With three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and inductions into the Country Music and Gospel Music Halls of Fame to his name, there were few heights that Ernest Jennings Ford - a.k.a. Tennessee Ernie Ford - didn't scale. A mainstay of radio and television, Ford's decades-long association with Capitol Records yielded a rich catalogue filled with country, proto rock-and-roll boogie-woogie, western swing, pop and folk ballads, gospel, novelty records, blues and beyond. Yet Ford's recordings - save the one "biggie," the 1955 "Sixteen Tons" - have largely been overlooked in recent years. The venerable Bear Family label has sought to rectify this with the release of a lavish, truly comprehensive and absorbing new 5-CD box set chronicling in depth the first twelve years of Ford's recording career. Portrait of an American Singer brings together the various strains of the mustachioed troubadour's musical legacy by collecting each and every secular side he recorded between 1949 and 1960, including some previously unreleased material. And though Ford's sacred recordings during that period fall out of the purview of this collection, a number of them appear, too, to flesh out a particular recording session or chapter in the Ford story. The resulting Portrait is a compelling re-examination of a historic career.
It may be a surprise to find that Tennessee Ernie's recordings emanated from Capitol's Hollywood studios, existing at the intersection of showbiz and "hillbilly" music. His very first recording, "I've Got the Milk 'Em in the Morning Blues," was a goofy, self-penned novelty with the exaggerated drawl that characterized one part of his persona. He returned to the track a year later in a rewritten version drawing on his newfound fatherhood and then again for a 1957 LP. (Every version is, of course, included here.) Though there's plenty of humor in Ford's catalogue (such as "Anticipation Blues," featuring his yodeling), there's also the pure sound of western swing which permeates the earliest recordings on the box. It didn't hurt Ford that the session veterans playing with him included all-time greats like Merle Travis on guitar. Travis, of course, would play a rather important role in Ford's career as the writer of his epochal hit "Sixteen Tons." (The rhythmic "Sweet Temptation" on the box's second disc is the first, but far from the last, example of Ford recording a Travis song.) Travis even joined with Eddie Kirk to support Ford in a vocal trio heard on "Blues Stay Away from Me" and "Philosophy."
Along with western swing, Ford was a master of the boogie-woogie. Moon Mullican, "The King of the Hillbilly Piano Players," had a style which anticipated rockabilly and inspired future piano-pounders like Jerry Lee Lewis. His piano enlivened the rollicking visit to "Country Junction" at Ford's second-ever recording session; Tennessee Ernie would return to the boogie form frequently over the course of these six discs including on 1950's Country chart-topping smash "Shotgun Boogie" (also a Top 20 Pop hit).
In addition to recording his own songs, Ford interpreted tunes by leading songwriters in genres from folk to pop to country including the late Woody Guthrie ("Philadelphia Lawyer"), Cindy Walker ("Put Your Arms Around Me"), Terry Gilkyson ("The Song of the Wild Goose"), Ervin Drake ("Three Things (A Man Must Do))", even the Broadway team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross ("The Strange Little Girl") and the actors Robert Mitchum ("Hey Mr. Cotton Picker," Ford's only charting single of 1953) and Buddy Ebsen (the historically-based story song, the ballad of "Snow Shoe Thompson"). Hy Zaret, writer of "Unchained Melody," supplied Ford with "Woman is a Five-Letter Word" which, alas, hasn't proven as enduring!
"Fatback Louisiana, USA," written by fellow Capitol artist and satirist supreme Stan Freberg, is among the most unexpected delights here. Freberg and Ford have a field day with the food-crazy denizens described in the song ("When you're ill, you get a black-eyed pea instead of a pill!"). In fact, Ford might have recorded more food-themed songs than any other artist of his era; you'll find tunes here including "Sunday Barbeque," "The Watermelon Man," "Blackberry Boogie" and "I Gave My Love A Cherry."
No style or genre was off-limits to Ford; witness the surprisingly full-voiced, jaunty revival of the operetta chestnut "The Donkey Serenade." Indeed, Ford explored numerous vocal approaches at Capitol, especially during the adventurous early years. 1949's "Mule Train" became his first country chart-topper; Frankie Laine, of course, had the hit on the Pop chart. (Ford and Laine - himself the subject of a series of Bear Family box sets - shared other repertoire, too, including "Hambone" and the jaunty railroad work song, "The Gandy Dancer's Ball.") Novelty records are peppered throughout this collection, too. Time has been kind to most of them, with a notable exception being the unfortunately stereotypical product of its time, "Leetle Juan Pedro." Harry Geller and Shirley Henry's made-to-order "Bless Your Pea-Pickin' Heart" took off on Ford's famous television catchphrase. Though the would-be signature song failed to score on the charts, it remained a favorite of Ford's for concert appearances.
Ford generously shared his microphone with a number of Capitol's leading female artists. In 1950, Kay Starr (of "Wheel of Fortune" fame) joined him on the ballad "I'll Never Be Free" and the uptempo treatment of "Ain't Nobody's Business But My Own," and both recordings placed on the Pop and Country charts, earning both singers new audiences. She returned for another pair of duets in 1951. Also in 1951, Helen O'Connell teamed with Ford on the jaunty Hank Williams standard "Hey, Good Lookin'" and The Dinning Sisters did a session with Ford including the swinging "Rock City Boogie" (co-written by Anita Kerr) and the fun "Kissin' Bug Boogie." Ella Mae Morse was Ford's partner in 1952 on "I'm Hog Tied Over You" and "False-Hearted Girl." (The proto-rockabilly sound of "False-Hearted Girl" continued on tracks like 1952's "I Don't Know," a cover of African-American artist Willie Mabon's Chess record.) 1953 saw two duets with country star Molly Bee, and in 1954, Ford recorded raucous duets with the brash actress-singer Betty Hutton. These vibrant sides are doubly notable as his first recordings accompanied by the orchestra of Billy May.
The legendary bandleader, whose frequently whimsical arrangements for Frank Sinatra were among the best ever written for the Chairman, then was charged with scoring Ford's solo records. There's nary a whiff of country on these big, dramatically-orchestrated tunes. The inspirational pair of "There's Beauty in Everything" and "Somebody Bigger Than You and I" presaged Ford's later immersion into gospel; "Have You Seen Her" (written by Ford himself) was a straightforward romantic pop ballad. In any setting, May's striking arrangement showcased Ford's deep voice at its most resonant. Their collaboration on "Give Me Your Word" -grandiose with sweeping strings and crashing piano chords - can't help but come off as bombastic compared to Ford's previous discography, but it notably yielded a U.K. No. 1 single.
Though Ford's sacred-themed recordings fall out of the purview of this collection (all are dutifully included in the printed discography, however), some exceptions are made such as his first spiritual recordings to be released, bassist/songwriter Cliffie Stone's upbeat, revival-style single "The Lord's Lariat" b/w "What This Country Needs (Is a Good Old-Fashioned Talk with the Lord)." A boisterous chorus joined Ford on a number of these recordings including "Lariat" b/w "What This Country Needs" and the swaggering "I Ain't Gona [sic] Let It Happen No More."
In 1955, Ford jumped on the Davy Crockett bandwagon with his recording of the George Bruns/Tom Blackburn theme to Walt Disney's television miniseries. Unfortunately for Tennessee Ernie, his "Ballad of Davy Crockett" joined similar renditions by Bill Hayes, Mac Wiseman and Davy himself, Fess Parker. (Hayes, Parker and Ford even recorded the same Bruns/Blackburn flipside, "Farewell.") Hayes scored the No. 1 Pop hit with his version, but Ford's affinity for the real-life character was clear on both the single and the two subsequent spoken narratives (with songs woven in) recorded in enjoyably lively fashion by Ford.
The single most famous track on this box set is, of course, "Sixteen Tons" and it can be found a little more than halfway through Disc Three. The dramatic and offbeat Merle Travis song - a No. 1 on both the country and pop charts, and one of the most significant crossover records of all time - quickly caught America's fancy with its memorable rhythm, insinuating melody, quirky lyric, sound effects, and swaggering, committed vocal. Naturally, Ford and its arranger-conductor Jack Fascinato quickly cut a number of songs written or adapted by his old friend Travis in quick succession, including "Nine Pound Hammer," "That's All," "John Henry" and "Dark as a Dungeon." Strong as these are, though, none caught fire like "Sixteen Tons," Tennessee Ernie's ultimate career record, had. Still, Capitol pressed on, recording Ford on folk-style tracks either loosely or explicitly taking after "Sixteen Tons." The traditional "Who Will Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet" (1956) might be best-remembered today in the Everly Brothers' rendition; they could well have learned it from Ford, a friend and mentor to the brothers. (In 1959, Ford recorded another traditional tune, "Barbara Allen," that he in turn may have learned from the Everlys.)
In 1956, Tennessee Ernie recorded a handful of reinterpretations of songs he had cut earlier including "False-Hearted Girl" and "Bright Lights and Blonde-Haired Women" with Jack Fascinato's band swinging harder and in more expansive fashion than on the original recordings. Ford's delivery had changed, too. Not only had his voice deepened, but he had grown in confidence and adopted a more "showbiz" personality. The 1957 album Ol' Rockin' Ern featured a further twelve remakes (including a lively "Catfish Boogie," "I've Got the Milk 'Em in the Morning Blues," and "Ain't Nobody's Business But My Own," with Dorothy Gill subbing for Kay Starr), all of which can be heard on the fourth disc of this set. Ford's later folk-flavored recordings for his 1959 Gather 'Round album featured the unusual, fascinating juxtaposition of traditional melodies with Jack Fascinato's brassy and commercially palatable nightclub-appropriate charts. Keeping in his usual varied bag, Ford also recorded pop ballads (Dick Stewart's shoulda-been-a-hit "Love is the Only Thing") and more off-the-beaten path tracks (the tropical paean to Hawaii, "Sunny Side of Heaven") during this creatively fertile period.
Though some unissued material has been lost to time, a handful of previously unreleased tracks appear here. Norman Kaye's "Slow Down," recorded in 1950, has a freight-train rhythm and a deep, dramatic vocal. It presages Ford's gospel recordings. Even better is Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's "Small World," cut by Ford in 1959 from the duo's hit Broadway musical Gypsy. Ernie gave his all to Styne's beautifully contented melody and Sondheim's clever, touching words; it's likely that the song was shelved simply because it didn't fit in with the folk-pop recordings Ernie was recording simultaneously. Other unreleased treats include two "Toys for Tots" jingles (one long and one short version) made in 1958. These join other seasonal, festive tracks here like "Christmas Dinner" and "A Rootin' Tootin' Santa Claus" (1951) and "Little Klinker" and "Jingle-O the Brownie" (1960).
Bear Family's presentation of Portrait of an American Singer is naturally exquisite in the label's traditional fashion. The LP-sized box houses its five discs in individual jewel cases with unique artwork and track listings. The accompanying hardcover book written by the set's producer, Ted Olson, would be worth the price of admission on its own. With over 125 pages, it includes a remarkable text that amounts to a biography of Ford even beyond the period covered in the set. This exceptional essay is joined by an array of photographs from the Ford family archives, plus detailed track-by-track liner notes (a rarity even among Bear Family boxes!), and an expectedly comprehensive discography by Bear Family's Richard Weize and Russ Wapensy. Though the focus here is on Ford's secular material (he would later immerse himself even more fully in gospel and spiritual recordings), the track-by-track notes and discography even address the sides which aren't included. Ulf Hattwig's remastering is superb.
Tennessee Ernie Ford continued to record for Capitol Records through 1976. He went through a number of personal changes, shifting from a lifelong Democrat to a staunch right-wing Republican "who viewed anyone with long hair suspiciously and The Beatles as responsible for eroding American values," according to his son Buck Ford in the liner notes. He also struggled with considerable personal demons, including a growing battle with alcoholism. But one thing that didn't change was his catholic taste in music. In his later years at Capitol, he would tackle straightforward, spare country-and-western, slick countrypolitan and contemporary Christian. He even teamed with Capitol's star Glen Campbell - who certainly followed in Ernie's footsteps as a quintessential "crossover" artist - for 1975's acclaimed Ernie Sings and Glen Picks LP. He moved on from Capitol to the contemporary Christian label Word Records, home to other crossover talents such as B.J. Thomas, and continued to perform on television and onstage. Tennessee Ernie died on October 17, 1991 - 36 years to the day after the release of "Sixteen Tons."
Portrait of an American Singer, produced in cooperation with Ford's estate, is a one-of-a-kind tribute to a one-of-a-kind talent who made his mark on the realms of pop, country, gospel, and beyond. The many sides of Tennessee Ernie Ford reveal an artist whose best work transcended genre and period. Well, a-bless his soul!