b. Ernest Eli Cornelison, 12 April 1916, Berea, Kentucky, USA, d. 23 May 1991. His father was the jailer at Madison County jail and Lee was taught to play guitar by one of the convicts. He completed high school in 1934 and began to play local venues on a part-time basis, while maintaining a day-time job, until 1940. John Lair, the producer ofRenfro Valley Barn Dance, heard him singing and when Red Foley (who also came from Berea) was unable to present a show, Lee, who was in the audience, was chosen to deputise. Lair was impressed and changing his name to Ernie Lee, he linked him with steel guitarist Jerry Byrd and gave them a regular spot on the programme as the Happy Valley Boys. They recorded eight sides for RCA Bluebird and stayed in Renfro Valley for four years. In 1944, they relocated to WJR Detroit, a more powerful station, and spent two years on the popularGoodwill Frolic Gang. In 1947, the duo split when Lee moved to WLW Cincinnati, where he appeared on several shows but most notably as a singer and compère of the station’s notedMidwestern Hayride. He also worked on a series of networked programmes with Judy Perkins, Louis Innis and the Turner Brothers for the Mutual Broadcasting System. In 1951/2, when NBC networked theHayride show, Lee was always a very popular performer. Between 1947 and 1950, he recorded for RCA Bluebird as Ernie Lee And His Midwesterners, gaining local success with such numbers as ‘Headin’ Home To Old Kentucky’ and ‘Hominy Grits’. In 1950, he recorded for Mercury Records being joined on some recordings by Byrd and the Turner Brothers. One Mercury single ‘One Little Candle’, even gained later release on the German Austroton label. In 1951, he made recordings for MGM Records. Lee was a keen angler and always wanted to live in Florida, where he could pursue this sport and enjoy the warm climate. When in 1954, he was offered a daily radio and television show on WSUN St. Peterburg, he relocated to that State. In 1958, he moved to WTVT Tampa. For over 30 years, he became the major country music figure in Florida. He invited acts from theHayride days to appear with him, played venues all over the State and was always the expected headline act at the annual State Fair. In 1961, he recorded an album on his own label for sale at his shows. In 1965 and 1979, he suffered serious health problems but recovered each time sufficiently to continue performing until 23 May 1991, when he died following a stroke. He left a widow, Jean and three sons, Gordon, Sam and Stephen. Lee was a talented performer who avoided the problems encountered by many of his contemporaries. He was unfortunate to never find the one record that would have started to turn his local into national success. He sang as well, arguably better, than Foley and possessed an equal ability to host radio and television shows but somehow national stardom sadly eluded him. In 1997, a compilation of 20 of his Bluebird, Mercury and MGM recordings were issued on CD by a German label.
Share this page