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With a unique clarinet-driven pop arrangement by Tennessee Ernie Ford's musical director, Jack Fascinato, "Sixteen Tons" spent ten weeks at number one on the country charts and eight weeks at number one on the pop charts, and made Ford a crossover star. It became Ford's signature song.
In October 1991, Tennessee Ernie Ford fell into severe liver failure at Dulles Airport, after leaving a state dinner at the White House hosted by President George H. W. Bush. Ford died in a Virginia hospital 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.