Born February 13, 1919 in Bristol, Tenn, Ford began his radio career as an announcer at station WOPI in Bristol, leaving in 1939 to study classical music and voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. After serving in World War II, Ford worked at radio stations in San Bernardino and Pasadena, Calif. before signing a recording contract with Capitol Records in 1949. He released almost 50 country singles through the early 1950s, several of which made the charts, and took over from bandleader Kay Kyser as host of the NBC quiz show "College of Musical Knowledge" when it returned briefly in 1954 after a four-year hiatus.
Ford scored an unexpected hit on the pop charts in 1955 with his rendition of Merle Travis' "Sixteen Tons," a sparsely arranged coal-miner's lament with bleak lyrics and a fatalistic tone that contrasted vividly with the sugary pop ballads and energetic proto-rock songs that dominated the charts at the time:
Over the years, Ford has been awarded three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for radio, records, and television. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990. Ford fell ill in 1991 after leaving a state dinner at the White House hosted by President George H. W. Bush, and died on October 17, exactly thirty-six years after "Sixteen Tons" was released and one day shy of the first anniversary of his induction into the Hall of Fame.