George Jones, Hit-Making Country Music Singer, Dies at 81

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Country singer and songwriter George Jones poses for a promotional portrait circa 1970.

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Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Country singer and songwriter George Jones poses for a promotional portrait circa 1970. Close

Country singer and songwriter George Jones poses for a promotional portrait circa 1970.

Photographer: Jay West/WireImage via Getty Images

Country music singer George Jones performs in concert in Austin March 25, 2011. Close

Country music singer George Jones performs in concert in Austin March 25, 2011.

Photographer: Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Singer/Songwriter George Jones and his NATD Award during the 2012 NATD Honors in 2012. Close

Singer/Songwriter George Jones and his NATD Award during the 2012 NATD Honors in 2012.

Photographer: Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Music Legend George Jones at The George Jones Possum Holler Bed & Breakfast in 2010. Close

Music Legend George Jones at The George Jones Possum Holler Bed & Breakfast in 2010.

Photographer: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

George Jones during day 3 of Stagecoach, California's Country Music Festival, in 2008. Close

George Jones during day 3 of Stagecoach, California's Country Music Festival, in 2008.

George Jones, the country-music singer who overcame alcohol and drug addiction, bankruptcy and broken marriages to have more hit records than any other artist, has died. He was 81.

He died today at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, having been admitted on April 18 with fever and irregular blood pressure, according to the website of his publicist, Webster & Associates of Nashville.

Known for his bass-to-falsetto range and emotion-drenched vocal style, Jones appeared on the country charts 167 times. Fourteen singles, from “White Lightning” in 1959 to “I Always Get Lucky With You” in 1983, hit No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s chart. About 30 more made the top five, including “Why Baby Why,” his first national hit in 1955.

“George Jones is a national treasure and should be treated accordingly,” Keith Richards, guitarist for the Rolling Stones, told the Washington Post in a 2008 interview. He had “a unique style so often emulated, even inadvertently,” said Richards, who sang with him on a duets album released that year.

When Jones’s career started, he favored honky-tonk music, a traditional form of country. He turned toward country-pop in the early 1970s after marrying singer Tammy Wynette and collaborating with her producer, Billy Sherrill. After the marriage ended and he stopped working with Sherrill, he reverted to his early sound.

Jones’s fondness for liquor, and later cocaine, were part of his legend. Before he kicked those habits, he canceled so many concerts he became known as No-Show Jones. Another nickname, Possum, was given to him by Nashville disc jockeys because of his close set eyes and upturned nose.

Texas-Born

George Glenn Jones was born on Sept. 12, 1931, in Saratoga, Texas. He was the last of eight children of George Washington Jones, a laborer and whiskey bootlegger who played music and danced as a youth, and Clara Patterson Jones, a church pianist.

Jones received his first guitar at 9. He joined a children’s gospel group in 1940 after his family resettled in Kountze, a nearby town. Another move brought the family to Beaumont, where he played on the streets for tips.

At 16, Jones moved out to escape his father, an alcohol abuser who would return home from nights of drinking and force him to sing. He married his first wife, Dorothy Bonvillion, at 19. About one year later, the couple divorced while she was pregnant with their daughter, Susan. Jones entered the Marine Corps after going to jail twice for failing to pay support.

Starday Records, a Houston-area label, signed him after his two-year military stint. He married Shirley Ann Corley, a waitress, two weeks after meeting her in 1954. The marriage lasted 14 years and produced two boys, Jeffrey and Brian.

Lawnmower Ride

Jones first recorded for Starday in January 1954. “Why Baby Why,” which he co-wrote, was released the following year. The song reached No. 4 on the Billboard country chart, and later hit No. 1 as a duet by Red Sovine and Webb Pierce.

Success enabled him to join the Grand Ole Opry and to perform on the Louisiana Hayride, another weekly broadcast. He also dabbled in rockabilly, recording singles as Thumper Jones.

Mercury Records became Starday’s distributor in 1957, and Jones’s records came out on the Mercury label. He followed his producer -- Harold (Pappy) Daily, a Starday co-founder -- to United Artists Records in 1962 and Musicor Records in 1964.

Jones recorded 300 songs in five years at Musicor, and the pressure to perform drove him to abuse alcohol. During one bout of drinking at home, Corley hid the keys to their cars to prevent him from driving to the liquor store. It didn’t work. He made the eight-mile trip in a riding lawnmower.

Marries Wynette

After his marriage with Corley ended in divorce in 1968, Jones moved to Nashville and began performing with Wynette. The personal relationship they developed broke up her marriage to songwriter Don Chapel.

Wynette and Jones wed in 1969 and toured together as Mr. and Mrs. Country Music. They had a daughter, Tamala Georgette, about a year into the marriage.

Jones signed with Wynette’s label, Epic Records, where he his string-laden sound became known as countrypolitan.

The couple scored a No. 1 country hit in 1973 with “We’re Gonna Hold On.” Jones had his own No. 1, “The Grand Tour,” in 1974 and reached the top again with “The Door.”

Amid the musical success, their marriage failed. Wynette filed for divorce in 1973 and left for good the next year after a failed bid to reconcile. The marriage ended in 1975 and they broke up professionally after releasing a No. 1 single, “Golden Ring.”

“I went right to the bottom,” he said in the 1996 autobiography “I Lived to Tell It All,” written with Tom Carter. “I had no idea the bottom could be so low.”

Murder, Bankruptcy

Jones was accused of attempted murder for shooting at a friend, singer Earl Montgomery, in 1977. Though the case was dismissed, Montgomery had him committed to a rehab program. Facing debts of about $1.5 million, Jones filed for bankruptcy and lost five of six members of his band, the Jones Boys.

Montgomery’s sister-in-law, Linda Welborn, lived with Jones in Alabama at the time. The couple broke up after six years, and she sued for divorce under the state’s common-law marriage rules.

“He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a No. 1 country hit that returned Jones to his honky-tonk roots, revived his career in 1980. The song was the Country Music Association’s single of the year, and led to his first Grammy Award.

Nancy Sepulvado, who met him on a blind date in 1981, became his fourth wife two years later. Jones got sober and stopped using cocaine after a second stint in rehab.

Nashville Crash

Jones then reconciled with Wynette, with whom he had feuded publicly since the divorce. She sang on his album “The Bradley Barn Sessions” in 1994 and did a duets album, “One,” with him the following year. The latter was recorded after he had triple-bypass surgery and gave up a half-century-old smoking habit.

“Choices,” a single from the album “The Cold Hard Truth,” earned him a second Grammy in 1999. Just before completing the recording, he damaged his lungs and liver by crashing his sport-utility vehicle into a bridge in Nashville. Police found he had been drinking and driving, and he went through rehab again.

Jones accepted the Kennedy Center Honors, a lifetime achievement award, in 2008. He also was a 2002 recipient of the National Medal of Arts, the U.S. government’s highest honor for artists. The Country Music Hall of Fame inducted him in 1992.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Wilson in New York at dwilson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at cstevens@bloomberg.net

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