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Tennessee Ernie Ford

The booming baritone voice of Tennessee Ernie Ford was best known for his 1955 cover of Merle Travis' grim coal-mining song "Sixteen Tons," watered down by the dulcet strains of a Hollywood studio orchestra but retaining its innate seriousness thanks to the sheer power of Ford's singing. But there was more to Tennessee Ernie Ford than that. Over his long career, Ford sang everything from proto-rock & roll to gospel, recorded over 100 albums, and earned numerous honors and awards, including the Medal of Freedom. A native of Bristol, TN, he began his career a DJ on local radio station WOAI. He sang in high-school choirs, and in the late '30s he left to study voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. He held radio jobs in Atlanta and Knoxville between 1939 and 1941 and then joined the U.S. Air Force during World War II. After the war, Ford moved his family to San Bernardino, CA, and took a DJ job on a local radio station. It was there that he first took on the name "Tennessee Ernie." Ford later moved to Pasadena's KXLA, where Los Angeles producer and media host Cliffie Stone heard his jocular "bless your little pea-pickin' hearts" routine and was impressed by his voice. Stone paved the way increasingly frequent appearances by Ford on Los Angeles radio and television. He was signed to Capitol Records in 1948. Five singles had been released by late 1949, including "Tennessee Border" and "Smokey Mountain Boogie" (both Top Ten) and his first number one single, "Mule Train." On both Western songs and boogie-flavored numbers that in their energy and sexual suggestiveness were really rock & roll in all but name, Ford's recordings featured the fabulous instrumental talents of Travis on guitar and Speedy West on pedal steel. Early in 1951, "Shotgun Boogie" became his second number one, spending 14 weeks at the top of the country charts. By the beginning of 1953, although Ford wasn't having as many hits, he remained popular in America and also in England. He became a television quizmaster in 1954, hosting NBC's Kollege of Musical Knowledge. He also had his own daily show and continued recording. Ford had two Top Ten country hits in 1955 with "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" and his biggest success, "Sixteen Tons," which spent ten weeks at number one on the country charts and eight weeks at number one on the pop charts. From 1956 to 1965 he was a prime-time network television host, making "Bless your little pea-pickin' hearts" a household catchphrase and providing powerful exposure for Ford's increasingly middle-of-the-road music. His voice was ideally suited to big arrangements of traditional hymns, and his first gospel album, Hymns (1956), became the first religious album to go gold. Ford's second gospel album, Great Gospel Songs, earned him a Grammy. In 1965, he had his last chart entry with the Top Ten single "Hicktown," but he continued to record gospel music; his large catalog of LPs on Capitol remained in print and sold well. Ford joined the ranks of the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990, a year before he died of liver failure. James Manheim

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