Tennessee Ernie Ford Biography
Ernest Ford, better known as Tennessee Ernie, became a country music legend when his booming baritone voice recorded "Sixteen Tons." His popularity soared with succcessful television shows during the 1950s and 1960s.
Tennessee Ernie Ford was born Ernest Jennings Ford in Fordtown, Tennessee, on February 13, 1919. He was raised in a musical and religious family in Bristol, Tennessee, and began a radio career at WOPI following his high school graduation. In 1939, he enrolled at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and then joined the Army Air Corps during World War II.
After his discharge, he and his first wife, Betty, went to California. He worked at KFXM in San Bernardino and later KXLA in Pasadena as both a serious announcer named Ernest Ford and a drawling hillbilly disc jockey named Tennessee Ernie. His singing, along with the records when he portrayed Tennessee Ernie, prompted entrepreneur Cliffie Stone to recognize his talent and become his manager. Ford became a regular vocalist on Stone's radio shows in the Los Angeles area. Capitol Records signed Ford in 1949 and on the first day of his contract he recorded his first top 10 hit, "Tennessee Border." "Mule Train" spent a month atop the charts at the end of 1950 and by early 1951 Ford's long string of hits included "The Shot Gun Boogie" at #1 for fourteen weeks.
In 1954, Ford hosted NBC's College of Musical Knowledge game show. In 1955, Ford also began hosting a thirty-minute daytime variety television show on ABC. On his shows, he exposed the public to songs he had not yet recorded, such as an upbeat version of a coal-mining ballad that had been recorded in 1946 by Merle Travis. Viewer response to this song was so positive that on September 20, 1955, Ford took time from his hectic schedule to record "Sixteen Tons." It sold 400,000 copies in just 11 days after its release. Ironically, "Sixteen Tons" was the B-side of "You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry," but it was the definite favorite. It was #1 on the country music charts for ten weeks and the pop music charts for eight weeks.
The Ford Show, sponsored by Ford Motor Company, was on NBC from 1956-1961. Ford's homespun humor and phrases such as "Bless your peapickin' heart" became catch phrases throughout America. His tradition of closing each show with a hymn led to the release of "Hymns," his first sacred album. It remained on the charts for 277 weeks, over five years.
Ford continued hosting regular TV shows until 1965. In 1974, he toured Russia with a cast from Opryland U.S.A. at the request of the State Department. Ford frequently appeared on TV, particularly on "Hee Haw" after its 1983 debut and on the Nashville Network.
Betty died shortly after Ford's 70th birthday in 1989. Soon after, he married Beverly Wood-Smith. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990. Following a state dinner at the White House, Ford fell ill and died of liver disease at a Virginia hospital on October 17, 1991.