George Jones died today, April 26, at 81. He was hospitalized April 18 with fever and irregular blood pressure. An argument can be made that he was the greatest country singer of them all. He certainly was the most soulful. I loved this man. And he’s hardly dead in my household. In his greatest song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam, and universally hailed by many as the greatest country song of all time, he sings the impossibly sad saga of a man, bereft of pride, whose unrequited love for a woman tortured him his whole life.

“He said, `I’ll love you ‘til I die/

She told him, `You’ll forget in time/

As the years went slowly by/

She still preyed upon his mind/

“He kept her picture on his wall/

Went half crazy now and then/

He still loved her through it all/

Hoping she’d come back again.

“Kept some letters by his bed/

Dated 1962/

He had underlined in red/

Every single I love you.

“I went to see him just today/

Oh, but I didn’t see no tears/

All dressed up to go away/

First time I’d seen him smile in years.

“He stopped loving her today/

They placed a wreath upon his door/

And soon they’ll carry him away/

He stopped loving her today.”

Reportedly, Jones said at the time of the recording, “nobody will buy that morbid son-of-a-bitch.”

Then comes the mid-song recitation…

“You know she came to see him one last time/

Oh, and we all wondered if she would/

And it kept running through my mind/

This time, he’s over her for good.”

At the time of its release, hard livin’, hard drinkin’ and some wild personal escapades during his tumultuous six-year marriage to singer Tammy Wynette, almost wrecked his career. Then came this song. He’s been quoted as saying, “a four-decade career had been salvaged by a three-minute song.” It’s the only song in history that won Nashville awards as best song in ’80, and then, inexplicably, again in ’81.

When I saw George Jones at Tramps in New York City in the 1990s, he had won over a generation or two or three of younger fans with that voice. He was, in fact, a soul singer in the guise of a country crooner. His heartfelt husky runs could rival anybody in any genre. “A singer who can soar from a deep growl to dizzying heights, he is the undisputed successor of earlier natural geniuses such as Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell.”—Bob Allen (Country Music Hall Of Fame And Museum’s “Encyclopedia Of Country Music.”)

But he was unpredictable. They called him “No-Show Jones” because he’d leave audiences waiting and not show up. Including me. A press party for him around the corner from The Bottom Line in New York City had him not showing up. Then we walked to the venue figuring he just skipped the party. Well, sir, he skipped the performance too. To paraphrase when Waylon Jennings sang about Hank, the people got mad and they all went home. The first thing we did was put his records on.

George Jones was born September 12, 1931, in Texas, first singing on the streets for change. In 1955, his sprightly “Why Baby Why” had ‘em twirling on dance floors and became his first of 160 hit singles. His first number one, “White Lightnin’,” about whiskey, came in 1959. His duets with Tammy were hits after their divorce. He always credited wife number four, Nancy, with whom he stayed married since 1983, for getting him off drugs and alcohol, thus prolonging his life. Cocaine had almost killed him in the ‘70s. Almost destitute, Waylon and Johnny Cash came to his aid. Wife number two once, in an effort to stop him from buying booze, hid the keys to the car. George then promptly drove his lawn mower to the liquor store.

In 1999, he nearly died in a car crash, but survived to receive the Kennedy Centers Honors for Lifetime Achievement in 2008. Last year, he announced a farewell tour for this year, which was to conclude in November of 2013.

I’m gonna go put some of his records on right now.

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