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Musician Tennessee Ernie Ford started his radio career in Bristol, Tennessee, but left in 1939 to study classical music and voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. After serving in World War II, he worked as a radio announcer in Pasadena, CA. He was soon offered a recording contact; his signature song became "Sixteen Tons." From 1956 to 1961, he hosted his own show, The Ford Show, on NBC.
Tennessee Ernie Ford was born Ernest Jennings Ford on February 13, 1919, in Bristol, Tennessee, to Maud Long and Clarence Thomas Ford. Ford began his radio career in Bristol, but left in 1939 to study classical music and voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. During World War II, 1st Lieutenant Ford was a bombardier flying missions over Japan. The war's end found Ford in San Bernardino and then Pasadena, California, where he worked as a radio announcer. While working an early morning country music show, he created the character of "Tennessee Ernie," a cartoonish hillbilly. As Tennessee Ernie, he recorded songs such as "The Bonnie Blue Flag."
When a talent scout from Capitol Records heard his shtick, Ford soon found himself with a recording contract. He continued his work in radio and television while his recording career blossomed. Ford's signature song became "Sixteen Tons," a song written and first recorded by country star Merle Travis. The Ford Show, hosted by Tennessee Ernie Ford ran from 1956 until 1961 on NBC. He earned the nickname "The Ol' Pea-Picker" because of his oft-used catch phrase, Bless your pea-pickin' heart!" Ford released his first gospel album, Hymns, in 1956.
Awards and Final Years
Ford was awarded three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; one for radio, one for records, and one for television. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990. Although he experienced success beyond his wildest dreams, Ford battled with an alcohol addiction and his health suffered as he grew older.
Tennessee Ernie Ford died on October 17, 1991, not long after having dinner at the White House with President George H.W. Bush.