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George Jones dies at 81; country music icon

Singer George Jones, whose 'He Stopped Loving Her Today' is regarded by many as the greatest country song ever recorded, charted dozens of hits over a long career marked by struggles with alcohol and drugs, broken marriages and, finally, redemption.

April 27, 2013|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times

Three decades ago, an east Texas singer named George Jones took on an impossibly melodramatic, shamelessly sentimental song about a man who desperately clutched at lost love until his dying breath.

His 1980 recording of "He Stopped Loving Her Today" became one of the most revered songs in country music history.

Singers Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard were known for the poetically crafted lyrics of their country standards. But Jones' anguish-drenched vocals elevated "He Stopped Loving Her Today" above its soap-opera lyrics in polls of the greatest country music songs.

George Jones: Career in Photos

From 1955 to 2005, Jones put 167 records on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart — a history-making 143 of them in the top 40 — and won two Grammy Awards. Along the way, he won admirers as diverse as Frank Sinatra, James Taylor and the Who's Pete Townshend.

Jones, 81, died Friday in Nashville, a little more than a week after being hospitalized for a fever and irregular blood pressure, ending a long, tumultuous life that frequently outstripped the songs he sang in terms of sheer drama.

"The world has lost the greatest country singer of all time. Amen," Merle Haggard said Friday in a statement.

Vince Gill, whose 20 Grammy Awards make him the most lauded male country singer ever, said, "There aren't words in our language to describe the depth of his greatness. I'll miss my kind and generous friend."

In George Jones, glorious musical achievement lived side by side with personal heartbreak. Frustration, failure, disappointment and loss gave way later in life to personal and artistic redemption in recent decades.

That Jones continued touring and recording until this month astonished and delighted fans who had seen him struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, multiple marriages and divorces, lawsuits over his erratic behavior, and brushes with death in motor vehicle accidents. His life became the stuff of country legend: Following a drinking binge during which his wife took his car keys so he couldn't drive, Jones famously commandeered a motorized lawn mower and drove himself to the nearest liquor store.

"Hopefully [people] will remember me for my music and forgive me of the things I did that let 'em down," Jones said in 2006. He also understood he wouldn't be absolved of everything: "There are some things you just can't make up to people," he said of the many performances he missed over the years because of his struggles with alcohol and drugs, which led to the nickname "No Show Jones" that followed him for many years in the 1970s and '80s.

Yet, along the way, he continued to deliver hit after hit from 1955, when he first scored with "Why Baby Why," through his final appearance on the pop chart 50 years later as a guest of Waylon Jennings' son Shooter Jennings on "4th of July."

PHOTOS: Celebrities react to the death of George Jones

"In country music, George Jones set the standard long ago," the late Johnny Cash once said. "No one has compared to him yet."

Or, as the now-departed Waylon Jennings famously remarked, "If we could all sound like we wanted to, we would all sound like George Jones."

"George Jones was the ultimate voice of country music," said Robert Hilburn, The Times' former pop music critic. "He was someone whose pure and traditional tone represented to country music singing what Hank Williams represented to country songwriting. When people talk about country music being the white man's blues, they can explain their point by simply playing a George Jones song."

George Glenn Jones was born Sept. 12, 1931, and grew up in Saratoga, a small, dusty town northeast of Houston in the Big Thicket region of Texas. He was the eighth child of George Washington Jones, a pipe fitter and shipyard worker who played guitar, and, Clara Jones, a church pianist.

The modest household was dominated by the sounds of gospel and country music — and the abusive rages of the young singer's father, who turned to alcohol to drown his pain when Jones' sister died from a fever.

"We were our Daddy's loved ones when he was sober, his prisoners when he was drunk," the singer wrote in his 1996 autobiography, "I Lived to Tell the Tale."

As an 11-year-old, Jones made his first money as a singer when he played guitar and warbled Eddy Arnold songs for coins in front of a local church.

The influence of Hank Williams' songs, capturing nearly existential heartache as well as unbridled joy, became a major source of inspiration, along with the honky-tonk songs of Ernest Tubb and, especially, Lefty Frizzell, whose signature was his extraordinary twisting and turning of syllables, words and phrases, a model that Jones quickly adopted.

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