Ford, Tennessee Ernie
Tennessee Ernie Ford
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 Cuffie 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.
Full name Ernest Jennings Ford; born February 13, 1919, in Bristol, Tenn. ; son of Clarence T. (a postal worker) and Maude Ford; married Betty J. Heminger, September 18, 1942; children: Jeffrey Bucknew, Brion. Education: Attended Virginia Intermount College, 1937–39, and Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, 1939.
Radio announcer at WOPI, Bristol, Tenn., 1937–39; announcer and disc jockey at WATL, Atlanta, Ga., 1939–41; beginning in 1945 was announcer, singer, and disc jockey at radio stations in San Bernardino, Calif., Reno, Nev., and Pasadena, Calif. In 1949 became featured soloist on “Hometown Jamboree,” a country-music variety program heard over radio in El Monte, Calif. Signed with Capitol Records, 1948, had first hit (with Kay Starr), “I’ll Never Be Free,” 1950. Had first million-selling hit, “Sixteen Tons,” 1956.
Star of network radio programs, 1952–53; appeared on NBC television show “The College of Musical Knowledge,” 1953; starred in a daily daytime variety show for NBC, 1955. Star of “The Ford Show” on NBC-TV, 1956–61, and a daily show on ABC-TV, 1962–65. Has made numerous tours in the United States and Europe and performed in the Soviet Union.
Military service: United States Air Corps, 1941–45, served as bombardier and instructor, promoted to lieutenant.
Addresses: Home— 255 Mathache Dr., Portola Valley, Calif. 94025.
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 Home has called Ford “an original—in thought, word, and deed,” whose talent is “the kind … you can’t weigh in gold.”
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.
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.
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.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
Malone, Bill C, Country Music U.S.A., revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1985.
Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
Stambler, Irwin and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1969.
Coronet, August, 1956.
New York Times, October 6, 1956.
Saturday Evening Post, September 28, 1957.
World-Telegram and Sun, September 27, 1957.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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