That voice helped Jones achieve No. 1 songs in five decades, 1950s to 1990s. And its qualities were admired by more than just 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.”
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.
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 melancholy “She Thinks I Still Care” and the barfly lament “Still Doing Time.” Jones also recorded several duets with Tammy Wynette, his wife for six years, including “Golden Ring” and “We’re Gonna Hold On.”
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 won the Country Music Association’s song of the year award two years in a row.
Jones won two Grammys, for “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “Choices.” He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and in 2008 was honored at the Kennedy Center. He was in the midst of a yearlong farewell tour when he died.
Born Sept. 12, 1931, near the east Texas town of Saratoga, he was the youngest of eight children. He sang in church and at age 11 began performing for tips on the streets of Beaumont. He had his first hit with “Why Baby Why” in 1955.
Jones was married to Wynette from 1969 to 1975. Their relationship played out in Nashville like a country song, with hard drinking, fights and reconciliations.
After one argument, Jones drove off on a riding mower in search of a drink because Wynette had taken his car keys. He’d done the same thing while married to his second wife. Jones referred to his mowing days in “Honky Tonk Song,” and made four music videos that featured him on a mower.
His drug and alcohol abuse grew worse in the late ’70s. A manager had started him on cocaine, hoping to counteract his boozy, lethargic performances, and Jones was arrested in 1983 on cocaine possession charges.
In 1980, a three-minute song changed his life. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” took more than a year to record, partly because Jones 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.”)
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” became an instant standard and virtually canonized Jones. His concert fee jumped from $2,500 a show to $25,000.
“There is a God,” he recalled.