TENNESSEE ERNIE FORD
Born Ernest Jennings Ford, 13 February 1919, Bristol, Tennessee
Country, pop and gospel singer, television host.
A deep, warm voice, humour and easy country charm made Tennessee Ernie Ford a big star in the 1950s. To date, it is estimated that Ford has sold more than 90 million records worldwide.
Growing up in a religious and musical family, Ford began his career as an announcer at WOPI Radio in his birthplace, Bristol, Tennessee. In 1939 he left the station to study voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, then went to work for WATL in Atlanta and WROL in Knoxville. During World War II he was a bombardier and bombing instructor. After his 1945 discharge Ernie moved to California with his wife Betty and returned to radio work as an announcer and a hillbilly deejay. At Pasadena's KXLA, his comical Tennessee Ernie character ("bless your little pea-pickin' hearts ...") caught the ear of Cliffie Stone, who made Ford a regular cast member of L.A.'s Hometown Jamboree country music television and radio shows.
Impressed by Ford's singing, Stone (a Capitol recording artist) contacted his A&R man, Lee Gillette, who signed Ernie to Capitol in late 1948. His first record, "Tennessee Border", was an immediate success (# 8 country) and was soon followed by hits that would cross over to the pop charts, like "Mule Train" (# 9 pop, # 1 country) and "Cry Of the Wild Goose" (# 15 pop, # 2 country). A duet with Kay Starr, "I'll Never Be Free", went to # 3 pop and # 2 country in 1950. In the early 1950s Ford recorded a lot of self-composed country boogies (with Billy Liebert on piano), which can be taken as a forerunner of rock n roll. The most successful one was "Shotgun Boogie", a country # 1 for 14 weeks in late 1950 / early 1951 (also # 14 pop). Other examples are "Blackberry Boogie" (# 6 country, 1952), "Smokey Mountain Boogie" and "Catfish Boogie". Producer Lee Gillette often teamed Ernie with other Capitol artists like pianist Joe 'Fingers' Carr ("Tailor Made Woman", "Stack-O-Lee"), Ella Mae Morse ("I'm Hog-Tied Over You", "False Hearted Girl"), Molly Bee and the afore mentioned Kay Starr. The Capitol recordings benefited greatly from the backing of virtuoso guitarists Speedy West, Jimmy Bryant and Merle Travis. By mid-1955 Ford had accumulated 15 Top Ten country hits.
In 1953 he became the first country singer to appear at London's prestigious Palladium, headlining for two weeks. Soon NBC hired him to MC the TV game 'Kollege of Musical Knowledge' and also to host his own weekday program. Ford was so busy with his five-times-a-week TV show that he was behind in his recording schedule. In September 1955 Capitol informed him that he would be in breach of contract if he did not immediately record two sides for a single release. For the intended A-side, Ernie and Lee Gillette selected "You Don't Have To Be A Baby To Cry", which had been a hit for Ernest Tubb in 1950. The choice of the other song was suggested by Cliffie Stone. Ford had recently performed a coal miner's song on his television show to great response. Its title was "Sixteen Tons", written and originally recorded (with no chart success) by Merle Travis in 1946. In three weeks, Ford's finger-snapping version of "Sixteen Tons" sold one million copies (two million after two months), making it the fastest selling single in the history of the record business at that time. It topped the pop charts for eight weeks and the country charts for ten weeks and was also a # 1 in the UK (his second one there, after "Give Me Your Word", 1955). Another giant success was his first LP of gospel songs, recorded in July 1956. "Hymns" was certified gold in 1959 and became the first religious album to sell a million. It stayed on the album charts for 277 weeks (peak position # 2) and would be followed by scores of other gospel albums over the next few decades. Partly due to the focus on religious music, Ernie had no more country hits after 1956 until "Hicktown" (# 9) in 1965. His last Top 30 pop hit was "In the Middle of an Island" (# 23) in 1957.
In October 1956 Ford became the star of an NBC prime-time series, "The Ford Show" (guess the sponsor), which ran until June 1961. Its successor was the "Tennessee Ernie Ford Show" (1962-65). In 1964 "Great Gospel Songs" won a Grammy award.
Ford remained with Capitol until 1977 (leaving a recorded legacy of 83 singles and 48 LP's), after which he cut the occasional inspirational album for small labels.
Tennessee Ernie was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990, but died the following year from liver failure. He was 72.
Official website : http://www.ernieford.com/
CD recommendations :
Discography / sessionography : http://countrydiscoghraphy2.blogspot.nl/2013/03/tennessee-ernie-ford-part-1.html
Acknowledgements : Rich Kienzle, Jonny Whiteside, Fred Bronson.
Dik, November 2013
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