Tennessee Ernie Ford 1919-1991

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Sunday 1st December 1991

Veteran country crooner Tennessee Ernie Ford dies aged 73.

A SEMINAL figure in the history of Country and Western and gospel music, Ernest Jennings Ford died on 17th October 1991, aged 73. Born in Bristol, Tennessee, Ford came from a strict church-going family and his musical roots were in gospel. He was also surrounded by Country and Western music and spent much of his youth hanging around the local radio station, WOPI. He was eventually hired, aged 18, as staff announcer at $10 a week. After serving in the air force during the war, he returned to announcing, working on radio stations in the LA. Area.

On small country station KXLA in Pasadena he worked on the show hosted by influential Western Swing band leader Cliffie Stone, which catered for Okie country fans, it was while working on the show that he invented the character that was to become his lifetime pay check. Tennessee Ernie was a hick creation with a thick hillbilly drawl and the deathless catchphrase "Howdy, pea-pickers!" When the show was taken out on the road Ford fleshed out the character by dressing in dungarees and blacking out his front teeth. Persuaded to step up to the mike, the shy country bumpkin would knock the audience dead with his rich baritone renditions of hillbilly favourites.

Signed by Capitol in 1948, Ford released a string of country hits throughout the 50s: "Mule Train", "Smokey Mountain Boogie", "Blackberry Boogie" and more. His career was given another boost when he met and teamed up with Merle Travis, who wrote his biggest-ever hit "Sixteen Tons". Released in October 1955, the song sold a million in less than three weeks, going on to achieve a staggering four million sales, topping the US charts for eight weeks and the British for four. With his own radio shows on ABC and CBC in the early 50s, Ford graduated to television in 1956 with his own night time TV show which served to increase his audience still further. Taking a year's sabbatical in 1961 to spend time with his family in Northern California, he returned to television in 1962 with a popular weekly show that ran until 1965.

Throughout his career, Ford remained true to his gospel roots, releasing around two dozen 'inspirational' albums ranging in style from the gospel of 'Swing Wide Your Golden Gate1, recorded with the Jordanaires, to country versions of well-known hymns and children's material. Among the best known of these are 'God Lives!', 'Near "Hie Cross' and 'Spirituals', all released on Capitol/Word.

To the wider audience he will be best remembered as a Pre-Elvis pioneer of boogie-woogie with his electric hillbilly bands of the early 1950s and as the first C&W artist to appear at the London Palladium. His fans ranged from the down-home Okie followers of his early radio shows to presidents and royalty. In 1974 he headlined a sold-out "Country Music, USA" tour of the Soviet Union and was welcomed home by then-President Ford. President Reagan awarded him a medallion in recognition of his musical achievements and in an earlier decade Queen Elizabeth was rumoured to be a fan of "Shotgun Boogie". CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.

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