Lost Treasures: ‘Tennessee’ Ernie Ford – “Catfish Boogie”

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From 1953, this week’s Lost Treasure is on Capitol Records.  Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Catfish Boogie” is the B-side of his hit “Kiss Me Big”  & owes as much to swing jazz, early ‘jump style’ R&B & Louis Jordan as it does to Bob Wills’ unique brand of country music called ‘western swing’. Before Ernest Jennings Ford began his prolific recording career starting in 1949, his initial brush with entertainment was as a radio DJ.  

He began on air at WOPI Bristol TN before studying classical music singing in college, then served in the US Army air corps during WWII.  After the war he was on air at San Bernardino’s KFXM playing country music & that’s when he adopted the persona of ‘Tennessee Ernie’.  From there he moved to Pasadena’s KXLA as morning host & began performing around L.A. On that station he collaborated with Cliffie Stone, a country bandleader & part-time talent scout for Capitol Records.  He signed with the label & also embarked on his first of many TV shows as host.  A locally produced TV show with Cliffie Stone led to a syndicated radio show for Ernie which was recorded onto transcription discs for national airplay. Cliffie Stone’s band back Tennessee Ernie on “Catfish Boogie”.

He released at least 50 records in the early 1950’s most of which got airplay on country radio & also placed him onto national charts.  After hosting his first national TV show for NBC – a quiz show, he garnered national fame with guest appearances on the “I Love Lucy” sitcom on CBS-TV.  The peak of his career came in 1955 covering Merle Travis’ 1946 ballad “Sixteen Tons” which charted world-wide on both the country & top 40 pop surveys.  In 1956, Tennessee Ernie began his popular daytime NBC TV show but ran into opposition with the network’s producers 7 programming staff by insisting on including a gospel song on each program.  The daily hymn was so popular with audiences, the network backed off & allowed the star to continue this feature.  The show switched to ABC-TV in 1962.

Ernie Ford continued his prolific recording career balancing country singles & albums with gospel recordings which sold equally well.  By 1975 his ability to chart hits had dried up & he was released by Capitol that year.  Having served in the Army Air Corps in WWII, he got involved with war plane preservation & air shows, mostly in Texas.  Over the years, Ford was awarded three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for radio, records & TV. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990.  Ernie Ford’s private life wasn’t so successful.  He & his wife Betty had struggled with serious alcoholism problems since the 1950’s.  Though his drinking began to worsen in the 60’s, he worked continuously, seemingly unaffected by his heavy intake of whiskey. By the 1970’s, however, it had begun to take an increasing toll on his health, appearance and ability to sing, though his problems were not known publicly. After Betty’s substance abuse-related death in 1989, Ernie’s liver problems, diagnosed years earlier, became more apparent, but he refused to reduce his drinking despite repeated doctors’ warnings.  His final TV appearance was in 1991 on Dinah Shore’s program.  After his wife passed, he re-married but by then liver problems were plaguing his health.  He died October 1991 in Reston VA after suffering severe liver failure.  With a warm, sunny weekend here in the Pacific Northwest, we hope you are all doing well & able to get outside & enjoy the weather.  From Puget Sound Media enjoy this slice of hillbilly boogie from the great Tennessee Ernie Ford!

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Mike Cherry

Author: Mike Cherry

retired broadcaster: on-air, MD, PD, asst PD, Prod Mgr, IT, station technician/engineer, pioneer Internet webcaster, station installation/maintenance; 12 years in commercial radio, 17 years volunteer in campus/community radio in B.C., Alberta & Wash. Amateur radio operator & "DXer" specializing in AM night-time DX, short-wave DX/listening & remote SDR DXing/listening

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