After years as a successful radio DJ in California and a semi-successful country and boogie-woogie singer, by 1955 Ford’s main claim to fame lay in the new-fangled medium of television, where he was a popular host and comedic actor. But he still had a singing career and when TV obligations took precedence he fell behind in his musical commitments. Capitol Records demanded product — specifically, the two sides to his next single which they wanted on jukeboxes yesterday. The number crunchers threatened with lawsuits and contract termination, so Ford hied himself to the studio.
It was common practice at the time for music publishers to compile books of songs for producers and artists to comb through for material since few singers penned their own tunes. Ford turned the pages of a Merle Travis collection and chose to record a song he had previously performed called “Sixteen Tons” which Travis had written about his coal mining father back in Kentucky. During rehearsals, Ford snapped his fingers to set the tempo. His producer liked the sound so much he decided to keep it in the mix. (Sometimes the smallest of brushstrokes can make the masterpiece.)
“Sixteen Tons” wasn’t a novelty song, but it was novel, one of the best possible qualities for a pop song. With its sparse arrangement of clarinet and finger snaps plus a quietly jazzy rhythm section topped by Ford’s rich baritone, it’s no surprise that “Sixteen Tons” was the fastest-selling single in history upon its release in late 1955, selling a million copies in just three weeks. And it was only the B-side. The A-side that Capitol was all fired up about? It only made it as high as #78.
“Sixteen Tons” proved to be the peak of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s pop career but his popularity continued with country and gospel audiences into the 70s.
So grab your pickaxe and your canary. It’s time to get down and dirty.