Saturday, April 27, 2013

George Jones, 1931-2013: He Stopped Loving Her Today

To fully understand the greatness of George Jones, you must first grasp the profound effect he had on his fellow artists -- his country antecedents, his peers and his Nashville descendants. No other singer in the history of country music was as inspirational as Jones, who died on April 26 in Nashville at age 81.

I arrived at his altar relatively late, at age 10, when he was cresting Billboard's country singles chart with his signature song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," a No. 1 comeback hit in 1980 that was my mother's favorite song at the time. I've been a devout worshipper ever since. To know him, to know his voice and his music, was to love him forever. His ex-wife and sometime duet partner, the late Tammy Wynette, to whom he was turbulently married from 1969 to 1975, pretty much said so much when I interviewed her and Jones together in 1995 while they were promoting their reunion album One.

Despite their troubled marriage, marred by the alcoholism that nearly sent Jones to an early grave, Wynette was clearly still in awe of her ex. I was astonished by the easy rapport between them, the way they still finished each other's sentences, after all those years apart. To know him was to never stop loving him or his music, and he gave love right back -- and not only through his songs. I was convinced then and now that George never really stopped loving Tammy. (Watch the video below until the end for evidence.)

The second time I witnessed the George Jones Effect on a fellow superstar, he wasn't even in the room, just in the building. It was one year later, 1996, and there I was starstruck and smitten, sitting across from Anne Murray in the bar at the RIHGA Royal Hotel (now the London Hotel) in New York City, and all she could talk about was Jones, who someone told us was staying in the same hotel. It was a significant moment -- Murray's first No. 1 country single was her 1974 cover of Jones' "She Thinks I Still Care" (retitled "He Thinks I Still Care"), itself a 1962 chart-topper -- and if I didn't get it before, from the way my mother adored him, from the way Wynette still clearly did, I got it then.

George Jones was not only a legend, he was a legend who inspired others to greatness (including Patty Loveless, on whose "You Don't Seem to Miss Me," featured in Wednesday's blog post, Jones provided memorable harmony), and that becomes a legend most.

Seven George Jones Hits That Defined My Youth

1. "Still Doin' Time" (No. 1, 1981) My favorite Jones single. The steel guitar motiff that begins and ends it remains one of my Top 5 moments in the history of recorded country music. So simple and so simply devastating.

2. Two Story House (No. 2, 1980) Not necessarily my favorite of his duets with Tammy Wynette (in retrospect, that honor would go to "Near You," No. 1 in 1976), but that "Oh, what splendor!" exemplifies his vocal greatness. Oh, what splendor!

3. "I Always Get Lucky With You" (No. 1, 1983) Jones's final country chart-topper. If you're gonna go out, you might as well go out at the top of your game, still kicking ass, effortlessly.

4. "I'm Not Ready Yet" (No. 2, 1980) How do you follow a great, unforgettable hit like "He Stopped Loving Her Today"? With another equally great, unforgettable one, of course.

5. "Yesterday's Wine" (No. 1, 1982) A chart-topping duet with Merle Haggard, a song whose greatness I recently rediscovered while running around Lumpini Park in Bangkok. Been there, tasted and offered that.

6. "Same Ole Me" (No. 5, 1982) Featuring The Oak Ridge Boys, the best backing vocal group of the early '80s, who also could be heard delivering their harmonic magic on 1980's Top 10 "Broken Trust" by Brenda Lee, who, incidentally, duetted with Jones on 1984's Top 15 "Hallelujah, I Love You So."

7. "Her Name Is" (No. 3, 1976) The first George Jones song I can remember loving, way back before I even knew George Jones was singing it.

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