Music fans are mourning the loss of a true Country legend. George Jones, 81, died Friday at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
In 1955, Jones recorded “Why Baby Why,” his first hit for Starday Records. Born in Saratoga, Texas, he began performing in local clubs at age 10. In the late 1940s, he worked as a disc jockey at various radio stations in his home state, before entering the U.S. Marine Corps in 1950. Three years later, Jones completed his military service and returned to the Texas nightclub circuit. He was discovered by Starday’s founder, “Pappy” Dailey, who convinced Jones to record for his label.
Jones says his first studio session proved a great learning experience.
“The first time I went in to do my first recording session, for about two hours I sang like Roy Acuff, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams," he said. "Finally, the producer came in the studio -- after he figured I’d had enough fun -- and he wanted to know if I could sing like George Jones. So I said, ‘Oh, I didn't know that. I thought I was supposed to sing like those people.’ They were selling records. I didn’t know the difference, you know.”
After leaving Starday Records in 1957, Jones worked with several other labels. In 1969, he joined Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, and the same year, married singer Tammy Wynette. Their union lasted only six years, but during that time, they collaborated on numerous duets, including the Number One hits “We’re Gonna Hold On,” “Near You” and “Golden Ring.”
Through much of his life, George Jones battled an addiction to alcohol that nearly ruined his professional career. He earned the nickname “No Show Jones” for missing numerous concert dates. At one point, lawsuits against him by show promoters seeking compensation forced Jones to declare bankruptcy. He credited his fourth wife Nancy, whom he married in 1983, for helping him overcome his dependency to alcohol and giving his life new meaning.
Countless singers, including Garth Brooks, George Strait, Alan Jackson and Randy Travis name George Jones as a major influence.
Bill Ivey, former director of the Country Music Foundation, once described the role Jones played in Country music.
“He has a unique vocal style that really is so special that it hasn’t been much imitated," he said. "I think people in contemporary Country music, who look back on George’s early work for inspiration, don’t try to sound like him. They, I think, try to write like him and try to get that spirit into their interpretation. What George Jones has is a constant presence of the real energy of Country music and I think it’s something that’s much admired.”
At age 62, Jones was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The surprise announcement was made during the 1992 Country Music Association Awards telecast. The overwhelmed performer described his feelings in this acceptance speech.
“You know, I’ve won a lot of awards - I’m not bragging - a lot of awards over the period of years and each and every one of them was fantastic," he said. "They made you feel great. They kept you going and made you try harder and work harder, but this has got to be the greatest one in the world. Country music has been awful good to me throughout a whole bunch of years, and I’ll tell you what, I’d like to just thank all the fans in the whole, wide world.”
New pop-oriented trends have broadened Country music's boundaries in recent years, but never lessened the popularity of George Jones’ traditional sound. Several of his peers, including Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Clint Black, Travis Tritt and Pam Tillis, fulfilled a life-long dream, when they collaborated with Jones on the Grammy Award-winning single, “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.”
On many occasions, George Jones said that he played, sang and wrote Country songs out of his deep love for the music. Equally gratifying was his relationship with his fans.
Jones once revealed, “It’s not really that important to me, as far as glory, popularity and those things. I just feel like I’m making people happy. And they sure make me happy when I walk out on that stage. That’s all that’s really important to me.”
In the early 1990s, Country music fans and musicians named Jones’ recording of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” as the greatest song of all time. The single topped the chart in 1980 and earned Jones a Grammy and two Country Music Association awards. His other industry honors included induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992. Three years later, he teamed with his former wife Tammy Wynette to record the chart-topping album, “One.”
Jones autobiography, “I Lived To Tell It All,” was published in 1996, and an album of the same name followed. MCA Records dropped him from its roster in 1998 and he later formed his own label, Bandit Records.
In 1999, George Jones suffered life-threatening injuries when he lost control of his car and slammed into a bridge near his home. After making a full recovery, he returned to recording and touring. His last solo album, “Hits I Missed and One I Didn’t,” contains songs made famous by other artists, plus a newly recorded version of his signature tune, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
Jones’ many accolades included a 2008 Kennedy Center Honor and a 2012 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
In late 2012, he kicked off his farewell tour, scheduled to conclude on November 22 in Nashville. Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Kenny Rogers and many other Country stars were set to perform at the show.
During the past year, Jones had been hospitalized several times, most recently on April 18 with fever and irregular blood pressure.