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Ford, Tennessee Ernie (actually, Ernest Jennings)

Ford, Tennessee Ernie (actually, Ernest Jennings)

Ford, Tennessee Ernie (actually, Ernest Jennings) finger-snappin’, pencil-moustached TV star and country-pop singer; b. Bristol, Term., Feb. 13, 1919; d. Reston, Va., Oct. 17, 1991. Ford is best- remembered for his (melo)dramatic rendition of Merle Travis’s “Sixteen Tons,” a mid-1950s hit. Ford was as much a personality as a country singer, and became a well-recognized icon of 1950s and 1960s TV variety shows.

Ford did not have a particularly rural upbringing; he was raised in Bristol, a Southern mill town, where he sang in the high school choir and played in the school band. When he was 18, he got his first job as an announcer at a local radio station, and then enrolled in the Cincinnati Cons, of Music for classical music training. After serving in World War II, he returned to radio work in Pasadena, Calif., and began working as a vocalist with West-Coast area cowboy- styled bands, most notably that of Cliffie Stone, a prominent West Coast musician/bandleader/promoter who quickly took Ford under his wing. As an executive of the newly formed Capitol Records, Stone got Ford his recording contract, and went on to manage his lengthy career.

Signed to Capitol in 1948, Ford had a number of hits with pseudo-Western numbers, beginning with 1949’s “Mule Train,” “Smokey Mountain Boogie,” and “Anticipation Blues,” jazz-flavored renderings of pop songs written in the style of country blues and cowboy numbers. A year later, he scored big with his own composition, “Shotgun Boogie,” which lead to his own network radio show.

In 1955, Ford covered Merle Travis’s “Sixteen Tons,” a song about the life of a coal miner that Travis had written in the folk style. Ford’s rendition became a massive hit, decked out with its crooning chorus and popish instrumental arrangement. Following the success of “Sixteen Tons” on pop and country charts, Ford hosted his own TV variety show on NBC until 1961. Added to his regular appearances on a number of other shows, Ford was a familiar face in American house-holds.

In the early 1960s, Ford turned to more conservative material. Hymns, the first in a series of all-religious recordings, released in 1963, was country music’s first million-selling album. Balancing this with remakes of patriotic material like “America the Beautiful,” Ford became a leading conservative voice in the country hierarchy. His smooth-voiced, non- threatening renditions of mostly time-worn material cemented his 1960s popularity. Although he had a chart hit in 1971 with “Happy Songs of Love,” Ford’s career had pretty much ended by that time. He performed live into the 1980s however.

In 1990, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. A year later, he collapsed at a White House dinner, and died of liver disease soon after.

Discography

This Lusty Land! (1956); Tennessee Ernie Ford Hymns (1956); Spirituals (1957); Ford Favorites (1957); Ol’ Rockiri Ern’ (1957); The Star Carol (1958); Nearer the Cross (1958); Gather ’Round (1959); A Friend We Have (with the Jordanaires; 1959); Sing a Hymn with Me (1960); Sixteen Tons (1960); Sing-a-Spiritual-with-Me (1960); Come to the Fair (1960); Ernie Looks at Love (1961); Civil War Songs of the North (1961); Civil War Songs of the South (1961); Hymns at Home (1961); Here Comes the Mississippi Showboat (1962); I Love to Tell the Story (1962); Book of Favorite Hymns (1962); Long, Long Ago (1963); We Gather Together (with The San Quentin Prison Choir; 1963); The Story of Christmas (with The Roger Wagner Chorale and Orchestra; 1963); Great Gospel Songs (with The Jordanaires; 1964); Country HitsFeelin’ Blue (with Billy Strange and John Mosher; 1964); Tennessee Ernie Ford Sings the World’s Best Loved Hymns (1965); Let Me Walk with TheeTennessee Ernie Ford Sings Songs for Quiet Worship (1965); Sing We Now of Christmas (1965); My Favorite Things (1966); Wonderful Peace (1966); God Lives (1966); Aloha from Tennessee Ernie Ford (1967); Faith of our Fathers (1967); Our Garden of HymnsTennessee Ernie Ford and Marilyn Home (1968); Tennessee Ernie Ford’s World of Pop and Country Hits (1968); The Best of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Hymns (1968); O Come All Ye Faithful (1968); A Treasury of Inspirational Songs (1968); The Tennessee Ernie Ford Deluxe Set (1968); Songs I Like to Sing (1969); The New Wave (1969); Holy, Holy, Holy (1969); America the Beautiful (1970); Sweet Hour of Prayer/Let Me Walk with Thee (1970); Everything Is Beautiful (1970); A Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas Special (1970); Abide with Me (1971); C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S (1971); The Folk Album (1971); Mr. Words and Music (1971); It’s Tennessee Ernie Ford! (1972); Country Morning (1973); Ernie Ford Sings about Jesus (1973); Make a Joyful Noise (1974); Yesterday—Today—25th Anniversary (1974); GospelHymns25th Anniversary (1974); Precious Memories (1975); Ernie Sings & Glen Picks (1975); Sing His Great Love (1976); For the 83rd Time (1976); He Touched Me (1977); Swing Wide Your Golden Gate (1978); Tell Me the Old, Old Story (1981); Sings 22 Favorite Hymns (1983); Sings Songs of the Civil War (1991); Red, White & Blue (1991); The Heart of Christmas (1991); My Christmas Favorites (1992); What a Friend We Have in Jesus (1995); Christmas (1995); Christmas with Tennessee Ernie Ford & Wayne Newton (1995); Favorite Songs of Christmas (1995); The Real Thing (2000); 16 Tons of Boogie: The Best of Tennessee Ernie Ford (1990); Ail-Time Greatest Hymns (1990); Country Gospel Classics, Vol. 1 (1991); Country Gospel Classics, Vol. 2 (1991); Capitol’s Collector’s Series (1991); Best-Loved Hymns (1992); Best Sacred Memories (1993); Greatest Hits (1993); Masters 1949—1976 (1994); His Greatest Hymns (1995); Vintage Collections Series (1997); The Ultimate Collection (1949—1965) (1997); Amazing Grace: 25 Treasured Hymns (1997); Greatest Hymns (1997); How Great Thou Art (1998); The Best of Tennessee Ernie Ford (1998); Amazing Grace: 40 Treasured Hymns (1998); Sings from His Book of Favorite Hymns (2000); Country Music Hall of Fame: 1990 (2000); Best of Best Gospel (2000). Rosemary Clooney: Come on a My House (1997). Kay Starr: Greatest Hits (1948). Merle Travis: Unissued Radio Shows, 1944—1948 (1995). Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant: Flamin’ Guitars (1997). Various Artists: Great Records of the Decades: 40’s Hits Country, Vol. 1 (1990); Great Records of the Decades: 50’s Hits Country, Vol. 1 (1990); Christmas Ail-Time Greatest Records (1990); Golden Jukebox Favorites (1991); Best of Christmas (Capitol; 1991); Country Christmas Classics (Capitol; 1991); Smithsonian Collection of Country Music, Vol. 2 (1991); Legends of the West Coast (1996); Cliffie Stone’s Radio Transcriptions 1945–49.

—Richard Carlin

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