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Tennessee Ernie Ford

Ernest Jennings Ford (February 13, 1919 -October 17, 1991), better known by the stage name Tennessee Ernie Ford, was a pioneering U.S. recording artist and television host who enjoyed success in the country & western, pop, and gospel musical genres.

Born February 13, 1919 in Bristol, Tenn, Ford began his radio career as an announcer at station WOPI in Bristol, leaving in 1939 to study classical music and voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. After serving in World War II, Ford worked at radio stations in San Bernardino and Pasadena, Calif. before signing a recording contract with Capitol Records in 1949. He released almost 50 country singles through the early 1950s, several of which made the charts, and took over from bandleader Kay Kyser as host of the NBC quiz show "College of Musical Knowledge" when it returned briefly in 1954 after a four-year hiatus.

Ford scored an unexpected hit on the pop charts in 1955 with his rendition of Merle Travis' "Sixteen Tons," a sparsely arranged coal-miner's lament with bleak lyrics and a fatalistic tone that contrasted vividly with the sugary pop ballads and energetic proto-rock songs that dominated the charts at the time:

You load sixteen tons and what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store.

"Sixteen Tons" spent ten weeks at number one on the country charts and eight weeks at number one on the pop charts, and made Ford a crossover star. Ford subsequently helmed his own primetime variety program, "The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show," which ran on NBC from 1956 to 1961. In 1956 he released "Hymns," his first gospel album, which remained on Billboard's "Top Album" charts for a remarkable 277 consecutive weeks; his album "Great Gospel Songs" won a Grammy Award in 1964.

Over the years, Ford has been awarded three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for radio, records, and television. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990. Ford fell ill in 1991 after leaving a state dinner at the White House hosted by President George H. W. Bush, and died on October 17, exactly thirty-six years after "Sixteen Tons" was released and one day shy of the first anniversary of his induction into the Hall of Fame.

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