Tennessee Ernie Ford – “Sixteen Tons”


Tennessee Ernie Ford was an American radio and television personality as well as recording artist. Ford would enjoy great success recording country, pop and gospel songs. He recorded and released singles that mostly became country hits, but his trademark song was “Sixteen Tons” in 1955. His popularity escalated when he was tapped to host The Ford Show, which ran from 1956 to 1961. He continued his illustrious radio hosting career. Ford, who was a lifelong alcoholic, died from liver failure in 1991.

Early life and radio hosting career

Singer and radio/television host Tennessee Ernie Ford was the pseudonym of Ernest Jennings Ford. Ford, who was noted for his bass-baritone voice, was born in Bristol, Tennessee on February 13, 1919; obviously, he got his professional name after the state.

It was also in Bristol, Tennessee, where Ford also eventually started his professional career as a radio announcer. In 1939 he left to study classical music and voice lessons at a Cincinnati, Ohio music school. He was sent to service in the US Air Force during World War II. After the war, Ford moved to Pasadena, California, where his radio career blossomed. He also conducted musical tours. In the midst of his flourishing radio hosting career, Ford added another milestone in his career by signing a recording contract from Capitol Records in 1949.

Flourishing recording career highlighted by “Sixteen Tons”

Ernie and Betty Ford

Ford’s first charting single was also in 1949, with “Anticipation Blues,” which charted at #3 on the country chart. . His first chart crossover hit also occurred in 1949. That hit was “Mule Train,” which, aside from becoming his first #1 country single, also made it to the Billboard top ten pop chart at #9.

Throughout the 1950s, Ford released country singles, most of them became certified country chart hits such as “The Cry of the Wild Goose” (#15 pop, #2 country), his self-penned song “The Shot Gun Boogie,” (#14 pop, #1 country), “Mr. and Mississippi” (#18 pop, #2 country), another top 10 pop hit “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” (#5 pop, #4 country) which also became his second UK hit (his first UK hit was “Give Me Your Word” which went to #1).

But Ford’s greatest pop hit came in 1955 with his rendition of Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons.” The song, whose authorship has been claimed by both Travis and George S. Davis, explores the laments of a coal miner. Ford’s dark bass-baritone delivery and the song’s bleak tone were a stark contrast to the usual vivid and cloying pop and rock and roll fare heard on the 1950’s radio.

“Sixteen Tons” went to #1 on Billboard’s both country and pop hit in 1955. The song also became popular in the United Kingdom, where it also went to #1 that same year. “Sixteen Tons” found Ford to be an unlikely pop star, and it had also become his signature tune.

Foray into television and gospel singing

Foray into television and gospel singing

Even with his biggest hit, Ford didn’t rest on his laurels yet, so to speak. He subsequently hosted his own television program The Ford Show, which wasn’t named after Ford himself but its sponsor, Ford automobiles. The show had a long run, from 1956 to 1961, and was notable for Ford’s inclusion of religious or gospel songs, which earned him praise. That led to his gospel recording career, starting with his album Hymns which enjoyed a long run on the Billboard 200 for 277 straight weeks. His other gospel album Great Gospel Songs won a Grammy Award in 1964. Ford also continued his illustrious radio hosting career.

Later life, and legacy

Despite his fame and success, his problems with excessive drinking affected his career and exacerbated his health. It was later becoming serious. His wife Betty was also an alcoholic; she died from alcohol-related abuse in 1989.

Moments after participating at a state dinner at the White House hosted by then-president George H. W. Bush, Ford suffered severe liver failure. He eventually died from his illness on October 17, 1991.

Ford has been honored with many awards and citations, including three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and induction into the Country Hall of Fame.

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