George Jones, considered by many to be the greatest country singer in history, died Friday morning (April 26) in Nashville after a brief hospitalization. He was 81. In the hours after his death, Billboard.biz spoke with some of his friends, fellow musicians and those who worked with him for their memories.
Shelia Shipley, president of Flying Island Entertainment, was the VP of promotion at MCA Nashville when Jones recorded for the label in the 1990s.
“By the time I was working with George at MCA, he [already] had been a superstar,” Shipley says. “It was probably one of the biggest honors of my life to get to work with George.”
Shipley and others credit Jones’ fourth wife, Nancy, with keeping his career on track. “To me, Nancy was the business side of George. When their union began she really took over that side of his world, and he would credit her for saving his life. She turned things around, took over his finances, strategies for his career, and she nudged him to do things correctly in his career and helped him make those business decisions.”
“George loved to make music,” Shipley continues. “He was a very humble man. He never acted like he knew the impact he had on country music. He was a real joy to work with.
“He sang about things people felt, he found songs that said what we couldn’t say, what we felt but couldn’t vocalize, and that’s why his music was so popular across so many generations of people,” she said. “When you heard those songs you felt the pain he was singing about. It reverberated with all ages.”
Evelyn Shriver, Jones’ longtime friend and business partner in Bandit Records, agrees. “George was very humble about his singing. He heard it all the time, that he was a great singer, but he was the kind of person who didn’t take it to his head, he took it to his heart.”
Mary Ann McCready is president of Flood, Bumstead, McCready and McCarthy, a business management firm. She also served as vice president of national sales and marketing for Columbia Nashville during Jones’ tenure on sister label Epic Records.
“There wasn’t anybody else like him,” she says, calling him “He stood right there all by himself in a class of singers that could convey pain and emotion. And I’m sure it’s because he knew it. He was so familiar with the pain and emotion.”
Country artist, Grand Ole Opry member and historian Marty Stuart calls Jones “the third wave in country music. The first wave was the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers, and then Hank Williams revolutionized the music. After Hank there were a lot of people who were still under the sound of Hank Williams and taking their persona from that. When George came through his originality and genius appeared and his unique perspective came through and, country music had a new singer that to this day is unparalleled.”
Grand Ole Opry member Connie Smith was often called Jones’ favorite singer and she shared a similar admiration for him. “He was real,” she says. “Whatever he thought you heard. He didn’t pull punches, he gave you his opinion and you could count on it.”
Smith recalls the first day she met Jones. “I came to town in 1964, and [her debut single] ‘Once a Day’ went to No. 1. At the disc jockey convention in November of that year it was No. 1 and I was being pulled from place to place doing interviews and meeting deejays, and I was walking down the hall from one room to another room and I saw this figure coming down the hall -- and he saw me and he started singing ‘Once a Day’ in that great George Jones voice.”
Sarah Brosmer, associate manager at Lytle Management, worked with Jones she was senior director of publicity at MCA Nashville. “Despite his worldwide fame, he still seemed to be a just a regular guy at heart,” she says. “He’d rather talk about his latest mower or his cattle than anything about his career. He was still very shy and we had a heckuva time getting him to talk about himself to the press. But that voice – it was so emotional, so full of heartache – it was pure country and one of a kind.”
Joe Bonsall of the Oak Ridge Boys found out about Jones’ death when the quartet pulled into Nashville from a show last night in Missouri. “It’s such a huge loss,” Bonsall says.
The Oak Ridge Boys recorded “Same Ole Me” with Jones, which reached No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles in 1982. But it was another Jones hit that sticks in Bonsall’s mind.
“We were both playing at the DuQuoin [Ill.] State Fair in the early ‘80s and George came on our bus. He said, ‘Boys, I just recorded a good song and I think it’s going to be a big one. Wanna hear it?’ George put on that guitar and just for the four of us sang ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today.’ Our mouths dropped open. It’s one of my greatest memories in the music business. That song went on to be probably the greatest country song ever.”
The Oak Ridge Boys were among those scheduled to appear at Jones’ farewell concert to be held in Nashville later this year. For his part, Bonsall hopes the show goes on as a tribute concert.—reporting by Vernell Hackett, Tom Roland and Ken Tucker in Nashville