Whoever it was that thought it would be a good idea to take a hugely popular country-folk song about a Kentucky coal miner from 1955 and a decade later re-work it into a groovy dance tune, complete with go-go dancers and trademark finger snaps, well, bless their pea-pickin’ heart.
Songwriter and guitar great Merle Travis wrote and recorded “Sixteen Tons” in 1946, but the definitive version came nine years later, when country-gospel singer (and sometime actor) Tennessee Ernie Ford topped the country chart for 10 weeks with his rendition. The tune, which reportedly sold more than a million copies in just three weeks, crossed over to the pop chart as well, logging eight weeks at Number One. A frequent guest – and guest host – on a number of variety shows and specials throughout his long career, Ford also played sweet-natured but simple “Cousin Ernie” on I Love Lucy the same year he had his legendary hit and went on to host his own variety series.
By the mid-Sixties, variety programs such as the Ed Sullivan Show and Hollywood Palace were still going strong, and it’s on the latter that Ford appeared, on May 22nd, 1965, to give his classic hit a swingin’ reboot. “The other day, I went across the street to the recording studio,” he says in his introduction. “I dug up an old dead dog and tried to teach him a few new tricks.”
Flanked by eight female dancers in white skirts all doing the latest dance moves (anyone remember “the Swim”?), Ford is dressed in tuxedo and black tie as he sings the tune in his trademark baritone. Since he’s turned it into a zippy dance number, he speeds up the tempo and adds a bit of a hip swivel to his finger snaps, letting the ladies handle all the complicated dance steps.
Ford, nicknamed the “Old Pea Picker” for his familiar catchphrase, may have been the first to reinvent his signature hit but he certainly wasn’t the last. Since 1955, the song has been covered by Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, LeAnn Rimes, Robbie Williams and ZZ Top, among dozens of others.
Tennessee Ernie Ford would go on to have just one more Top Ten single with “Hicktown” (not to be confused with Jason Aldean’s debut hit). He continued to perform for the next two decades and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990. He died a year minus one day after that event, on October 17th, 1991. “Sixteen Tons” was elected into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
Ford’s early career is lovingly detailed in the recently released retrospective Tennessee Ernie Ford: Portrait of an American Singer. The five-CD box set from Bear Family Records spans 154 tracks of music and includes a 124-page hardcover book and is available now.