Tennessee Ernie Ford: 16 Tons of Backstory

Let's go back to the early days of TV, and the dawning of the Golden Era of Rock, with the emergence of ELVIS. There was a singer, on the black and white 17" screen named TENNESSEE ERNIE FORD (born Ernest Jennings Ford), kind of a country gentleman type who had a weekly variety show. He also was a recording artist and quite big in the country field.

 

Enter my connection: One of the first shows I was ever backstage at was a Johhny Cash Review, and one of the other performers was a great guitarist named, MERLE TRAVIS. After the show I was invited over to the hotel where the artists pumped a case of Budweiser and did a little sing along. Merle told the story of writing his huge hit song, 16 TONS. The song was a lament about the hard times his family had working in the mines back in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.

 

Merle had released a record of the tune a few years back and it didn't do well, it was kind of a downer. So along comes Ernie who adapts it to his style with snapping fingers and a clarinet-pop arrangement that caught the Public's fancy. One of the biggest selling novelty songs of all time, 16 Tons went on to spend 10 weeks at #1 on the Country Chart, and 7 weeks at the top of the Pop Chart, and sold more than 20 Million discs in 1955!

 

Making Tennessee Ernie Ford a cross-over star and earning a Solid Gold Record for his wall. The coal miners lament became Mr. Ford's signature song, and set the bench mark for his friend Jimmy Dean's hit, BIG JOHN in 1961. Here's Ernie on Diana Shore's TV Show singing it in a film clip with shaky picture but good sound. @therealdonrocks

 

A version of this post originally appeared on The Don Rocks Facebook page. For more stories like these every day, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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