Cliffie Stone Equestrian Trail
Tennessee Ernie Ford, Cliffie Stone and Merle Travis: This threesome’s friendship and musical relationship would intertwine them forever in Country Music history. (Merle Travis was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977, Cliffie Stone in 1989 and Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1990.) Cliffie discovered Ernie and he put the spotlight on both Ernie and Merle when they were cast members of his “Hometown Jamboree” TV show. When Ernie recorded “16 Tons,” it became a worldwide hit nine years after Merle first wrote and recorded it in his 1946 “Folk Songs From The Hills” album, which Cliffie produced at the request of Capitol’s president, Alan Livingston. Two major scenarios led up to Ernie’s recording of ’16 Tons.’ The first scenario was the recording of Merle’s ‘Folk Songs From The Hills.’ In Cliffie’s own words, here are edited excerpts from his book, “Everything About Songwriting…,” Chapter 21 – ‘The True Story of ’16 Tons.’ “…When anyone enjoys super success – and this includes a worldwide hit song – myths and legends develop and the story of ‘how they came to be' are told as each individual remembers it. So sit back and relax while I step back into yesterday to re-live all the relevant events encompassing the true success story of ’16 Tons’ as I remember them. In August of 1946, I produced an album called ‘Folk Songs of the Hills’ with Merle Travis, at the request of Capitol Records’ president, Alan Livingston. At that time, I was not only in charge of the Country Music Division for Capitol, I produced records as well. I’ll never forget the day when Alan called me into his office and said, ‘Cliffie, there’s an artist who sings folk songs over at Decca Records called Burl Ives, and he’s selling a lot of records. Since we don’t have a folk singer, maybe we should find one for ourselves.’ I proceeded to tell Alan about a friend of mine, Merle Travis, who was a cast member of my band and who worked with me on my radio shows and who I thought was in the folk-singer bag. Alan gave me the go-ahead to record him at $50 dollars a song. Merle would get $400 dollars for 8 songs for that album. In those days, that wasn’t a bad deal. The song publishing aspect was taken care of because Merle was signed as a staff writer to American Music. I called Merle and told him about the deal offered by Capitol Records. I remember him calmly saying, ‘When did you want to record?’ I told him as soon as possible because this guy, Burl Ives, was selling records like hot cakes and we needed to get in on the folk market action. Merle said, ‘How about tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Have you got the songs?’ He said, ‘No, but I’ll have 8 songs by 10 a.m.’ I held my breath as I said okay, but I prayed that we could pull this album off in such a short period of time. The next morning, I went to Radio Recorder’s Studio and soon Merle showed up sleepy-eyed with all his songs fresh out of his heart and mind. The engineer, John Palladino, and myself were in the control room. Merle was in the studio with only two microphones – one for his voice and one for his guitar. I can still visualize him sitting there with his guitar in hand, and singing his heart out about his early childhood in Kentucky where his daddy was a coal miner. The songs spoke about the hard times and lives of coal miners: songs like ‘John Henry,’ ‘9 Pound Hammer,’ ‘Dark as a Dungeon,’ ‘I am a Pilgrim’ and, of course, the classic ’16 Tons’ (all of which would eventually become hits in later years). We finished recording all 8 songs in about 4 hours. I thought the album turned out great! Merle played his usual wonderful guitar stuff on it. Capitol released the album but it didn’t sell well. I’ve always been very proud of this album project which I produced with my dear friend, Merle Travis. Recently, Rhino Records released a CD with the original song track by Merle Travis with many of the aforementioned songs. As I listened to it the other day, I became overwhelmed with wonderful memories and the natural songwriting genius of Merle! Isn’t it amazing – the album was not a success at that time. If anyone had told me in 1946 that 45 years later, many of those same songs would be released again as a “classic album,” I would not have believed them! To continue on with the story of ‘16 Tons,’ nothing much happened with Merle’s album, but a lot was happening with me! I switched hats; I left Capitol as a producer and signed with them as an artist myself.” The second scenario occurred 9 years later. Cliffie had made a major decision to give up his career to become Tennessee Ernie’s manager (20 years). Edited excerpts from Chapter 21 in Cliffie’s book: “In January of 1955, Ernie started his daily, five-days-a-week, live NBC-TV show. We did about five songs per show. As we considered new songs in our music meetings, Ernie came up with the idea of doing ’16 Tons,” which he had heard when he and Merle Travis were on my radio and TV shows working side by side. So our music director/arranger, Jack Fascinato, create a very simple arrangement; Ernie performed it on his show and we got tons of letters from viewers which I saved. When our TV show took its summer hiatus, I traveled with Ernie when he performed at large fairs and his song repertoire included ’16 Tons’ (which got the same emotional response it had gotten from his daily TV show viewers). During this time frame, Ernie also had a recording contract with Capitol Records. Because of our hectic TV schedule, Ernie was overdue in getting another single released. Ernie’s producer, Lee Gillette, started to call us about recording. (Before going any further, I’d like to say something about Lee Gillette: Lee was my musical mentor who gave me my start, helped me along the way and influenced me more than any other person in the music business. He taught me to believe and to go with my innermost instincts about music.)  Lee and I made a date for Ernie to record two sides. At this point in time, Ernie was not a major star yet, but he was rapidly on his way and getting the right song for him was important. After discussing song material, Lee decided the A side should be a country cover tune, “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry.” Now we needed a song for the B side. It was then that I remembered the letters we had received when Ernie sang ’16 Tons’ on his daily TV show, which I had saved. So I took them in a big cardboard box to Lee’s office on the 12th floor of Capitol Records and dropped them alongside his desk. He looked up at me with such a surprised look on his face and I remember saying, “Lee, here are 1,200 letters that we received when Ernie sang ’16 Tons’ on his TV show a few months ago. I think we ought to record it for the B side.” Without a moment’s hesitation, Lee said, “Let’s do it!” The week that Ernie’s record was released, we sent out 200 acetates to Billboard reporting stations; these stations report back to Billboard magazine and they, in turn, make up the charts that show the song’s activity and how it’s doing in certain areas. Program directors at other radio stations also subscribe to Billboard and they look to see what, where and how a song is doing. Then they include it in their programming schedule. It’s tough to get in and tough to stay in. However, ’16 Tons’ got in with a bang and stayed in because a very unusual thing happened at these reporting stations: the single turned itself over! Although Capitol was promoting the A side, some of the DJ’s started playing the B side (’16 Tons’) and it snowballed! ‘Sixteen Tons’ knew no boundaries. It crossed over into the Pop field and soon became #1 on all the Billboard charts. At that point in time, it became the biggest record that Capitol Records had ever released. Within 3 weeks, it sold a million copies. Within 9 weeks, 3 million copies. At that time, Life magazine was a weekly publication and they always had the current top stories or major news of anything that was hot! Life did a wonderful story on this unusual record event. One of the lyric phrases in the song was ‘number-nine coal’ and in coal mining terminology, that’s a lump of coal about the size of a man’s fist. So Life’s personnel went through all the trouble of finding and gathering a mountain of “number-nine coal.” Then they took a picture of Ernie on top of it – in a suit and tie – wearing a coal miner’s hat! Life put it on their magazine cover and, after that, there was no stopping the meteor-like career of the mega-talented and lovable Ernie Ford. He could do nothing wrong”.

Previous     Next