on the pop charts in 1955 with his rendition of Merle Travis' "Sixteen Tons," a sparsely arranged coal-miner's lament that Travis wrote in 1946, based on his own family's experience in the mines of Muhlenberg County, Kentuckymarker. Its fatalistic tone contrasted vividly with the sugary pop ballads and the rock and 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...

With 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

Ford subsequently helmed his own prime-time variety program, The Ford Show, which ran on NBC from 1956 to 1961. In an ironic play of words, the show was named not after Ernie, but rather, the sponsor—Ford automobiles. 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 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 Woodsidemarker in Northern California. He also owned a cabin near Grandjean, Idahomarker on the upper South Fork of the Payette Rivermarker where he would regularly retreat.

A photo of Ford with country singer Hank Thompson and Dallasmarker nightclubs 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-TVmarker in San Francisco, broadcast over the ABC television network.

Ford was the spokesman for the Pontiac Furniture Company in Pontiac, Illinoismarker 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 Famemarker, for radio, records, and television. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Famemarker in 1990.

Offstage, both Ford and wife Betty contended with serious alcohol problems. He was able to work for years, seemingly unaffected by his intake of Cutty Sark whiskey, but by the 1970s 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 worsening liver problems became more apparent. In 1990, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Famemarker. 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.

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

Ford was married to Betty Heminger from September 18, 1942, until her death on February 26, 1989; they had two children. Less than four months after Betty's death, Ford married again. In October 1991, he fell into severe liver failure at Dulles Airportmarker, shortly after leaving a state dinner at the White Housemarker hosted by then President George H. W. Bush. Ford died in H. C. A. Reston Hospital Center, in Reston, Virginiamarker, 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. Plot: Lot 242 Sub 1, Urn Garden. His second wife, Beverly (Wood) Ford (1921-2001), died ten years after Ernie and her body was interred with her husband's.



Year Album Chart Positions RIAA Label
US Country US
1956 This Lusty Land 12 Capitol
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
I Love You So Much It Hurts Me[Pickwick/Capitol]
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
1969 Songs I Like to Sing
New Wave
Holy Holy
1970 America the Beautiful 192
Everything Is Beautiful
1971 Abide with Me
Folk Album
1972 Mr. Words and Music
Standin' in the Need of Prayer
1973 Country Morning 46
Sings About Jesus
1975 Make a Joyful Noise 35
Ernie Sings & Glen Picks (w/ Glen Campbell)
1976 His Great Love
For the 83rd Time
1977 He Touched Me Word
1978 Swing Wide Your Golden Gate
1980 Tell Me the Old Story
1984 Keep Looking Back


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
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 Shot Gun Boogie" 1 14
"Tailor Made Woman" (w/ Joe "Fingers" Carr) 8
"Ocean of Tears" (w/ Kay Starr)
"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)
"River of No Return" 9
"Ein Zwei Drei"
"Somebody Bigger Than You or I"
1955 "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
"Rock and Roll Boogie" single only
"First Born" 46 Ford Favorites
1957 "Watermelon Song"
"False Hearted Girl" This Lusty Land
"In the Middle of an Island" 23 singles only
"Ivy League" 23
1958 "Bless Your Pea Pickin' Heart" singles only
"Love Makes the World Go Round"
"Glad Rags"
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
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" 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"



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