NASHVILLE, Tenn. — George Jones, the peerless, hard-living country singer who recorded dozens of hits about good times and regrets and peaked with the heartbreaking classic “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” has died. He was 81.
Publicist Kirt Webster says Jones died Friday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville after being hospitalized with fever and irregular blood pressure.
Known for his clenched, precise baritone, Jones had No. 1 songs in five separate decades, 1950s to 1990s, and was idolized not just by fellow country singers, but by Frank Sinatra, Pete Townshend, Elvis Costello, James Taylor and countless others.
In a career that lasted more than 50 years, “Possum” recorded more than 150 albums and became the champion and symbol of traditional country music, a well-lined link to his hero, Hank Williams.
Jones was among entertainers repeatedly invited to perform at Plant City’s annual Florida Strawberry Festival.
“We’d always get a good crowd, that’s why we had him back numerous times,” said Al Berry, longtime member of the Plant City Lions Club, which initiated big-name entertainment at the festival decades ago to boost attendance for the festival’s strawberry queen contest. “He was a crowd pleaser; there was just something about his stage presence, the way he interacted with the audience. People just loved him,” said Berry.
“I remember one year he was there, they didn’t want to let him off the stage; he just kept singing. He brought back a lot of memories of good country music to our fans. He probably was one of the first class acts we started with.”
Jones was known for wild behavior, and asked about an incident that occurred when Jones and Tammy Wynette lived in Lakeland, Berry recalled it. “I remember when he drove his lawnmower down to the bar.”
In her autobiography, Wynette wrote that she awoke at 1 a.m. one day to find Jones gone from their Lakeland home. She drove to the nearest bar, 10 miles away, and found their riding mower in the parking lot. “He’d driven that mower right down a main highway,” she wrote in her 1979 book, “Stand By Your Man.” “He looked up and saw me and said, ‘Well, fellas, here she is now. My little wife. I told you she’d come after me.’”
Jones bought the 6,400-square foot Lakeland home on seven acres on State Road 540A in the late 1960s. Soon after marrying Wynette in 1969, the couple moved to Lakeland full time. In his own book, “I Lived to Tell It All,” Jones fondly recalled his years in Lakeland with Wynette. “At that time, I was happier than I’d ever been,” he wrote.
“He was a real sport,” Berry said.
Jones won Grammy awards in 1981 for “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and in 1999 for “Choices.” He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and in 2008 was among the artists honored in Washington at the Kennedy Center.
He was in the midst of a yearlong farewell tour when he passed away. He was scheduled to complete the tour in November with an all-star packed tribute in Nashville. Stars lined up to sign on to the show, many remembering kindnesses over the years.
Jones was born Sept. 12, 1931, in a log house near the east Texas town of Saratoga, the youngest of eight children. He sang in church and at age 11 began performing for tips on the streets of Beaumont, Texas. His first outing was such a success that listeners tossed him coins, placed a cup by his side and filled it with money. Jones estimated he made more than $24 for his two-hour performance, enough to feed his family for a week, but he used up the cash at a local arcade.
“That was my first time to earn money for singing and my first time to blow it afterward,” he recalled in a painfully self-critical memoir published in 1996. “It started what almost became a lifetime trend.”
The family lived in a government-subsidized housing project, and his father, a laborer, was an alcoholic who would rouse the children from bed in the middle of the night to sing for him. His father also noted that young George liked music and bought him a Gene Autry guitar, with a horse and lariat on the front, that Jones practiced on obsessively.
He got his start on radio with husband and wife team Eddie & Pearl in the late 1940s. Hank Williams once dropped by the studio to promote a new record, and Jones was invited to back him on guitar. When it came time to play, he froze.
“Hank had `Wedding Bells' out at the time,” Jones recalled in a 2003 Associated Press interview. “He started singing it, and I never hit the first note the whole song. I just stared.”
After the first of his four marriages failed, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in1951 and served three years. He cut his first record when he got out, an original fittingly called “No Money in This Deal.”
He had his first hit with “Why Baby Why” in 1955, and by the early `60s Jones was one of country music's top stars.
“I sing top songs that fit the hardworking, everyday loving person. That's what country music is about,” Jones said in a 1991 AP interview. “My fans and real true country music fans know I'm not a phony. I just sing it the way it is and put feeling in it if I can and try to live the song.”
Jones was married to Wynette from 1969 to 1975. (Wynette died in 1998.) Their relationship played out in Nashville like a country song, with hard drinking, fights and reconciliations. Jones' weary knowledge of domestic warfare was immortalized in such classics as “The Battle,” set to the martial beat of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Jones referred to his mowing days in the 1996 release, “Honky Tonk Song.”
His drug and alcohol abuse grew worse in the late `70s, and Jones had to file for bankruptcy in 1978. A manager had started him on cocaine, hoping to counteract his boozy, lethargic performances, and Jones was eventually arrested in Jackson, Miss., in 1983 on cocaine possession charges. He agreed to perform a benefit concert and was sentenced to six months probation.
“In the 1970s, I was drunk the majority of the time,” Jones wrote in his memoir. “If you saw me sober, chances are you saw me asleep.”
In 1980, a 3-minute song changed his life. His longtime producer, Billy Sherrill, recommended he record “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a ballad by Curly Putnam and Bobby Braddock. The song took more than a year to record, partly because Jones couldn't master the melody, which he confused with Kris Kristofferson's “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” and partly because he was too drunk to recite a brief, spoken interlude (“She came to see him one last time/And we all wondered if she would/And it kept running through my mind/This time he's over her for good.”)
“Pretty simple, eh?” Jones wrote in his memoir. “I couldn't get it. I had been able to sing while drunk all of my life. I'd fooled millions of people. But I could never speak without slurring when drunk. What we needed to complete that song was the narration, but Billy could never catch me sober enough to record four simple spoken lines.”
Jones was convinced the song was too “morbid” to catch on. But “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” featuring a string section that hummed, then soared, became an instant standard and virtually canonized him. His concert fee jumped from $2,500 a show to $25,000.
“There is a God,” he recalled.
In 1983, Jones married his fourth and final wife, Nancy Sepulveda, whom he credited with stablizing his private life. He had four children, one with first wife Dorothy Bonvillion, two with second wife Shirley Ann Corley and one with Wynette. His daughter with Wynette, Georgette Jones, became a country singer and even played her mother in the 2008 TV series “Sordid Lives.”