George Jones, undisputedly one of the greatest singers in the history of American music, died Friday morning (April 26) at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville at age 81.
Jones announced in August 2012 that he planned to retire from touring in 2013. He had embarked on the farewell tour, but had been hospitalized since April 18 after being diagnosed with fever and irregular blood pressure.
Jones was one of the few surviving links to the fast-fading honky-tonk era of country’s past. Inspired by the booze-soaked heartache of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, Jones sang of his own life of joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, in a distinctive though oft-imitated voice whose talent amazed critics and fans and left Jones himself at a loss for words to explain. Whatever it was that Jones had, there aren’t many country singers since who haven’t wanted some of it. Ask Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, George Strait or any of a whole host of latter-day disciples.
George Glenn Jones was born Sept. 12, 1931, in a log cabin near Saratoga, Texas, in the heart of the oil-drilling country of Southeast Texas’ heavily-wooded Big Thicket. Through music, a highly emotional and revivalistic religion and his own brand of drunken hell-raising, young Jones found solace from poverty and from the rampages of an alcoholic father. His family moved into government housing for a time, as he sang for pocket change on the street corners of Beaumont, Texas.
While still in his teens, Jones made his radio debut up the road a bit on station KTXJ in Jasper, Texas, though he soon came back to Beaumont for radio work on KRIC with a husband-and-wife team, Eddie & Pearl. At KRIC, he had his one brief encounter with his idol, Hank Williams, passing through town and plugging a show date on the air.
Jones married for the first of four times in 1950, but this union with Dorothy Bonvillion lasted barely more than a year when his drinking and temper drove them apart. He served in the Marine Corps during and after the Korean War years but kept his guitar handy at stateside posts. The late Bob Pinson, a country music scholar, recalled first seeing Jones as a singing Marine — billed as Little Georgie Jones, the Foresters Hall Flash — in California about 1953, singing very much in a Hank Williams style.
Fresh out of the military, Jones first recorded in 1954 for the new Houston independent label, Starday Records, a company named for its co-owners Jack Starnes and Harold W. “Pappy” Daily. Daily hitched his wagon to Jones’ rising star, managing him, negotiating his deals and producing his records for Starday, Mercury, United Artists and Musicor all the way from the mid-1950s to 1970. It was Jones’ own co-written “Why Baby Why” for Starday in 1955 that put him on the country music map. The song was successfully covered the next year by the field’s biggest star, Webb Pierce, on a Decca duet with Red Sovine.
Despite a brief flirtation with rockabilly in 1956 under the pseudonym Thumper Jones, the country hits kept coming — three more for Starday in 1956, at which point Daily took him over to Mercury without missing a beat. The biggest of his early Mercury hits were “Don’t Stop the Music” (1957), “Color of the Blues” (1958), “Treasure of Love” (1958), and two wonderful novelties released in 1959 — “White Lightning,” written by J.P. Richardson (aka the Big Bopper) and “Who Shot Sam.”
The early 1960s found Jones turning 30 and using a somewhat mellower voice and style, but the emotional wallop was still evident on a succession of Top 10 songs of heartbreak: “The Window Up Above,” “Tender Years,” “She Thinks I Still Care,” “A Girl I Used to Know” and “You Comb Her Hair.” Moving to the United Artists label in 1962 and Musicor in 1965, Jones proved he could still belt out a novelty hit, such as “Your Heart Turned Left (And I Was on the Right)” (1964), “The Race Is On” (1964), “Love Bug” (1965) and “I’m a People” (1966). Daily flew Jones and his Jones Boys band (which featured the fine vocal harmony of George Riddle and sometimes Johnny Paycheck) to Nashville for most of these and later sessions, and you can hear such Nashville Sound touches as string sections and the Jordanaires‘ vocal choruses on late-1960s Musicor hits like “Walk Through This World With Me” and “If My Heart Had Windows.”
Distinctive as Jones’ solo efforts were, his talents as a duet partner were also much in demand during the 1960s. It was a trail he blazed with Margie Singleton in 1961 and Melba Montgomery in 1963, though Jones and Montgomery never topped their incomparable first pairing, “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds.” Soon everyone — including Jim Reeves and Dottie West, Bobby Bare and Skeeter Davis, and Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn — seemed to be pairing up for duet hits. Jones soon added duet hits with pop singer Gene Pitney (1965-1966) and a memorable No. 12 hit with Brenda Carter, “Milwaukee Here I Come” in 1968 (their only charted duet).
Jones’ 14-year second marriage to Texan Shirley Ann Corley ended with divorce in 1968, about the same time that the field’s hottest female star, Tammy Wynette was going through her own second divorce (from Don Chapel) and a failing duet tandem with Epic Records labelmate David Houston. (Their only big hit was “My Elusive Dreams.”)
Jones reportedly witnessed a fight between Wynette and Don Chapel and whisked Wynette and her daughters away in his own car. They married in February 1969 — a country music marriage made in heaven between two major stars, soon referred to as the “President and First Lady.”
Before long, Jones was also on the Epic label, and while he continued to have hits in his own right under Billy Sherrill’s production, the spotlight for the six years of their marriage (1969-1975) and even beyond was on their duet hits. Fans will recall such classics as “The Ceremony” (1972), “We’re Gonna Hold On” (1973), “(We’re Not) The Jet Set” (1974), “We Loved It Away” (1974), “Golden Ring” (1976), “Near You” (1976-1977), “Southern California” (1977) and “Two Story House” (1980).
The George Jones-Tammy Wynette Show became the big-ticket package tour of the early 1970s, but it was their increasingly stormy home life that began to grab the headlines. At the time or through book and movie accounts later, the entire world became aware of Wynette’s attempts to keep Jones off the bottle and Jones countering with that famous trip aboard his riding mower to the liquor store closest to their mansion in south Nashville.
In the years just after the 1975 divorce, Jones sank deeper into a welter of drink and drugs and legal and financial woes and won for himself the unenviable but unshakable moniker of “No-Show Jones” by missing dozens of scheduled performances. But like Hank Williams before him, the artistic genius never deserted him through all this adversity.
In 1980, at the very nadir of his troubles, he recorded “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which became his first million-seller and a multiple award winner. And it wasn’t alone — right after it came “I’m Not Ready Yet,” “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will),” “Still Doin’ Time,” and “I Always Get Lucky With You.” But unlike Hank Williams, Jones was able to pull out of his personal nosedive, famously with the help of his fourth and final wife, Nancy Sepulvado, whom he married in 1983.
After more hits such as “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” “Wine Colored Roses” and “The Right Left Hand” in the mid-1980s, Jones moved to MCA Records in 1990. Despite continued critical acclaim and a sobriety and reliability theretofore unheard of, Jones watched his MCA recordings largely disappear from the country charts, displaced by the many young turks he had so largely inspired. He complained of his eclipse in “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair” and continued to work the road successfully and reap major career awards (capped by induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992). But his mainstream radio banishment inexplicably continued, in spite of critical acclaim for new records on Asylum (Cold, Hard Truth in 1999) and a gospel package (The Gospel Collection: George Jones Sings the Greatest Story Ever Told) for BNA/Bandit.
Jones was seriously injured in a near-fatal car crash in 1999, when he totaled his car by ramming a bridge railing. (He had a bottle with him at the time but claimed sobriety.).
The world that shaped the incomparable voice and life of George Jones is gone, and country music will not see the like of it — or him — again.
He is survived by wife Nancy, whom he married in 1983, and several children and grandchildren, most of whom still live in the Nashville area where Jones himself lived after leaving Texas in the late 1960s.