Tennessee Ernie Ford (February 13, 1919 – October 17, 1991) born Ernest Jennings Ford, was a TV host and country – gospel singer who gained national fame and popularity in the 1950s.
His early career in radio began after WWII in San Bernardino and Pasadena, California. It was there that he created the persona of `Tennessee Ernie’, a wild, tall-tale telling Hillbilly, on a morning show called the Bar Nothin' Ranch Time.
Ernie picked up the nickname, The Ol’ Pea-Picker from a `countrified’ expression he used on his radio show; “Bless your little ol’ pea-pickin heart’.
Ford was a mildly successful recording artist in the early 1950’s, recording singles such as "Shotgun Boogie" and "Blackberry Boogie”, and recorded a duet with Kay Starr in 1950 that charted well called “I'll Never Be Free.”
Ford made frequent radio appearances, and had his own syndicated Radio show The Tennessee Ernie Show and in 1954 briefly hosted the revived NBC quiz show Kollege of Musical Knowledge, which had formerly been bandleader Kay Kaiser’s radio and TV show.
But it was probably his portrayal of `Cousin Ernie’ on the I Love Lucy Show, that brought him to national attention. Here is a clip from that classic episode.
In 1955, Ernie would record “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier". Davy Crockett mania was sweeping the country due to the Disney retelling of those tales, and the record charted at #4 on the country charts.
It would be Sixteen Tons, however, that would assure his position as a singing star, and give him an unforgettable signature song. It would remain #1 on the pop chart for 2 months, and the country charts for 10 weeks.
Sixteen Tons established Ford as a `cross-over’ star, and paved the way for his television career.
In 1956, Ford released an album of religious hymns, and his career singing gospel music took off. His album stayed on the billboard charts for an astonishing 227 consecutive weeks.
In the late 1950s Ford hosted an NBC TV series called The Ford Show, named not after the host, but wryly named after the sponsor – Ford Automobiles. At Ernie’s insistence, the show always ended with a gospel song – something the network objected to, but which became one of the most popular segments of the show.
The Internet Archive has two half hour episodes from The Ford Show, one with guest star Charles Laughton, and the other with Molly Bee.
Tennessee Ernie Ford with Charles Laughton
The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show from 1959 with Charles Laughton as Guest
The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show 1960 Molly Bee
During the early-to-mid 1960s, Ford helmed a daytime talk show on the ABC network called The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show.
In 1967, Ernie would pay a return visit to Lucille Ball’s show, this time on her Lucy Show, more than 15 years after playing `Cousin Ernie’. That show is in the public domain as well.
Lucy Meets Tennessee Ernie Ford
The Lucy Show ep Lucy Meets Tennessee Ernie Ford
Ford’s career began to dwindle by the end of the 1960’s, although he continued to make personal appearances. Most of his recordings after 1970 were in the gospel arena.
Ford, who reportedly fought a long-term battle with alcohol, passed away in 1991 at the age of 72.