The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show

Anyone who was alive and breathing back in the "good ole days" of the fifties was aware of and a great fan of The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show. For those lucky enough to have a television, it was a weekly ritual to turn to this staple of family television. Everyone in the family would gather around the black and white television set and watch this favored entertainer and his guests perform the favorite songs of the day and yesteryear. Tennessee Ernie Ford got his start as a radio announcer and then progressed on to bigger things. He had a deep rich voice and could almost any song. My father, Frank Harrell, loved to watch his program and hear him sing. He never missed it. Everything got quiet and the kids were forbidden to run through the room and make noise while Tennessee Ernie was on. My dad was mesmerized when the program was on. One reason that he liked the show so much is that everyone told him that he looked like Tennessee Ernie. The only thing he lacked was that little black, well trimmed mustache Ernie wore. People were right. They looked an awful lot alike. Same height and build, black hair combed straight back, somewhat of a square jaw, broad smile and pearly teeth. He could have played Tennessee Ernie's double in any movie. The resemblance was immediately noticed and just about everyone saw it.

In high school, I did a lot of things. There was the Big Blue and White Band in which I played anything percussion but I was known as the bass drummer in the marching band. Then, I was a part of the Thespians, the acting group and played in a number of productions. I was also a member of the Tifton High School Glee Club under the direction of Mrs. Andrews. I had been a member of her glee clubs since the second grade and loved it. The student body elected me as Most Versatile. Back then we had the "Superlatives." Those were the Senior students who had stood out in some way and the student body elected them. It was an honor to be a Superlative. Most Versatile was the designation for a person who had been involved in a number of things and was noted for it. So, I was honored with Most Versatile. In addition to those other things, I was also on WTIF radio many nights and at various other times including the afternoon hours. That exposure also helped me gain the Superlative title of "Most Versatile."

I think it was in my Junior year that Mrs. Andrews came to me and said that our Spring Concert was going to be a take-off of the Tennessee Ernie Ford Show and that she wanted me to play the part of Tennessee Ernie Ford. Since my dad looked so much like him and since my resemblance to my dad was so close, she thought that I would sort of look like him on the stage. I also had a good singing voice in those days and she wanted me to sing three or four songs that Tennessee Ernie had made famous. I approached this project with great trepidation but I also thought it would be fun. So, we began to practice the routine and before long, it was second nature to me and the others in the Glee Club. Mrs. Andrews wanted me to sing "Sixteen Tons", "Old Man River" as well as a couple of other songs. As things rocked along and we got closer and closer to the performance date, I became more comfortable with the whole affair.

Now, in Tifton, there just ain't much to do. At the time only about seven thousand people lived there. The annual Spring Concert as well as the Christmas Concert were all well attended. Tickets were sold and there was never an empty seat in the school assembly hall. The date for the concert came as a huge crowd was there. The program was set up to look the Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, announcer and all. Then, the moment came for me to appear as Tennessee Ernie. The crowd just howled when I came out. I took the stool as he always did; cracked some jokes in order to bring the crowd into the whole thing and then I sang my songs. Old Man River was first...."Colored folks works on the Mississippi....Colored folks works while the white folks play....pulling them ropes from dawn to sunset....gettin' no rest 'til the judgment day. Quite frankly, I was surprised as to how well I did the song. Tennessee Ernie would have been proud. Then I progressed to the other songs with some light humor thrown between them. It turned out great. The people loved it, and I was glad it was over. I had bad dreams about forgetting words. Many, many years later at our 50th high school reunion, I was asked if I would do the Tennessee Ernie thing again and sing "Sixteen Tons". I respectfully declined because my singing voice has suffered damage over the years of preaching. It wouldn't have been good. Probably would have sounded like a "dying calf in a hail storm." But I was honored to be asked and I was shocked that my classmates remembered the program at all. For weeks, the townspeople talked about the show and how much I resembled Tennessee Ernie Ford. They said, "your dad looks like him and you resemble your dad so much, you were the perfect one for the part. It was all in fun and I will never forget the night we presented "The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show."


William F. Harrell
12-11-2015

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