by Bruce Sylvester
October 17 marks the 60th anniversary of the release of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s classic “Sixteen Tons.” Commemorating the event, Bear Family Records in Germany has released a deluxe five-CD, chronologically sequenced 154-track box, Tennessee Ernie Ford: Portrait of an American Singer, spanning 1949 to 1960. Its accompanying 174-page hardbound book includes biography, sessionography and photos galore. Except for his three high-selling gospel albums (which are already on CD), we find his entire studio output – from country boogie to pop – over the 12-year period (including Christmas novelties and children’s songs) plus Toys for Tots public service announcements.
The box relates “Sixteen Tons”’ evolution. By 1955, Ford – a devoted family man — was unhappy that his thriving career kept him away from wife and two boys, and he’d been so long absent from the recording studio that Capitol Records threatened him with a breach-of-contract suit if he didn’t hustle up a platter. After years of his country boogies arranged by Cliffie Stone, Capitol wanted to move him a new direction so it cannily teamed him with arranger Jack Fascinato (who’d previously gone from playing piano on Kukla, Fran & Ollie to being its conductor). Perhaps the idea was to add sophistication to his backups so he could better use his training as a classical singer. On Sept. 20, at their first session together, Ford laid down only two songs: a cover of Ernest Tubb’s 1950 country hit “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry” and a cover of “Sixteen Tons,” a coal-mining song Merle Travis had penned for his 1947 album Folk Songs of the Hills. The rest is history.
Ford (1919-91) began his recording career with humorous country songs such as “I’ve Got the Milk ‘Em in the Morning Blues” (about cows), “Smokey Mountain Boogie” and (in response to fatherhood) “Anticipation Blues” and “I’ve Got the Feed ‘Em in the Mornin’ (Change ‘Em) Feed ‘Em in the Evening Blues.” “Shot Gun Boogie” (1950) clearly presages rock and roll. Led by Cliffie Stone, his early sessions benefited from an all-star lineup of Capitol studio musicians like steel guitarist Speedy West and guitarists Travis, Jimmy Bryant and Billy Strange. Hs earliest singles simply listed him as “Tennessee Ernie.”
His label mate Wanda Jackson once told me in a Goldmine interview that her producer, Ken Nelson, pointed out that if she smiled while recording a song, listeners would sense it. Congenial Ford doesn’t seem to have worked with Nelson, but his deliveries make it easy to imagine him using the smile technique.
Two trends in 1940s-50s recordings are clear: pairing male and female singers for duets, and various competing record labels giving their acts the same hit song in hopes of cashing in its popularity. Ford’s partners included Kay Starr, Betty Hutton, Helen O’Connell, Ella Mae Morse and teenaged Molly Bee. The earliest duet session (with Starr on June 28, 1950) yielded a two-sided hit, “I’ll Never Be Free”/”Ain’t Nobody’s Business but My Own.” The box’s book quotes Ford’s son Buck: “Stepping into the studio with Kay gave Dad a pop music cred that had eluded him up to that point.” Hutton’s brassiness on “This Must Be the Place!” brings to mind Bob Hope’s World War II-era joke, “If they put a propeller on Hutton and sent her over Germany, the war would be over by Christmas.” Dreamy “Streamline Cannonball” is among the gems from a four-song 1951 session with the Dinning Sisters, whose kid brother Mark became a one-hit wonder with 1960 weepie “Teen Angel.” (This being a Bear Family box, the thorough notes point out that a non-sister was by then in the Dinning Sisters.)
Fond domestic feuding was a frequent theme in the duets. One of O’Connell’s lines on ’51’s “Cool Cool Kisses” may horrify feminists now. Amid the loving mayhem of ’52’s rock predecessor “I’m Hog Tied over You,” he and Morse seem like forerunners of Gilda Radner’s character Lisa Loopner and Bill Murray’s Todd DiLaMuca on Saturday Night Live.
As for the numerous competing versions of songs, Ford shone on “Mule Train” and “Cry of the Wild Goose,” but it was Frankie Laine’s versions that rode the pop charts. It took “Sixteen Tons” for Ford to top Laine, whose “Tons” was released in Britain but not stateside. While Marilyn Monroe sang the theme from her film River of No Return in a quiet, wistful, characteristically breathy style, Ford gave it his full vocal power. When Walt Disney set off a Davy Crockett craze among kids in 1955, Ford, Bill Hayes (on Cadence) and the show’s star Fess Parker (on Columbia) all backed “Ballad of Davy Crockett” with “Farewell,” and each made Billboard’s top ten. The Ford box also boasts narrations of Crockett tall tales.
Tony Bennett has cited 1957’s “In the Middle of an Island” as an example of mediocre songs Columbia Records forced on him. His version (a number 9 hit in Billboard) topped Ford’s (a number 23), though Ford sings lines that Tony deleted. It was Ford’s final pop top 40 single. Years after the fact, its flip side “Ivy League” (a comic commentary on hip men’s fashions of the period) seems like the better song.
Meanwhile, as we hear on the box, he and Fascinato were presaging the ’60s folk revival with two outstanding LPs (The Lusty Land! followed by Ol’ Rockin’ Ern) concentrating on traditional ballads. “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” in particular shows the operatic training that preceded his pop and country careers. (Readers who want to know more about his folkie element can check my coverage of the box at www.singout.org, the online version of Sing Out! magazine.)
With all his success from gospel LPs, concert appearances and TV’s Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, he didn’t need any more hit singles. “Sixteen Tons” gave him a permanent place of honor in pop music’s history. This near-sixteen-ton box mines years of gold in the rest of his catalog.