20 November 1955
A 15-MINUTE R&B SEGMENT WAS PLANNED FOR ED SULLIVAN'S PRIME-TIME TV SHOW: LaVern Baker, The Five Keys, Bo Diddley along with sax player Willis ‘Gator Tail’ Jackson were roped in to represent the new face of black music. The story goes that Bo Diddley was heard running through a song called Sixteen Tons. Ed Sullivan was apparently so impressed that Bo was persuaded to perform it. But at show- time, the man known as The Originator played his signature own-name song instead. Bo said the misunderstanding was accidental, adding: “Ed Sullivan said I was one of the first coloured boys to cross him and I wouldn’t last six months.”
It’s not as if he disliked the song – he’d record it for 1960’s Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger album. But he had no chance of recording the definitive version because Tennessee Ernie Ford had made it his own. On November 12, 1955, Ford’s Capitol single entered the US charts for the first time. Within a few days it had soared to Number 1. The fastest-selling single ever at that point, Sixteen Tons stayed in the prime spot for eight straight weeks and sold over four million copies.
Sixteen Tons had been penned in 1947 by country star Merle Travis for a 78rpm album of mining and work songs called Folk Songs Of The Hills. Travis’s father was a Kentucky coal miner who constantly reminded the family that he was “another day older and deeper in debt”, a saying that became an integral part of the song’s lyric.
“He was known as ‘the little old pea-picker’.”
A DJ who served as a bombardier in the war years, Tennessee Ernie Ford signed to Capitol as a recording artist in 1948 and had a country Number 1 in Mule Train the following year. A major crossover artist, he became a roots of rock contender through such records as Smokey Mountain Boogie (1949), Shotgun Boogie (1950) and Blackberry Boogie (1952). He even edged into the blues with I’ll Never Be Free and Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own, two duets with jazz singer Kay Starr played a lot on jukeboxes. A one-time regular on bandleader Cliffie Stone’s popular Saturday night show, he recalled that he got involved in the programme, “just for the heck of it. It was all for fun and I didn’t get paid a thing.”
People liked his voice, though, and he quickly gained a reputation as a singer who, while categorised under ‘country’, could handle just about anything that Capitol’s A&R team tossed his way. Known as the “little old peapicker” and presenting a homespun image, he became something of a TV personality, fronting his own daily show on NBC. Hauled into the studios to record a new single for Capitol, Ford was told he’d be “in breach of contract if I didn’t record soon”. Taking what he saw as the easy option, he decided to reprise You Don’t Have To Be A Baby To Cry and Sixteen Tons, songs he’d recently performed on his TV show.
A Monster Hit
Running through a rehearsal on the latter, Ford began snapping his fingers to set the tempo. Producer Lee Gillette liked the effect, suspecting that the finger-click might help sell the record. He was right. Sixteen Tons sold over one million copies in three weeks, creating the monster hit that caused Billboard to announce, on November 26: “Capitol is happily experiencing an unprecedented breakdown in its release schedule. Due to pressure on its plants to keep up with orders on the Ford disc the company will skip releases for the next three weeks.”
But for Ford, life in the pop charts was brief, though he delivered country chart entries through to the late ’70s, and turned increasingly to gospel music in his later years. Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990, he died from whiskey-induced liver failure a year later.
Tennessee Ernie may be long gone, but Sixteen Tons’ legacy lives on in recordings by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Eric Burdon, Stevie Wonder, Tom Jones, Charlie Daniels, Leon Russell, Johnnie Taylor, The Platters and many others. And in 1980 The Clash set out on an extensive trek dubbed the Sixteen Tons Tour. The band referenced the famed work song, they said, because the lyric echoed the then assets-frozen band’s own financial position – “another day older and deeper in debt”. Some sentiments, they just don’t age.