Tennessee Ernie Ford life and biography

Tennessee Ernie Ford picture, image, poster

Tennessee Ernie Ford biography

Date of birth : 1919-02-13
Date of death : 1991-10-17
Birthplace : Bristol, Tennessee, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2011-11-15
Credited as : Singer, television host, "Sixteen Tons"

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Ernest Jennings Ford, 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. Today, he is best remembered for his hit recording of "Sixteen Tons".

Several generations of fans have thrilled to the rich baritone-bass of Tennessee Ernie Ford, one of the first stars to have "crossover" hits in country and pop music. Ford's soothing voice and affable ways assured him constant employment on radio and television from the late 1930s until the 1970s, and his albums of religious music continue to sell well to this day. As Melvin Shestack puts it in The Country Music Encyclopedia, Ford is "a Good Old Boy with no rural edges left.... His rich voice and ability to put over songs (even some clinkers) has afforded him countless acres to cultivate solid gold peas."

Ernest Jennings Ford was born February 13, 1919, in the town of Bristol on the Tennessee-Virginia border. His father was a postal worker who liked to play the fiddle, and many of the Ford family members sang in the local church choir. Ford has said that his family's favorite song was "The Old Rugged Cross," a number he has recorded several times. As a youngster he loved to sing, appearing in high-school plays and taking part in the glee club. He also enjoyed listening to country music on the radio, and he made himself such a fixture at the Bristol radio station that after graduation he was offered a job. While attending Virginia Intermount College to study voice, he worked as an announcer for ten dollars a week. In the fall of 1939 he enrolled at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, but he returned to radio work before the school year ended.

Between 1939 and 1941 Ford served as a disc jockey and announcer on stations in Atlanta, Georgia, and Knoxville, Tennessee. He enlisted in the Air Corps soon after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, becoming a bombardier on heavy aircraft. Promoted to the rank of lieutenant, he was stationed in California as a flight instructor for most of the war, and in 1942 he married Betty J. Heminger. After the war, Ford decided to stay in California. He returned to radio work in a succession of stations in San Bernardino, Pasadena, and El Monte.

The postwar years saw California emerge as a strong market for country-and-western music, and Ford was able to capitalize on that demand. He became friends with Cliffie Stone, whose well-known variety shows "Dinner Bell Roundup" and "Hometown Jamboree" were havens for country talent. By 1948 Ford was a regular soloist on Stone's shows, and Stone helped him to land a recording contract with Capitol Records. The following year Ford had his first charted country hits, "Mule Train" and "Smokey Mountain Boogie." In 1950 Ford and Kay Starr recorded a duet, "I'll Never Be Free," that climbed both the country and pop charts. Thereafter the avuncular Ford's talents were in great demand. As television found its way into American homes, his popularity soared.

Ford's biggest hit came early in 1956. He released "Sixteen Tons," a pessimistic pro-labor song about coal mining, just before Christmas, 1955. "Sixteen Tons" had originally been recorded by its author, Merle Travis, in 1947, but Ford added a soft-rock arrangement that gave the populist tune a snappy beat. In nine weeks "Sixteen Tons" had sold two million copies; it topped the charts throughout the spring months. Ford had his own daytime television show at the time, but the success of the single led to a prime-time variety show on NBC. Enigmatically entitled "The Ford Show," Ford's program was sponsored by the automobile manufacturer of the same name. After a rocky start it quickly gained popularity, running for six years. A New York Times critic has said of the show: "[Ford's] personable drawl, ingratiating smile, and unhurried manner provided a jovial and restful pleasant half-hour." Ford himself decided to cancel the show in 1961 when he retired briefly to be with his family.

Ford had one last daily television show from 1962 until 1965 on ABC. After that, he confined himself to recording and touring, with an occasional television special and numerous appearances on others' shows. Early in his career Ford had discovered an enthusiastic audience for religious music, and as he aged he recorded more and more traditional Christian hymns. It is these works that have maintained his strong following, one that is independent of the vicissitudes of the pop and country markets. Ford's rich bass is particularly well suited to hymn singing, and his renditions of "Old Rugged Cross," "Rock of Ages," and "Faith of Our Fathers," among others, are classics. In 1963 he became one of the first religious performers to earn a platinum record, for the album Hymns. Ford's modern recording work is almost exclusively hymns. He still does personal appearances in Nashville and elsewhere--he was one of the first country performers to tour the Soviet Union--but he now lives in semi-retirement on his ranch in northern California. Coronet magazine contributor Richard G. Hubler notes that Ford broke new ground as an entertainer when he brought "a satiric sophistication to hill-country wit; his offhand comments are those of a new type of minstrel-philosopher." World-Telegram and Sun reporter Harriet Van Horne has called Ford "an original--in thought, word, and deed," whose talent is "the kind ... you can't weigh in gold."

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 died in 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.

Selective Works:
-Spirituals Capitol, 1958.
-Nearer the Cross Capitol, 1958.
-Gather 'Round Capitol, 1959.
-Sixteen Tons Capitol, 1960.
-Sing a Hymn Capitol, 1960.
-Civil War Songs of the North Capitol, 1961.
-Civil War Songs of the South Capitol, 1961.
-Hymns at Home Capitol, 1961.
-I Love to Tell the Story Capitol, 1962.
-Favorite Hymns Capitol, 1962.
-Sing a Hymn with Me Capitol, 1962.
-Sing a Spiritual with Me Capitol, 1962.
-This Lusty Land Capitol, 1963.
-Hymns Capitol, 1963.
-Tennessee Ernie Ford Capitol, 1963.
-We Gather Together Capitol, 1963.
-Long, Long Ago Capitol, 1963.
-Great Gospel Songs Capitol, 1964.
-Tennessee Ernie Ford's Country Hits Capitol, 1964.
-World's Best Loved Hymns Capitol, 1965.
-Favorite Hymns Ranwood, 1987.

Other recordings:
-Christmas Special Capitol.
-Amazing Grace Pickwick.
-Jesus Loves Me Pickwick.
-Make a Joyful Noise Capitol.
-The Need for Prayer Pickwick.
-Rock of Ages Pickwick.
-America the Beautiful Capitol.
-Faith of Our Fathers Capitol.
-For the 83rd Time Capitol.
-Tennessee Ernie Ford Sings His Great Love Capitol.
-25th Anniversary Capitol.
-The Story of Christmas Capitol.
-The Star Carol Capitol.
-The Very Best of Tennessee Ernie Ford Capitol.
-(With Glen Campbell) Ernie Sings and Glen Picks Capitol.
-Precious Memories Capitol.
-He Touched Me Capitol.
-Tennessee Ernie Ford Sings 22 Favorite Hymns Ranwood.
-Swing Wide Your Golden Gate Word.
-Tell Me the Old Story Word.
-There's a Song in My Heart Word.

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