Inducted 1994         

TENNESSEE ERNIE FORD 

(1919 – 1991)     

Ernest Jennings Ford was an entertainment star primarily in the 1950s to 1960s, scaling heights of acclaim in radio, recording and television.  

“Tennessee” Ernie Ford was a triple accomplishment entertainment star in the second half of the twentieth century, significantly impacting three mediums: radio, records and television. In the area records alone it is estimated that Ford has sold more than 400 million records worldwide–an astonishing number by any era’s standards. Even more astonishing…more than 40 million of that number represents the body of work he became best known for…gospel, hymns and spirituals.

Ernie Ford was born on February 13th, 1919 in Bristol, Tennessee. Growing up as a “country boy” during the time of radio’s exploding impact on America; especially rural life, Ford became fascinated by radio. Blessed with a rich bass-baritone voice perfect for radio, it was his early successes as a radio personality that led to his signing with Capitol Records in 1949, 

Prior to his entertainment career he served in WW II in the Army Air Corps as the bombardier on a B-29 Superfortress flying missions over Japan. 

Throughout his legendary career that spanned over 50 years, he released a total of eighty-three albums on the Capital label, and scores of single records, including his classic version of Merle Travis’ timeless anthem to the working man, Sixteen Tons…at the time of its release the fastest selling single in Capitol’s history. His first album of inspirational music, entitled simply, Hymns -released in 1956 – remained on Billboard magazine’s Top Pop Albums chart an unbelievable 277 consecutive weeks. In November of 1963 -seven years after its release- Hymns was recognized by the label’s Alan Livingston, as the highest-selling LP ever recorded by a Capitol artist. Hymns became the first religious music album of all-time to be certified gold. 

Catapulted to international fame on the strength of a string of top-ten singles, including Mule Train, and his unforgettable duet with Kay Starr, I’ll Never Be Free, Ernie quickly caught the attention of both Madison Avenue and television’s earliest movers and shakers, including Lucille Ball. Even today, years after his now-legendary 1954 national TV debut on the I Love Lucy show, cornpone-comedy character “Cousin Ernie” remains one of classic television’s most enduring characters. 

In September of 1955, Ford Motor Company announced it would be sponsoring its own prime-time variety show on NBC, and the search for a star to host the show began. One year later in October 1956, the result of that search aired coast-to-coast with the network’s broadcast premiere of The Ford Show Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford.

The Ford Show was prime-time’s # 1 half-hour variety show for five years and featured all the ingredients of the top variety shows of the day; Hollywood’s greatest guest stars, top-of-the-line production, and terrific music. But one simple element separated the show from all others…Ernie closed virtually every show with a hymn, a spiritual or a song of faith. For that time period, it was a bold and powerful statement for a popular entertainer of Ford’s stature to be making on live television, especially in the face of the initial objections from Madison Avenue and the network.

Such a statement of faith would become the trademark of his career, and in many ways, the mark of his life. It would earn him the distinction of almost single-handedly bringing inspirational and gospel music into the mainstream of American entertainment…an enduring legacy of the lasting impact that one man’s expression of faith can have on millions of people.

On October 17, 1991–36 years to the day after the release of Sixteen Tons – the world lost this legendary star. Tennessee Ernie Ford remains one of the most popular and beloved entertainers America and the world have ever known. His unprecedented achievements earned him numerous accolades, including: three stars in The Hollywood Walk of Fame–for Radio, Records and Television. His Great Gospel Songs LP with The Jordanaires was 1964’s Grammy winner for Best Inspirational Recording; the fourth Grammy to ever be awarded in that category. He was the first President of The Gospel Music Association, and the third recipient of The Minnie Pearl Award, for his lifetime of contributions to both country and popular music. In 1990 he was inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame 

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan presented Ernie Ford with The Presidential Medal of Freedom; the highest honor a sitting President can bestow upon a civilian on behalf of his country…an honor bearing a brief, eloquent citation on a single page which perhaps best describes this simple man from Tennessee and the enduring legacy he left to America and the world…

“…America is a nation richer in spirit because of Tennessee Ernie Ford”

Additional notes of interest:  

The word “Tennessee” was added to Ernie Ford’s name during the 1940s when several entertainment stars in Southern California added the state they hailed from to their show-biz names. This was done in order to forge an identity connection with the millions of “country people” who had come to California from the Dust Bowl exodus of the 1930s and that era. Tex Ritter, father of 1980s TV star John Ritter, was another Southern California entertainment personality who did the same.  

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Content and photo provided by TEF Enterprises, adapted/edited by GMA Hall Of Fame staff member Jon Robberson (Jan. 2021) 

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