Born Ernest Eli Cornelison in Berea, Kentucky, Ernie got his start in radio in 1940 as a sub for Red Foley on the “Renfro Valley Barn Dance” radio show out of Cincinnati’s WLW. He spent over four years with the show and then moved on to WJR in Detroit. In 1947 he moved to Cincinnati and joined WLW as host of his own weekday afternoon show and did a special weekend show on Sundays that was picked up by the Mutual radio network. When television arrived, he also appeared each week as a star performer and emcee on WLWT-TV’s Saturday night “Midwestern Hayride” show.
By 1954, Ernie had begun to experience some health issues and his doctor urged him to move to a warmer climate. With the help of a friend, he landed a job in St. Petersburg at Tampa Bay’s first (and only) television station (at that time), WSUN-TV Channel 38 where, for the next four years, he hosted and co-hosted a handful of local TV shows and pulled an early morning shift on WSUN radio.
In 1958, Ernie moved to Tampa Bay’s new CBS affiliate, WTVT Channel 13, to host “Good Day,” an early-morning country music show that preceded the station’s broadcast of “Captain Kangaroo” from the network. Backing him in those days was a full band headed by friends Herb (fiddle) and Kay Adams (rhythm guitar), Bronson “Barefoot Brownie” Reynolds (standup bass), and Jerry Byrd on steel. In 1969, “Good Day” was re-named “Breakfast Beat” and featured co-host, WTVT farm editor Bruce Hutchcraft.
Although he never had a big hit record of his own, Ernie was a prolific songwriter and recorded numerous sides for the Mercury, MGM and RCA Victor labels. Viewers to his television shows often got the chance to hear some of those classic songs. His only album, “Ernie Lee’s BIG 13,” was released in 1965 and was a salute to his home base at Channel 13.
Ernie was an immensely popular radio and TV personality in Tampa Bay for over 35 years. He passed away at Palms of Pasadena Hospital in 1991 at the age of 75. But he’ll always be remembered for the way he ended each and every show: “Put on the coffee pot, Jeannie. I’m comin’ home honey.”
1954 - 1958 Other Tampa Bay Area Stations (On Air Personality)