Wednesday, November 29, 2006

This Day In Music History: Tennessee Ernie Ford and Sixteen Tons

Ok this should have been put up earlier. I got my dates mixed up and thought that this song was #1 starting on November 29th of 1955. However, it started its run on November 26th of 1955. It was still the #1 song on this date and stayed there for an incredible 7 weeks. It is of course Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Mr. Ford had a popular television show in the 50’s and I am sure that helped sales. The previous sales record was held by Mitch Miller and the Yellow Rose of Texas. Sixteen Tons beat that record when it sold more then a million copies in 3 weeks and reached the top of the Billboard charts.
Mr. Ford was a country singer with a booming baritone voice. However, when he was acting on shows like I Love Lucy or any other shows of the day he would talk in a high pitched voice with a southern twang and called everybody cousin. This must have endeared him to his audience but there was a startling change when he started to sing. Out came this deep and powerful voice that could give Bing Crosby, Dean Martin other male singers of the 50’s a run for their money. You would see the same thing happen in the 1960’s with Jim Nabors.
Sixteen Tons was written by Merle Travis in 1947. He was recording his album Folk Songs of the Hills when his label asked him to include some songs about miners. When he could not find any he wrote some of his own. Sixteen Tons was one of those songs. Mr. Travis’ Dad worked as a coal miner in Kentucky. Everyday he would come home and say “another day older and deeper in debt.” He included that phrase in the chorus of the song.
Mr. Ford was so busy with his new TV show that he didn’t record new material for his record label. When they told him he had to record something for them to release he picked two songs that he sang on his show and went into the studio to record them. The songs he picked were “You Don’t Have To Be a Baby to Cry” and of course “Sixteen Tons.”
Ford got his start in show business as a country music DJ. He worked at KXLA in Pasadena and just for fun, when Ford had the time, he would rush over to his friend Cliffie Stone’s show. They would tell jokes and Ford would sing a hymn and then leave. He said “It was all for fun and didn’t pay a thing.” At least it didn’t when he started doing it. He became so popular on the show that they asked him to become a regular on their Saturday night show.
One morning while driving to work the A&R man for Capitol Records heard Ford singing along with a record on the air. Once he got to his office at Capitol he called up the station and asked to see Ernie right away. Later Tennessee Ernie Ford was signed to Capitol Records and began recording a string of hits for the label.
His biggest success in music was Sixteen Tons. He had continued success in television well into the 1960’s. Most of it in the 60’s was as a guest star on other peoples programs. He was the star of his own program in prime time for NBC from 1956 to 1961. In a strange twist of irony the program was called The Ford Show but it was not named for Tennessee Ernie Ford. It was named after the programs sponsor, Ford automobiles.

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