George Jones, the peerless, hard-living country singer who recorded dozens of hits about good times and regrets and peaked with the heartbreaking classic "He Stopped Loving Her Today," has died. He was 81.
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With one of the most golden voices of any genre, a clenched, precise, profoundly expressive baritone, Jones had No. 1 songs in five separate decades, 1950s to 1990s. He was idolized not just by fellow 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.
One of the best concerts I ever went to was Jones performing at the Embassy. There was nothing special about it -- just that one man up there, singing songs I already knew. But that voice! He is one of those singers (Johnny Cash was another one) whose voice you think you know. But unless you have actually heard them in person, you have no idea.
Love the story behind "He Stopped Loving Her Today."
In 1980, a 3-minute song changed his life. His longtime producer, Billy Sherrill, recommended he record "He Stopped Loving Her Today," a ballad by Curly Putnam and Bobby Braddock. The song took more than a year to record, partly because Jones couldn't master the melody, which he confused with Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make it Through the Night," and partly because he 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.")
"Pretty simple, eh?" Jones wrote in his memoir. "I couldn't get it. I had been able to sing while drunk all of my life. I'd fooled millions of people. But I could never speak without slurring when drunk. What we needed to complete that song was the narration, but Billy could never catch me sober enough to record four simple spoken lines."
Jones was convinced the song was too "morbid" to catch on. But "He Stopped Loving Her Today," featuring a string section that hummed, then soared, became an instant standard and virtually canonized him. His concert fee jumped from $2,500 a show to $25,000.
It's more than a little ironic that on a lot of lists of "greatest country songs ever," that song about eternal love and "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" by Jones' ex-wife Tammy Wynette are ranked 1 and 2 (Tammy's more often No. 1, I seem to recall).