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Tennessee Ernie Ford

singer of the first gospel album to achieve gold record status

Tennessee Ernie Ford

Ernest Jennings Ford was boen in Bristol, Tennessee, on February 13, 1919. He began singing as a boy, and, after high school, became a voice student at Virginia Intermount College. There, his voice and comedic personality caught the attention of one his teachers who, along with her husband, helped him get a job as an announcer on a local radio station. In 1939, he left Bristol to study classical music and voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, after which he worked as a radio announcer in Atlanta, Georgia, and Knoxville, Tennessee. He joined the U.S. Army in 1942, and subsequently served as a bombardier in the Pacific Theater. On September 18, 1942, he married Betty Heminger, who ultimately bore him two children (she died on February 26, 1989).

After World War II ended, Ford settled his family in Pasadena, California, where he worked as a radio announcer. As the announcer of an early morning country music show, Ford created the character of "Tennessee Ernie," a cartoonish hillbilly that became an audience favorite. One of his fans was an agent for Capitol Records, who offered Ford a record contract in 1948. By 1949, Ford had released five singles, including "Tennesseee Border" and "Smokey Mountain Boogie" (both of which hit the Top Ten chart). His first #1 Hit, "Mule Train," was released that same year, and his second, "Shotgun Boogie," was released in 1951. His first gospel album, Hymns, was released in 1956, and it became the first gospel album to achieve gold record status; it was also on the USA Billboard Album chart for 350 consecutive weeks. In 1963, he released We Gather Together, a collection of hymns recorded at San Quentin Prison with the San Quentin Prison Choir; it was the first ever recording done at San Questin. By the time of his death, Ford had released over 50 albums; most of them were gospel, but he also recorded "traditional" country, Christmas, and patriotic music. His biggest hit ever was "Sixteen Tons" (1955), which reached #1 on both the country and pop music charts.

In addition to his recording career, Ford also enjoyed a successful television career. In 1954, he played Cousin Ernie in two episodes of "I Love Lucy." Those appearances were so well received by the viewing public that he appeared in the same role in one episode the following season. "The Ford Show," a variety show hosted by him and sponsored by the Ford Motor Company aired from 1956 to 1961, and Ford was a regular on "Hee Haw" from 1973 to 1983. He also made guest appearances on the many variety shows that dominated the airwaves in the 1970's. His book, Tennessee Ernie Ford's Book of Favorite Hymns, was published in 1962 and quickly became a best-seller.

In 1984, Ford was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award. In 1990, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was also honored with three Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame -- one for radio, one for recording, and one for television.

Unbeknownst to most of his fans, Tennessee Ernie Ford suffered with alcoholism throughout his life, a struggle that took a toll on his health. He died of liver disease in a Reston, Virginia, hospital on October 17, 1991, a few days after having dinner with President George H.W. Bush at the White House. He was survived by his two children and his second wife, Beverly Wood Ford, whom he had married on June 11, 1989. He is buried in Alta Mesa Memorial Park in Palo Alto, California.

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This page was last updated on 09/26/2017.