Ernest Jennings Ford (February 13, 1919 – October 17, 1991), known professionally 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. Noted for his rich bass-baritone voice and down-home humor, he is remembered for his hit recordings of “The Shotgun Boogie” and “Sixteen Tons”.
Born in Bristol, Tennessee to Maud (née Long) and Clarence Thomas Ford, Ford began his radio career as an announcer at WOPI-AM in Bristol. In 1939, the young bass-baritone left the station to study classical singing at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in Ohio. As First Lieutenant, he served in the United States Army Air Corps in World War II as the bombardier on a B-29 Superfortress flying missions over Japan. He was also a bombing instructor at George Air Force Base, located in Victorville, California.
After the war, Ford worked at radio stations in San Bernardino and Pasadena, California. At KFXM in San Bernardino, Ford was hired as a radio announcer. He was assigned to host an early morning country music disc jockey program, Bar Nothin’ Ranch Time. To differentiate himself, he created the personality of “Tennessee Ernie”, a wild, madcap, exaggerated hillbilly. He became popular in the area and was soon hired away by Pasadena’s KXLA radio. He also did musical tours. The Mayfield Brothers of West Texas, including Smokey Mayfield, Thomas Edd Mayfield, and Herbert Mayfield, were among Ford’s warmup bands, having played for him in concerts in Amarillo and Lubbock, during the late 1940s.
At KXLA, Ford continued doing the same show and also joined the cast of Cliffie Stone’s popular live KXLA country show Dinner Bell Roundup as a vocalist while still doing the early morning broadcast. Cliffie Stone, a part-time talent scout for Capitol Records, brought him to the attention of the label. In 1949, while still doing his morning show, he signed a contract with Capitol. He became a local TV star as the star of Stone’s popular Southern California Hometown Jamboree show. RadiOzark produced 260 15-minute episodes of The Tennessee Ernie Show on transcription disks for national radio syndication.
He released almost 50 country singles through the early 1950s, several of which made the charts. Many of his early records, including “The Shotgun Boogie”, “Blackberry Boogie,” and so on were exciting, driving boogie-woogie records featuring accompaniment by the Hometown Jamboree band which included Jimmy Bryant on lead guitar and pioneer pedal steel guitarist Speedy West. “I’ll Never Be Free,” a duet pairing Ford with Capitol Records pop singer Kay Starr, became a huge country and pop crossover hit in 1950. A duet with Ella Mae Morse, False Hearted Girl was a top seller for the Capitol Country and Hillbilly division, and has been evaluated as an early tune.
Ford eventually ended his KXLA morning show and in the early 1950s, moved on from Hometown Jamboree. He took over from band-leader Kay Kyser as host of the TV version of NBC quiz show Kollege of Musical Knowledge when it returned briefly in 1954 after a four-year hiatus. He became a household name in the U.S. largely as a result of his hilarious portrayal in 1954 of the ‘country bumpkin,’ “Cousin Ernie” on three episodes of I Love Lucy. In 1955, Ford recorded “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier” (which reached number 4 on the country chart) with “Farewell to the Mountains” on side B.