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George Jones

Death of George Jones

September 12, 1931 - April 26, 2013
Nashville, Tennessee | Age 81

Country superstar has died at 81

Obituary

CHRIS TALBOTT, The Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) — 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.

Jones died Friday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, according to his publicist Kirt Webster. He had been hospitalized with fever and irregular blood pressure, forcing him to postpone two shows.

"Today someone else has become the greatest living singer of traditional country music, but there will never be another George Jones," said Bobby Braddock, the Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter who provided Jones with 29 songs over the decades. "No one in country music has influenced so many other artists."

He did it with that voice. Rich and deep, strong enough to crack like a whip, but supple enough to bring tears. It was so powerful, it made Jones the first thoroughly modern country superstar, complete with the substance abuse problems and rich-and-famous celebrity lifestyle that included mansions, multiple divorces and — to hear one fellow performer tell it — fistfuls of cocaine.

He was a beloved and at times a notorious figure in Nashville and his problems were just as legendary as his songs. But when you dropped the needle on one of his records, all that stuff went away. And you were left with The Voice.

"He just knows how to pull every drop of emotion out of it of the songs if it's an emotional song or if it's a fun song he knows how to make that work," Alan Jackson said in a 2011 interview. "It's rare. He was a big fan of Hank Williams Sr. like me. He tried to sing like Hank in the early days. I've heard early cuts. And the difference is Hank was a singer and he was a great writer, but he didn't have that natural voice like George. Not many people do. That just sets him apart from everybody."

That voice helped Jones achieve No. 1 songs in four separate decades, 1950s to 1980s. And its qualities were admired by more than just his fellow country artists but by Frank Sinatra, Pete Townshend, Elvis Costello, James Taylor and countless others. "If we all could sound like we wanted to, we'd all sound like George Jones," Waylon Jennings once sang.

Word of his death spread Friday morning as his peers paid tribute.

Merle Haggard put it best, perhaps: "The world has lost the greatest country singer of all time. Amen."

"The greatest voice to ever grace country music will never die," Garth Brooks said. "Jones has a place in every heart that ever loved any kind of music."

And Dolly Parton added, "My heart is absolutely broken. George Jones was my all time favorite singer and one of my favorite people in the world."

In Jones' case, that's not hyperbole. In a career that lasted more than 50 years, "Possum" evolved from young honky-tonker to elder statesman as he recorded more than 150 albums and became the champion and symbol of traditional country music, a well-lined link to his hero, Williams.

Jones survived long battles with alcoholism and drug addiction, brawls, accidents and close encounters with death, including bypass surgery and a tour bus crash that he only avoided by deciding at the last moment to take a plane.

His failure to appear for concerts left him with the nickname "No Show Jones," and he later recorded a song by that name and often opened his shows by singing it. His wild life was revealed in song and in his handsome, troubled face, with its dark, deep-set eyes and dimpled chin.

In song, like life, he was rowdy and regretful, tender and tragic. His hits included the sentimental "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes," the foot-tapping "The Race is On," the foot-stomping "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair," the melancholy "She Thinks I Still Care," the rockin' "White Lightning," and the barfly lament "Still Doing Time." Jones also recorded several duets with Tammy Wynette, his wife for six years, including "Golden Ring," ''Near You," ''Southern California" and "We're Gonna Hold On." He also sang with such peers as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and with Costello and other rock performers.

But his signature song was "He Stopped Loving Her Today," a weeper among weepers about a man who carries his love for a woman to his grave. The 1980 ballad, which Jones was sure would never be a hit, often appears on surveys as the most popular country song of all time and won the Country Music Association's song of the year award an unprecedented two years in a row.

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. Kenny Chesney thinks Jones may have one of the greatest voices in not just country history, but music history. But he remembers Jones for more than the voice. He was picked for a tour with Jones and Wynette early in his career and cherishes the memory of being invited to fly home on Jones' private jet after one of the concerts.

"I remember sitting there on that jet, thinking, 'This can't be happening,' because he was George Jones, and I was some kid from nowhere," Chesney said in an email. "I'm sure he knew, but he was generous to kids chasing the dream, and I never forgot it."

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 "I Lived to Tell it All," 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 in 1951 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, his third wife, 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."

After one argument, Jones drove off on a riding mower in search of a drink because Wynette had taken his car keys to keep him from carousing. Years earlier, married to his second wife, he had also sped off on a mower in search of a drink. Jones referred to his mowing days in the 1996 release, "Honky Tonk Song," and poked fun at himself in four music videos that featured him aboard a mower.

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, Mississippi, in 1983 on cocaine possession charges. He agreed to perform a benefit concert and was sentenced to six months probation. In his memoir, "Satan is Real," Charlie Louvin recounts being offered a fistful of cocaine by Jones backstage at a concert.

"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 Braddock and Curly Putnam. 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.

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Italie contributed from New York.

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The Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The country music world reacted with deep emotion upon learning of the death of legendary singer George Jones. Here's a sampling of quotes and tweets about Jones:

"The world has lost the greatest country singer of all time. Amen." — Merle Haggard

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"He was a true innovator. Nobody could sing like George Jones. Everyone who could imitate him did. I wrote and recorded a song, "Bartender's Blues," as a tribute and, in an instance of life-imitating-art, George recorded it and asked me to harmonize. It was the second dream come true of my career. He was easy and kind and I'll never forget him. Luckily, he recorded a lot of music; so he'll always be with us..." — James Taylor

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"We're just going to miss George so much. This came as a total shock to me ... and to the whole music industry. It's going to be a big void not having George out there. But you know we've got his music and that music will last forever. He did a lot of crazy things in his career, and no matter how crazy he got everybody still loved him. That's just the kind of guy that George was. We're just going to miss him. It's a sad day for the music business, for sure. — George Strait

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"Well, heaven better get ready for some great country music. While George was known for his wild and crazy days, I've known him for 25 years as a friend. He had grown into a real good man. Of course, he will always be the greatest singer and interpreter of real country music - there'll never be another. — Alan Jackson

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"The greatest voice to ever grace country music will never die. Jones has a place in every heart that ever loved any kind of music." — Garth Brooks

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"The greatest country blues singer to ever live." — Ronnie Dunn

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"It's a sad day for country music and a great loss for those of us who knew him. I was blessed to call George my friend. He was one of the best country singers there ever was. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Nancy, and all of his family. It's a sad, sad day." — Loretta Lynn

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"My heart is absolutely broken. George Jones was my all time favorite singer and one of my favorite people in the world. My heart goes out to Nancy and all his family and friends." — Dolly Parton

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"George Jones and I happen to share the same birthday. The first and only time I met him (which I believe was at the Opry if my memory serves me), I told him that. His response, 'You must be trouble.' Takes one to know one, I am so proud to say. George, his music and his mischievous trouble, will all be missed. He is a country legend." — Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland

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"I believe if you ask any singer who was the greatest country music singer of all time, they would say 'George Jones'. He was without question and by far the BEST! I first met and worked with him when I was 13 years old; I am so very grateful that he was my friend." — Barbara Mandrell

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"If I'm blessed enough to make it there, I look forward to you giving me the grand tour. Rest in peace George Jones!!!!!" — Keith Urban via Twitter

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"George Jones' life is an example of so many wonderful things: How someone's God-given gifts can make this a richer, better place. How one human being can overcome adversity, addiction, and life threatening obstacles time and time again. That it is not the stumble or fall that counts, but the willingness to stand again. How a keen sense of humor and a twinkle in a person's eye can still prevail even after all of life's hard knocks. How mistakes, missteps, and bad choices are not the end of the world if a person chooses to turn them into something good. And George's life is above all the strongest example of how the love of a great woman can get a man through anything. All of this made its way beautifully into every note of the greatest voice country music will ever know. And one of the greatest friends you could ever have. We miss you already George." — Brad Paisley

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"He had a voice that was the truth, raw and unfiltered. You can't get any realer, any more tortured or any more alive. No one can do what George Jones does, and that's why 50 years later, he still stands out as one of the greatest singers in any genre of all time." — Kenny Chesney

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"George Jones was my friend and I loved him." — Trace Adkins

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"Such a sad day ... May you Rest in Peace George Jones." — Sheryl Crow via Twitter

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"Really REALLY bad news. We've lost a country music legend. And I've lost a hero and a friend. Goodbye George Jones ..." — Blake Shelton via Twitter

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"I feel such a personal loss of not only one of the greatest vocal influences of my life, but also I've lost a dear friend. Visits with George have always been full of joy and laughter. Every time I would see him, George would always greet me with a funny story or a joke! His legacy will put his name at the top of the most influential artists in history, right along with Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. His voice will be influencing singers 100 years from now and beyond!" — Travis Tritt
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The Associated Press

Opry to hold public funeral for George Jones

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) — A public funeral will be held at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville for country music superstar George Jones, who died Friday at the age of 81.

Publicist Kirt Webster said in a statement that the public funeral will be held Thursday starting at 10 a.m. Webster says Jones would have wanted his fans everywhere to be able to pay their respects along with his family.

A private visitation for family, friends and fellow performers will take place Wednesday evening. In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that contributions be made to the Grand Ole Opry trust fund or the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.