1919 – Balladeer Tennessee Ernie Ford is born This Day In Rock in Bristol, Tenn.
Ernest Jennings Ford (February 13, 1919 – October 17, 1991), better known as Tennessee Ernie Ford, was an American recording artist and television host who enjoyed success in the pop, country and Western and gospel musical genres.
Ford began his radio career as an announcer at WOPI-AM in Bristol, Tennessee. He left the station, in 1939 to pursue classical music and voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in Ohio. Ford served in World War II as the bombardier on a B-29 Superfortress flying missions over Japan. He was First Lieutenant. Ford worked at radio stations, after the war, in San Bernardino and Pasadena, California. Ford was hired as a radio announcer in San Bernardino. He hosted an early morning country music disc jockey program titled Bar Nothin’ Ranch Time. He created the personality of “Tennessee Ernie,” a wild, madcap exaggerated hillbilly. He became popular and was soon hired away by Pasadena’s KXLA radio.
In 1955, with his rendition of Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons” Ford scored an unexpected hit on the pop charts. The songs was a sparsely arranged coal-miner’s lament that Travis wrote in 1946, based on his own family’s experience in the mines of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. Its fatalistic tone contrasted vividly with the sugary pop ballads and the rock and roll just starting to dominate the charts at the time:
You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go;
I owe my soul to the company store…
“Sixteen Tons” became Ford’s ‘signature song’. It spent ten weeks at number one on the country charts and eight weeks at number one on the pop charts, and with its unique clarinet-driven pop arrangement by Ford’s musical director, Jack Fascinato, it made Ford a crossover star.
Over the years, Ford was awarded three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for records, radio and television. In 1984, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1990, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Offstage, both Ford and wife Betty grappled with serious alcohol problems; Betty had the problem since the 1950s. Though his drinking worsened in the 60’s, seemingly unaffected by his heavy intake of Cutty Sark whiskey, he worked continuously. However, by the 1970s, it had begun to take an increasing toll on his health and ability to sing. In 1989, after Betty’s substance abuse-related death, Ernie’s liver problems, diagnosed years earlier, became more apparent, but he refused to reduce his drinking despite repeated doctors’ warnings.
He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, in 1990. His last interview was taped by his old friend Dinah Shore for her TV show in September 1991. His physical deterioration by then was quite obvious.