George Jones, Country Music Icon, Dead at 81

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George Jones performs with his band on stage for the film, 'From Nashville With Music,' directed by Eddie Crandall, 1969.

George Jones – the singer who defined an era of country music and along the way, influenced almost every artist that followed into the format – died this morning at Nashville's Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He was 81. Jones entered the hospital on April 18 with fever and irregular blood pressure.

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Jones was born September 12, 1931 in Saratoga, Texas. Music took a hold rather early, as Jones recalled asking his mother to wake him up on Saturday nights if he was asleep when Roy Acuff came on WSM's Grand Ole Opry. Before he was even ten years old, he was playing his guitar for tips on the streets of nearby Beaumont.

By age 19, Jones – newly married – enlisted with the United States Marine Corps. Stationed in California for his entire length of service, it was after his discharge that his music career really began to blossom, with his signing to Starday Records in 1953.

His first recording for the label, "Ain't No Money In This Deal," was very prophetic, as the single failed to gain any traction. However, by the fall of 1955, he found himself on the charts for the first time with "Why Baby Why," which peaked at  # 4 on the Billboard charts. Ironically, the song was also on the charts as a chart-topping duet by Webb Pierce and Red Sovine. As one of the writers of the song, Jones definitely loved that distinction of having two records in the top ten – of the same song!

"Why Baby Why" became the first of 166 singles to enter the singles chart for Jones. As the 1950s progressed, he added more hits to his catalog – with many songs becoming classics in the genre. "White Lightning" became his first number one hit in 1959, and others fell at the top or rather close – with "Tender Years" and "The Window Up Above"  being two of he biggest. Having signed with Mercury Records in the late 1950s, he switched labels again – to United Artists in 1962.

His debut release for the label, "She Thinks I Still Care" topped the charts for six weeks in the early summer of 1962, and became a musical standard – inspiring future cover versions by acts such as Anne Murray and Elvis Presley.

Throughout the 1960s, his star continued to hold steady with hits such as "A Girl I Used To Know," "You Comb Her Hair," and "The Race Is On." He paired with Melba Montgomery in 1963 for the top ten "We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds," which was the first of six collaborations between the two to chart. Ever restless from a label standpoint, 1965 saw Jones become the flagship artist for Musicor Records. Though the technical aspect of his cuts for the label might have left something to be desired, the songs were nothing short of first rate - "Walk Through This World With Me," "A Good Year For The Roses," and "When The Grass Grows Over Me" - a #2 record from 1969 that resulted in a Song of the Year nomination from the CMA.

1969 definitely represented a turning point for Jones. He married Tammy Wynette that year, which eventually paved the way to his leaving Musicor for Epic in 1971. The singer's first release for the label was "Take Me," a duet with Wynette (the song had hit the top ten in 1966 for Jones as a solo single), which hit # 9. For the next two decades, Jones would remain on Epic, and along with Billy Sherrill as producer, he would cut some of his biggest records. Whether it be solo chart entries such as "Once You've Had The Best" or duets with Wynette like "We're Gonna Hold On," the singer was on a roll. Even though the couple divorced in 1975, they still continued to record, with 1976's "Golden Ring" being their most recognized hit.

The divorce from Wynette sunk Jones into a personal tailspin. His long battle with alcoholism became more evident, and he also added drugs to his resume. Still, when in the studio, he continued to create songs that live to this day. An early 1980 recording session with Sherrill prompted him to bet his producer $100 that the song they just cut was "too morbid" to hit the top. The song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," not only hit number one, but also won every major award possible – and after 25 years on the charts, Jones was recognized as Male Vocalist of the Year in 1980 by the CMA!

The 1980s were arguably his most successful decade from a standpoint of consistency. He added such classics to his list as "Tennessee Whiskey," "If Drinkin Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)," and 1989's "I'm A One Woman Man," which became his final solo top ten record, peaking at No. 5.

Though the hits dried up somewhat in the 1990s, Jones still remained a viable force. He kicked off the decade with a top ten hit with Randy Travis in "A Few Ole Country Boys," became a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992, and reunited with Wynette for One -- an album on MCA Records that also resulted in a successful tour. In 1999, he released the top-30 single Billy Yates-written "Choices," which helped earn him his second Grammy Award ("He Stopped Loving Her Today" being the first).  In the 2000s, Jones continued to record, with collaborations with Garth Brooks ("Beer Run") and Shooter Jennings ("4th Of July") hitting the top-30. His final chart entry was the (again) prophetically titled "Country Boy," with Aaron Lewis and Charlie Daniels, from 2011.

All along, Jones continued to tour, with his love of the stage something that stayed with him till the end. The singer was scheduled to play his final concert in Nashville this November. He told Billboard that his final tour was definitely a bittersweet occasion.

"I have been blessed to do what I love for all these years and when I return to places that I know I will be performing for the last time it makes me a little nostalgic and sad. I will surely miss my fans and the good people I have met along this journey."

Whether it be artists inside his own genre, such as Vince Gill, George Strait, or Patty Loveless, or from outside the country realm like Keith Richards, Harry Connick, Jr., or James Taylor, the music and influence of George Glenn Jones will continue to touch the hearts of music fans – as long as there are records, CD's and digital downloads forever.

Jones is survived by his wife of 30 years, Nancy Jones, his sister Helen Scroggins, and by his children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Funeral services are pending.