Thursday, April 4, 2013

Tennessee Ernie Ford--Sixteen Tons (1955)

     Ernest Ford was born in Bristol Tennessee in 1919 and grew up blessed with a rich baritone voice that was good enough for him to be accepted to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in 1939. World War II interrupted that education and on the end of the war found that his deep resonant voice was sought after by radio stations. He worked at a couple of stations on the west coast, and it was there he developed a hillbilly persona called, "Tennessee Ernie".
     He also would tour as a singer/personality with regional country artists of the day as far east as Texas. It was one of these tours that a talent scout from Capitol records signed him to a contract in 1949. That year he also became host of a syndicated radio show called, "Hometown Jamboree" which eventually was heard over all of Southern California.
     Over the course of the late 40's/early 50's, he had seventeen top 20 hits on the country charts with eight making it to the pop charts as well. It was a song made popular by Merle Travis that would propel him to superstardom.
     "Sixteen Tons" has been claimed to have been written by George S. Davis, a folk singer/songwriter and coal miner from Kentucky in the late 30's as, "nine-to-ten tons". It has generally been attributed however to Merle Travis (who's grew up in a coal mining family as well) who recorded it in 1946 as, "Sixteen Tons". It told the travails of a poor family who was caught in a system where the coal mining companies would literally own a town, so because of low wages, families would have to buy on credit to stores which were owned by the companies. This created a situation which amounted to indentured servitude where the men of the family would literally be trapped into finding a better job or better situation for them and their families.
     Ford's musical director, Jack Fascinato came up with a unique musical arraignment which was lead by a solo clarinet. That, with Ford's baritone, and finger snaps lent a somber feel in a musical world which at that time was full of upbeat, fluff tunes. It soared to number one on both the country and pop charts. It was his last country #1 and he never really had a big hit again. Some could point to the advent of rock and roll for this, but the real reason I believe was that his focus changed from selling records to television.
     He was host of his own television show from 1956 to 1961, and then with a local San Francisco show from 62-65. He remained a guest host on shows throughout the 60's and 70's was well as a spokesman for different companies (most notably the Pontiac Furniture Company). His ability to sing however was compromised many years by his increasing alcoholism and passed in 1991 of liver failure.

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