Tennessee Ernie Ford - Biography
By J Poet
Tennessee Ernie Ford was best known for his mega-hit “Sixteen Tons” and his long running TV variety program The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show. He is credited with bringing Southern gospel music into the mainstream; he closed every TV show with a spiritual, gospel or inspirational song. His album of gospel music Hymns (1956 Capitol) stayed on the gospel charts for five years and remains one of Capitol’s all time best selling albums. He merged down home cornpone humor and urban sophistication and sang jazz, classic pop, and folk music as well as country and gospel tunes.
Ernie Ford was born in Bristol, TN in 1919. His father worked in the post office and played fiddle, and the family sang in the church choir. He grew up singing, acting in high school plays and hanging around radio station WOPI in Bristol. His naturally mellow baritone was evident even in his teen years; after he got out of high school WOPI hired him as an announcer. When he was 20, he started a career as a DJ and worked in Atlanta and Knoxville, but left his job to join the Air Corps days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He became a pilot and bombardier and was stationed in California for most of the war. When he left the Army, he stayed in the LA area, a hotbed of country music at the time. He created the persona of “Tennessee Ernie,” a wild-eyed hillbilly, to stand out from other country entertainers and became a popular personality on KXLA in Pasadena.
Ford toured regularly as a country singer and was one of the stars on Cliffie Stone's popular live KXLA country show Dinner Bell Roundup as well as his evening TV show Hometown Jamboree. Stone helped get him signed to Capitol Records. Ford released a steady stream of country singles between 1949 and 1955 including the hits "Shotgun Boogie," and "Blackberry Boogie," and first crossed over with Kay Starr on a duet of "I'll Never Be Free." His first albums were the folk song collection This Lusty Land! (1955 Capitol) and Hymns (1956 Capitol), which stayed on the gospel charts for five years and was the first gospel album to go gold.
In 1955 “Sixteen Tons,” a Merle Travis song, became a pop and country smash, hitting #1 on both charts and going gold. It became his theme song and helped him land The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show on NBC. He closed every show with his trademark catchphrase: “Bless your little pea pickin’ hearts.” His TV show made his albums, spiritual and secular, strong sellers. They included Ol' Rockin' Ern' (1957 Capitol), Nearer the Cross (1958 Capitol), Come to the Fair (1960 Capitol), Sixteen Tons (1960 Capitol), Civil War Songs of the North (1961 Capitol), Civil War Songs of the South (1961 Capitol), Book of Favorite Hymns (1962 Capitol), I Love to Tell the Story (1963 Capitol), Great Gospel Songs (1963 Capitol), which won a Best Gospel Or Other Religious Recording Grammy and featured The Jordanaires, Sing We Now of Christmas (1965 Capitol), and Aloha from Tennessee Ernie Ford (1967 Capitol.)
In 1961 Ford quit his TV show and moved his family to northern California, but returned to TV in 1962 for an afternoon talk show on ABC broadcast from the studios of KGO-TV in San Francisco. It lasted until 1965, when he cut back on his touring and recording. His last original albums for Capitol include America the Beautiful (1970 Capitol), Mr. Words and Music (1971 Capitol), Country Morning (1973 Capitol), Ernie Sings & Glen Picks (1974 Capitol), a collaboration with Glen Campbell, Precious Memories (1975 Capitol) and For The 83rd Time (1976 Capitol.)
Ford and his wife Betty were drinkers and by the 70s the alcohol was affecting their health. Betty died in 1989 from alcohol related problems. Ford was inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990 and made his last public appearance on Diana Shore’s afternoon TV show in 1991. A few moths later he died of liver failure, 36 years after the release of “Sixteen Tons.” Good collections of Ford’s best tunes include 16 Tons of Boogie: The Best of Tennessee Ernie Ford (1990 Rhino) which includes his hard country and boogie woogie singles, Amazing Grace: 40 Treasured Hymns (1998 EMI), Greatest Hits (1993 Curb), and The Ultimate Collection 1949 – 1965 (1997 Razor and Tie) a two disc 40 track collection of his seminal early hits.