No country singer holds a legacy quite like George Jones. Born on September 12, 1931, in Saratoga, Texas, he was a significant country musician, singer, and songwriter. He reached international fame, with over 150 hit records to his name, including his signature song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today." With his unique tone and "jaw clenching" phrasing, he is frequently referred to as the greatest country singer—one who completely immersed himself in the lyrics he was delivering. Indeed, he is the one that "up-and-rising" country singers listen to and the ones of his generation did their best to imitate. But there was, and will only be, one George Glenn Jones.
Jones was introduced to country music when he was seven years old and acquired a guitar at the age of nine. After serving a stint in the Marine Corps, his career took off in 1959 when he recorded “White Lightning,” securing Jones his first number one hit. It was written by J.P. Richardson, otherwise known as the Big Bopper. As with most of Jones’ hits, there is a backstory that is just as famous as the lyrics. In his autobiography, I Lived to Tell It All, Jones came clean that he showed up for the recording session under the influence of alcohol, requiring 80 takes just to record his vocals. Buddy Killen, who played upright bass on the track, rendered severely blistered fingers and not only threatened to walk out on the session but to physically harm the singer. The final vocal take used for the studio track issued recorded Jones inadvertently slurring the word "slug".
A facet of Jones' lengthy career was his often overlooked accomplishment as a songwriter. Indeed, he wrote (or co-wrote) numerous early hits, including some of which have become standards: “Window Up Above,” “Seasons of My Heart," “Just One More,” "Life To Go," “You Gotta Be My Baby,” "Don't Stop The Music," "Color of the Blues,” “Tender Years,” and “Tall, Tall Trees.”
It was 1962 when the signer signed with United Artists and followed up by instantly scoring one of the major hits of his career with “She Thinks I Still Care.” It was during this era Jones’ voice had developed a deeper tone, and he began nurturing a vocal style that became distinctly his own—“a full-throated, high lonesome sound.” Likewise, he was on course to gaining notoriety as a “hell-raiser.”
Longtime producer Pappy Daily secured a new contract with Musicor records in 1964; however, for the remainder of the decade, Jones scored only one number one record with 1967's "Walk Through This World with Me." Nevertheless, he dominated the country music charts throughout the 60s with top ten singles such as "Love Bug", "Things Have Gone to Pieces", "The Race Is On", "I'll Share My World with You," "Take Me," "A Good Year for the Roses," and "If My Heart Had Windows."
In 1969, Jones married Tammy Wynette (who became the Queen of Country Music), and they started touring together. Jones decided to buy out his contract with Musicor so he could record with Tammy and work with her producer Billy Sherrill on Epic Records, having split with Pappy Daily on bitter terms. Jones and Wynette quickly became known as "Mr. & Mrs. Country Music" in the early 1970s, scoring copious mega hits, including "We're Gonna Hold On," "Let's Build A World Together," "Golden Ring," "Near You," and "(We're Not) The Jet Set." Sherrill mentioned in a 2002 interview with Dan Daley that recording the pair of famous singers: “[It] did increase my scotch intake some. We started out trying to record the vocals together, but George drove Tammy crazy with his phrasing. He never, ever did it the same way twice. He could make a five-syllable word out of 'church.'”
From 1974 to 1980, Jones had attained a six-year spree without a number one record. Numerous years as an alcoholic caused the singer’s health to decline severely and led to his missing many performances, earning him the nickname "No-Show Jones." The combination of the two caused many critics to write him off. But not for long.
In April of 1980 the singer shook the music industry when "He Stopped Loving Her Today" was released and sky-rocketed to number one where it remained on the country charts for a consecutive 18 weeks. Written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, the lyrics convey the story of a friend who refused to give up on his love. Indeed, he kept letters and photographs from back when, hanging on to the belief that someday she would "come back again." The climaxing chorus reveals that he stopped loving her—when he died—and his love returned—to his funeral. The track has consistently been agreed to be the greatest country song of all time, supported by Jones' interpretation, sustained by his conveyance of the line "...first time I'd seen him smile in years," delivering it a grief-stricken, riveting realism.
It is interesting to note that producer Billy Sherrill and Jones himself, admitted the singer hated the song originally. In Bob Allen's biography of the singer, Sherrill states, "He thought it was too long, too sad, too depressing and that nobody would ever play it...He hated the melody and wouldn't learn it." Sherrill also admitted that Jones irritated him, purposefully singing the song to Kris Kristofferson’s melody of his "Help Me Make It Through the Night" hit, which was recorded by Elivis Presley, John Holt, and Tammy Wynette in the early 70s. In the Same Ole Me documentary, Sherrill reflected on a heated exchange during the recording session: "I said 'That's not the melody!' and he said 'Yeah, but it's a better melody.' I said 'It might be—Kristofferson would think so too, it's his melody!'" In the same retrospective, Sherrill recalled that Jones was in such bad physical shape during this period that "the recitation was recorded 18 months after the first verse was" and added that the last words Jones said about "He Stopped Loving Her Today" were, "Nobody'll buy that morbid son of a bitch." The singer finally gave the song praise for revitalizing his waning career, claiming that "a four-decade career had been salvaged by a three-minute song.”
The 1980s spawned 26 additional hits for Jones, and over the years Jones tirelessly defended the integrity of country music, telling Billboard in 2006, "It's never been for love of money. I thank God for it because it makes me a living. But I sing because I love it, not because of the dollar signs." In the later part of his career Jones slowed down due to health issues, but used this time to promote younger country singers that he felt were as passionate about the music as he was. He died on April 26, 2013, at age 81, due to a respiratory infection, with his fourth wife, Nancy, to whom he had been married for 26 years, by his side.
5. “The Race is On” (1964)
This single comparing romantic relationships to Thoroughbred competition peaked #3 on the Billboard country chart. According to Dewey Groom, Jones was in his office in 1963 listening to demo tapes of potential songs to record when Jones got discouraged and got up to leave. At the last moment, Groom played “The Race is On,” and Jones jumped, exclaiming “I’ll take it!” after hearing the opening line. Jones’ frantic, on-the-edge vocal, delivered with his querulous emotive ambivalence and simulated sadness, made it a concert favorite.
4. “White Lightning” (1959)
This single became Jones' first number-one country hit—one with a slightly more rock and roll sound than the numerous rockabilly tracks he had previously recorded. This is understandable since it was written by J.P. Richardson (a.k.a. The Big Bopper), who was a friend of Jones. Country music historian Colin Escott wrote, "Ironically, it became the pop hit Mercury [Records] had been hoping for all long...George hee-hawed it up in a giddy, bilbous frenzy."
3. “Golden Ring” w/ Tammy Wynette (1976)
Released 14 months after their real-life divorce, this was Jones’ second duet with the Queen of Country Music to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s "Hot Country Singles" chart. Written about a young couple's engagement, marriage, and divorce, the song was autobiographical of their own tumultuous six-year marriage that ended in bitter recrimination. Of their duet repertoire, “Golden Ring” has been the fan favorite and one most identified with the couple.
2. "Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” (1985)
"Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” (1985)—A moving song written by Troy Seals and Max D. Barnes recorded for Jones’ 1985 album by the same name. The song was released as the first single and reached number three on the Hot Country Singles chart. Striking a strong chord of empathy with old-time country music lovers, Jones sings of the irreplaceability of country music legends: Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, Roy Acuff, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, and Lefty Frizzell. After singing about these legends’ impacts on country music, Jones ponders who will replace them when they're gone—hence the titular line—and thus become heroes. Eugene Chadbourne of Allmusic describes the song as "the kind of mystical, self-serving necrophilia that country music is all about."
1. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (1980)
The week following Jones' passing, this song re-entered the Hot Country Songs chart at No. 21. As of the end of 2013, the single has sold 521,000 copies in the United States alone. In 2008 it was reserved by the Library of Congress into the National Recording Registry. The song’s success had led CBS Records to renew Jones' recording contract in 1980, sparking renewed interest in the singer. Jones earned the Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 1980. Likewise, the Academy of Country Music awarded the song Single of the Year and Song of the Year in 1980. It also became the Country Music Association's Song of the Year in both 1980 and 1981. The song became so tantamount with Jones that few singers dared to touch it.