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Country superstar George Jones dead at 81

George Jones, 81, the enduring hitmaker who perfected a heart-rending ballad-singing style that distilled the quintessence of country music, died Friday.

George Jones and Tammy Wynette , for a time country music's king and queen, in an undated photograph. They wed in 1969 and split for good in 1975. The Tennessean
George Jones and Tammy Wynette , for a time country music's king and queen, in an undated photograph. They wed in 1969 and split for good in 1975. The TennesseanRead more

George Jones, 81, the enduring hitmaker who perfected a heart-rending ballad-singing style that distilled the quintessence of country music, died Friday.

Mr. Jones died at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, according to publicist Kirt Webster. He was hospitalized with fever and irregular blood pressure, forcing him to postpone two shows.

Mr. Jones, regarded as a country music icon of traditionalism and integrity, scored more than 60 Top 10 country hits, beginning with "Why Baby Why" in 1955. In the 1960s and '70s, he continually topped the charts with solo recordings as well as duets with Melba Montgomery and, later, his third wife, Tammy Wynette.

In 1980, he recorded "He Stopped Loving Her Today," a masterpiece of melodrama that in 1992 was voted the greatest country song of all time.

If there were a country music Mount Rushmore, Mr. Jones would be one of the faces chiseled there, alongside the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Loretta Lynn. Lynn said Friday of Mr. Jones, "He was one of the best country singers there ever was. . . . It's a sad, sad day."

Alan Jackson said: "Of course, he will always be the greatest singer and interpreter of real country music - there'll never be another."

When country music modernized its image in the 1990s, Mr. Jones was one of the few old-time stars to continue achieving mainstream success, and he became a symbol of pure country virtues to rival Williams, his early hero. "If we could all sound like we wanted to," Waylon Jennings said, "we'd all sound like George Jones."

Yet he was admired not just by fellow country artists, but also by Frank Sinatra, Pete Townshend, Elvis Costello, James Taylor, and countless others. Keith Richards called him "a national treasure."

Mr. Jones was born on Sept. 12, 1931 - he was dropped upon delivery by a doctor, and it broke his arm - in the rough-and-tumble east Texas area known as "the Big Thicket." He started to play guitar at 9 and ran away to nearby Jasper, Texas, when he was 16, where he got a job singing at a local radio station.

After a failed marriage and a stint in the Marines, Mr. Jones was discovered by producer Pappy Daily in 1953. His first single, "No Money in This Deal," was a bust, but "Why Baby Why" hit the following year, and he toured with Elvis Presley on the Louisiana Hayride and enjoyed continued success with rockabilly-style rave-ups such as "White Lightning."

In the early 1960s, Mr. Jones developed a mature style that brought country ballad singing to new heights. With a flat-top haircut and close-set brown eyes that earned him the nickname "Possum," he used a clenched-jaw delivery to affectingly extract every ounce of emotion out of tearjerkers such as "Tender Years" and "She Thinks I Still Care."

He continued to refine that approach throughout his career, but he never limited himself to heartache songs, and he recorded corny novelty numbers such as 1990's Fred Flintstone and Presley tribute "Ya Ba Da Ba Do (So Are You)" as well.

But Mr. Jones' way of suffusing a lyric with barely contained anguish was beyond compare, rendering musical genre divisions irrelevant. Sinatra once called him "the second-best male singer in America," and though, like Sinatra, Mr. Jones didn't write his own material, his interpretive genius turned the likes of "These Days (I Barely Get By)" and "A Picture of Me (Without You)" into deeply personal statements of despair.

Mr. Jones frequently made headlines for his lifestyle as well as his music. After divorcing his second wife in 1968, he married Wynette the next year, and the first couple of country music were the genre's biggest stars. While completing his musical transition to mature balladeer with countrypolitan producer Billy Sherrill, he and Wynette scored a string of smash duets, many of which played like scenes from a troubled celebrity marriage: "We Can Make It," "We're Gonna Hold On," "The Golden Ring."

The couple reconciled after Wynette filed for divorce in 1973, but in 1975, they split for good. ("Even though I couldn't live with him," Wynette once said, "he'll always be my favorite singer.") Mr. Jones spent the next several years with his personal life in a downward spiral, hastened by drug and alcohol abuse.

He earned the additional nickname "No Show Jones" when he became an infrequent attendee of his own concerts, missing 54 appearances in 1979 alone.

Mr. Jones began a professional comeback with the 1980 Wynette duet "Two Story House," and continued his hot streak with "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and "I'm Not Ready Yet," both on his first million-selling album, I Am What I Am.

His drug and alcohol abuse grew worse in the late '70s, and Mr. Jones had to file for bankruptcy in 1978. In 1982, TV cameras captured a police chase of the rambunctious singer driving drunk through Nashville and, after being apprehended, attempting to kick a cameraman.

A manager had started him on cocaine, hoping to counteract his boozy, lethargic performances, and Mr. Jones was arrested in Jackson, Miss., in 1983 on cocaine possession charges. He agreed to perform a benefit concert and was sentenced to six months probation. In his memoir, Satan Is Real, Charlie Louvin recounted being offered a fistful of cocaine by Mr. Jones backstage at a concert.

In 1983, he married his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulvedo, who became his manager, and he quit drinking and using cocaine. His fluid, soulful baritone remained a presence on country radio stations through the late 1980s, when he was crowded out by a new generation of stars such as Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, and Alan Jackson - who, interestingly, were all deeply influenced by him.

In the 1990s, the much-revered vocalist had a hard time competing with such young artists as the brand of honky-tonk balladry typified by such Jones classics as "If Drinking Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)" grew unfashionable in the face of the airbrushed suburbanization of country music. He kept a high profile, though: In 1992, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and he made a series of fine albums . In 1996, he released a highly entertaining biography, I Lived to Tell It All, and an album of the same name.

Mr. Jones is survived by his wife, Nancy Jones, whom he credited with stabilizing his private life. He had four children, one with first wife Dorothy Bonvillion, two with second wife Shirley Ann Corley, and one with Wynette. His daughter with Wynette, Georgette Jones, became a country singer and played her mother in the 2008 TV series Sordid Lives.

On his 1985 hit "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes," Mr. Jones declared, "This old world is full of singers, but just a few are chosen to tear your heart out when they sing." George Jones was surely one of those.