NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- 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.
Jones died Friday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, according to his publicist Kirt Webster. He had been hospitalized with fever and irregular blood pressure, forcing him to postpone two shows.
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.
Word of his death spread Friday morning as his peers paid tribute.
"The greatest voice to ever grace country music will never die," Garth Brooks said in an email to The Associated Press. "Jones has a place in every heart that ever loved any kind of music."
James Taylor called Jones "a true innovator. Nobody could sing like George Jones. Everyone who could imitate him did," Taylor told the Associated Press. "I wrote and recorded a song, ‘Bartender's Blues,' as a tribute and, in an instance of life-imitating-art, George recorded it and asked me to harmonize. It was the second dream come true of my career. He was easy and kind and I'll never forget him."
Jones survived long battles with alcoholism and drug addiction, brawls, accidents and close encounters with death, including bypass surgery and a tour bus crash that he avoided only by deciding at the last moment to take a plane.
In song, he was rowdy and regretful, tender and tragic. His hits included the sentimental "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes," the foot-tapping "The Race is On," the foot-stomping "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair," the melancholy "She Thinks I Still Care," the rockin' "White Lightning," and the barfly lament "Still Doing Time." Jones also recorded several duets with Tammy Wynette, his wife for six years, including "Golden Ring," "Near You," "Southern California" and "We're Gonna Hold On." He also sang with such peers as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and with Elvis Costello and other rock performers.
But his signature song was "He Stopped Loving Her Today," a weeper among weepers about a man who carries his love for a woman to his grave. The 1980 ballad, which Jones was sure would never be a hit, often appears on surveys as the most popular country song of all time.
Jones won Grammy awards in 1981 for "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and in 1999 for "Choices." He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and in 2008 was among the artists honored in Washington at the Kennedy Center.
He was in the midst of a yearlong farewell tour when he passed away. He was scheduled to complete the tour in November with an all-star packed tribute in Nashville.
Jones was a purist who lamented the transformation of country music from the family feeling of the 1950s to the hit factory of the early 21st century.
Jones was born Sept. 12, 1931, in a log house near the east Texas town of Saratoga, the youngest of eight children. He sang in church and at age 11 began performing for tips on the streets of Beaumont, Texas. His first outing was such a success that listeners tossed him coins, placed a cup by his side and filled it with money. Jones estimated he made more than $24 for his two-hour performance, enough to feed his family for a week, but he used up the cash at a local arcade.
"That was my first time to earn money for singing and my first time to blow it afterward," he recalled in "I Lived to Tell it All," a painfully self-critical memoir published in 1996. "It started what almost became a lifetime trend."
The family lived in a government-subsidized housing project, and his father, a laborer, was an alcoholic who would rouse the children from bed in the middle of the night to sing for him.
He got his start on radio with husband and wife team Eddie & Pearl in the late 1940s. Hank Williams once dropped by the studio to promote a new record, and Jones was invited to back him on guitar. When it came time to play, he froze.
"Hank had ‘Wedding Bells' out at the time," Jones recalled in a 2003 Associated Press interview. "He started singing it, and I never hit the first note the whole song. I just stared."
After the first of his four marriages failed, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1951 and served three years. He cut his first record when he got out, an original fittingly called "No Money in This Deal."
He had his first hit with "Why Baby Why" in 1955, and by the early ‘60s Jones was one of country music's top stars.
"I sing top songs that fit the hardworking, everyday loving person. That's what country music is about," Jones said in a 1991 AP interview.
Jones was married to Wynette, his third wife, from 1969 to 1975. (Wynette died in 1998.) Their relationship played out in Nashville like a country song, with hard drinking, fights and reconciliations.
His drug and alcohol abuse grew worse in the late ‘70s, and Jones had to file for bankruptcy in 1978. A manager had started him on cocaine, hoping to counteract his boozy, lethargic performances, and Jones was eventually 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 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.
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.
"There is a God," he recalled.
In 1983, Jones married his fourth and final wife, Nancy Sepulveda, whom he credited with stablizing his private life. He had four children, one with first wife Dorothy Bonvillion, two with second wife Shirley Ann Corley and one with Wynette, Georgette Jones, who became a country singer and even played her mother in the 2008 TV series "Sordid Lives."