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TENNESSEE ERNIE FORD, COUNTRY SINGER, DIES OF LIVER DISEASE AT 72

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Country singer Tennessee Ernie Ford, "the ol' pea picker" best known for his resounding version of "Sixteen Tons," died early Thursday of liver disease. He was 72.

Reston Hospital Center spokeswoman Claudia Smith said Ford died at 6:15 a.m. with his wife, Beverly, at his side.Ford had been in Washington to attend a White House dinner with President Bush when he was stricken by what his son, Bob "Buck" Ford called an "advanced stage of liver disease and dysfunction.

Ford had been on his way to Dulles International Airport Sept. 28 to catch a flight back to his home in Palo Alto, Calif., but was taken to the Reston Hospital Center, the closest hospital to the airport.

At one point, his son, Bob "Buck" Ford had described his father as being "awake, alert and improving."

Smith said Beverly Ford wanted to thank all the fans and well-wishers who had sent cards and letters during his hospital stay.

Ford, a native of Bristol, Tenn., had a folksy, self-deprecating manner and referred to himself as "the ol' pea picker" and "ol Ern."

The singers popular on television in 1956 were Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and Eddie Fisher - smooth balladeers.

Then along came Tennessee Ernie Ford in front of prime-time TV cameras twanging out a clutch of cornpone, down-home tunes heard only on the radio deep down south or once a week on "Grand Ol' Opry."

Ford first appeared on television during a live half-hour daytime show on NBC in 1955 and his corn-pone manner was quite a contrast to the slick stars of the time - Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Eddie Fisher. But viewer response was immediate that the good ol' boy from Tennessee was promoted to prime-time the next year.

"The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show," a variety, country music and comedy program, ran for two seasons on daytime television. In the fall of 1956, "The Ford Show" debuted as a weekly evening series and ran until 1965.

Ford was also a popular television guest, appearing on episodes of "I Love Lucy," "The Red Skelton Show," "Perry Como Show" and "George Gobel Show."

He was born Ernest J. Ford on Feb. 13, 1919.

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upi 10-17-91 09:56 aed