King Of The Broken Hearts
For over half a century, George Jones has reigned as one of the most distinctive voices in all of country music. His pure country vocal style, descended from the likes of Roy Acuff, Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, extends back to the very roots of the genre. His influence over succeeding generations of country musicians, is inestimably profound. For, George Jones represents the heart and soul of country music.
Known to his fans as the “King of the Broken Hearts,” his songs are borne out of hard drinking honky-tonk nights and stormy back room romances. “If you’re going to sing a country song,” he once said, “you’ve got to have lived it yourself.” And no one has lived up to those words more passionately than George Jones. His legendary personal battles with alcoholism and drugs, as well as numerous emotional upheavals (including four marriages and three divorces), are the subject matter for many of his best songs. His ability to survive those misfortunes is a testament to his real grit and determination.
He has had nearly one-hundred and fifty records in the US country charts, more than any other performer. He had at least one Top Ten song each year from 1958 through 1971, with thirteen reaching Number One. He has released over four hundred and fifty albums in the US and Great Britain.
George Glenn Jones was born in a log cabin on September 12, 1931, in Saratoga, Texas, in an area known as the “Big Thicket.” In the midst of the unremitting poverty of the Great Depression, life was especially hard in the region- which was filled with lumber camps and oil fields. George was the eighth child born to Clara and George Washington Jones, a heavy-drinking truck driver and oil pipe fitter. In the mid ‘20s, a malaria epidemic swept across the swampy, snake-ridden Southeast Texas territory, claiming George’s oldest sister, five years before his birth. The grief George’s father suffered over his daughter’s death eventually drove him to alcoholism.
Growing up, young George was surrounded by music. His father occasionally played a little “square dancing’ guitar,” as George later stated. Clara was a member of the Pentecostal church, where she regularly played organ and piano for various services. Even early on, George exhibited an affinity for music, as well. He enjoyed the gospel music he heard in church and the Carter Family records his family often played on the Victrola at home, but he became truly fascinated with country music when his family bought a radio, when he was seven years old.
“My favorites were Roy Acuff, and then Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell,” George later said. “I got a lot of my phrasing from Lefty. You know, you make a five-syllable word out of a one-syllable. Then you add a little bit of Roy Acuff and a little bit from Hank Williams, I sing with my voice and their phrasing, and I thank those three people every day.”
When George was nine years old, his parents bought him a guitar which was decorated with a picture of one of his heroes, Gene Autry. “I never played guitar until church,” George once said in an interview. “Although, when I was very young, I sung around the house. My Sunday school teacher taught me my first chords on a guitar. I would go with Sister Annie and Brother Berle Stevens into this little town called Kuntz, Texas. Every Saturday afternoon, we’d sit inside the car with loud speakers on the outside. Sister Annie would play guitar and I’d sing harmony with her or she’d sing harmony with me.”
It was not long before George managed to gain proficiency on the guitar. He soon began to perform at various local gatherings and church functions. A few years later, the family moved, looking for steady work in the nearby Beaumont shipyards on the Gulf of Mexico. Young George was soon performing the old gospel hymns so well, that his inebriated father would often roust the boy out of bed to play at spur-of-the-moment camp meetings, or to send him out in the streets of Beaumont to sing for tips and spare change.
At age sixteen, George ran away to Jasper, Texas- located about fifty miles north of Beaumont- where he sang at a local radio station for a few months. Later in 1947, George returned to Beaumont, where he was hired to play electric guitar with Eddie and Pearl, the husband and wife team who headed the house band at the popular Playground club. That stint eventually led to periodic radio appearances on KRIC in Beaumont.
In 1949, Hank Williams came to Beaumont for a live appearance on KRIC. Williams sang “Wedding Bells” with Eddie and Pearl, a rendition which featured a nervous young George Jones on lead guitar. George was so excited at the prospect of playing in support of one of his idols, that he blew every note of his solo. Still, even years later, George’s memory was still fondly clear regarding the influence that day played upon his own career.
“Hank sat and talked with us like he knew us his whole life,” George later reminisced. “I worshipped him. His style was all in the feeling. He could sing anything and it would make you sad, but an up-tempo thing could make you happy.”
In 1950, when he was 19 years old, George married his first wife, Dorothy Bonvillion. But, within a year, the marriage foundered. By the end of 1951, George was enlisted with the US Marines. Though the U.S. was at war with Korea at the time, George never actually served overseas. He was stationed at a military base in California- where, whenever the opportunity presented itself, he would perform in the local clubs. Upon his discharge, late in 1953, George immediately began playing again at various venues across southeast Texas.
His talent soon caught the attention of Harold “Pappy” Dailey, who was one of the most important record producers of the postwar era. Dailey helped to cultivate George’s career, as well as those of Gene Pitney and J.P. Richardson (who was known as the “Big Bopper”), among many others. Along with his partner, Jack Starnes, Pappy Dailey established Starday Records, which became one of the most successful Texas independent labels of the ’50s.
In 1954, George married his second wife, Shirley Ann Corley. A year later, in 1955, he had his first country hit with “Why Baby Why.” This was followed by a brief period as a rockabilly performer. He released a few rough-hewn rockabilly singles, including “Rock It,” which later became a pop hit for Pat Boone; as well as his own version of “Heartbreak Hotel” (recorded under the name Thumper Jones, to avoid disturbing traditional country fans). “I did some rock,” George later said, “had fun with it, but it didn’t touch my heart.”
Pappy Dailey also leased cover versions of well-known songs recorded by George (among other performers) to other labels- for budget records. George’s work was issued under various pseudonyms: Johnny Williams, Hank Davis and Glen Patterson, though those same names were also used by other performers, as well. Pappy Dailey secured for George a spot on the Louisiana Hayride, radio program, where he shared the bill with Elvis Presley.
George reached the Top Ten with regularity in 1956. He had numerous hits, including “What Am I Worth,” “Just One More” and “Yearning,” a duet with Jeanette Hicks. In August, having previously been invited several times, George finally joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. His is first album was released by the end of the year. 1957 bore hits such as “Color of the Blues” and “Treasure of Love.”
In 1957, Starday Records signed a distribution deal with Mercury Records and George’s records began to appear under the Mercury imprint. Moving from Texas, Pappy Dailey began recording George in Nashville. George’s first single for Mercury, “Don’t Stop the Music,” was another Top Ten hit. In 1959, he had a big hit with “White Lightning,” written by his friend, J.P. Richardson.
As his popularity grew, George’s behavior became increasingly reckless and excessive. Alcohol played a mitigating role, as Pappy Dailey was forced to bail him out of jail on more than one occasion. Alcohol and drug abuse continued to plague George’s career, escalating as the years went by and the hits piled up.
For the United Artists and Musicor Records labels, the 60’s were filled with George Jones hits, including “The Window Up Above” in 1960, “Tender Years” in 1961 and “She Thinks I Still Care” in 1962. In 1963, George began performing and recording with Melba Montgomery. Their hard-scrabble harmonies, over often tawdry lyrics, reflected honky-tonk and bluegrass influences- the true roots of country music. Their first duet, “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds” (spring 1963), was their biggest hit, peaking at Number Three. George had a number of solo hits in 1963 and 1964, as well, with the “The Race Is On” reaching Number Three in the fall of 1964.
While at Musicor, Jones recorded almost three hundred songs in just five years, including hits such as “Love Bug” (1965), “I’m a People” (1966), “Walk Through This World With Me” (1967), “When the Grass Grows Over Me” (1968), and “I’ll Share My World With You” (1969). George’s second marriage, to Shirley Ann Corley, ended in 1968. Soon thereafter, he met Tammy Wynette, whom he married the same year.
In 1970, George ended his relationship with Pappy Dailey and began working with Wynette’s producer, Billy Sherrill, at Epic Records. Despite a considerable difference in the two producers’ techniques (Dailey preferred stripped down production, while Sherrill had a penchant for symphonic strings and other pop accoutrements), they were able to successfully work together. Notable hits from early 1970’s were “Take Me,” with Wynette in 1971, “We Can Make It” and “The Ceremony,” with Tammy, in 1972, “Once You’ve Had the Best” in 1973 and “The Grand Tour” in 1974. Despite the sentiments espoused in, “We’re Gonna Hold On,” released in 1973, George and Tammy’s marriage was on the rocks.
This commenced a very dark period in George’s life. His scandalous behavior, the result of heavy drinking and an addiction to cocaine, included missing performances, shooting at friends and the alleged beating of his wife. Seemingly, he was trying to live out the life described within his honky-tonk songs. George and Tammy’s marriage, which was the continuous subject of Nashville gossip, was filled with endless recriminations, separations and reconciliations. The couple finally divorced in 1975.
The years of abuse eventually led to George suffering a personality split into two distinct personages. The two characters would often argue with one another, with “The Old Man” grousing like Walter Brennan, while “Dee-doodle the Duck” would harangue like Donald Duck. George even performed a few shows as Dee-Doodle- to the cascading catcalls of irate fans. He was once arrested for driving a riding lawn mower down a Nashville street, after having made a purchase at a local liquor store.
Ironically, George and Tammy Wynette continued to record together, with hits such as “Golden Ring” in 1976. That same year George played at the Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July picnic, a performance which served to widen his appeal to include both traditional hardcore country fans and a new generation of younger, “outlaw” types. His hits during the late 70’s included songs such as “Near You,” with Tammy, in 1977; “Bartender’s Blues,” with James Taylor, and “Maybelline,” with Johnny Paycheck, in 1978 and “You Can Have Her,” also with Paycheck, in 1979. Both singles went Top Ten, which led to a proposed album of duets called My Very Special Guests.
Though that album was meant to signal a return to form for George, he managed to miss the scheduled recording sessions. He was forced to overdub his vocals long after his partners had recorded theirs. That same year, doctors advised him that it was imperative that he deal with his alcoholism. George checked into a rehabilitation facility, but left after only a month of treatment. He would often disappear for days at a time and began missing concerts with all too frequent regularity. In 1979, alone, he missed fifty-four engagements, which earned for him the nickname of “No-Show Jones.”
Despite himself, George began the decade of the 80’s in a big way, first, with a Top Ten duet with Wynette, “Two Story House,” released early in 1980. Then, later that same year, he won a Grammy Award, along with several Country Music Awards, for the song “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” He followed that success with hits such as “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will” and “Still Doin’ Time” in 1981, and “Yesterday’s Wine,” with Merle Haggard, in 1982.
Between 1981 and 1983, George had eight Top Ten hits. But he had yet to address his addictions. Due to his cocaine habit, his weight had fallen drastically, from one-hundred and fifty to a mere one-hundred pounds. His intoxicated rampages continued, culminating in a televised police chase of George, driving drunk through the streets of Nashville.
Following his arrest, with the support of his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulveda, whom he married in 1983, George managed to finally kick his drug and alcohol habits. It was because of Nancy’s encouragement that he was able to close out the decade with hits such as “I Always Get Lucky With You” and “We Didn’t See A Thing,” with Ray Charles, in 1983; “She’s My Rock” in 1984; “Who’s Gonna Fill Her Shoes” in 1985; “The One I Loved Back Then” in 1986; “The Right Left Hand” in 1987; “If I Could Bottle This Up,” with Shelby Lynne, in 1988 and his final hit for Epic, “One Woman Man” in 1989.
In 1991, George signed with the MCA label. The following year he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. He began to regularly tour again, performing at over one-hundred concerts every year. George’s memorable songs from the 90’s included “A Few Old Country Boys,” with Randy Travis, in 1990; “You Couldn’t Find The Picture,” in 1991; “Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair,” with several artists, in 1992 and “Never Bit a Bullet Like This,” with Sammy Kershaw, in 1993. In 1994, George survived open-heart surgery, undergoing a successful triple bypass operation at Baptist Hospital in Nashville.
In 1998, while in the midst of recording his highly acclaimed album Cold Hard Truth, George was involved in a terrible traffic accident, losing control of his SUV and hitting a bridge abutment, just a mile away from his home. It took over two hours for emergency teams to free him from his vehicle. He suffered a collapsed lung, a torn liver and other internal injuries, remaining in the hospital critical care unit for eleven days. He then contracted pneumonia, further exacerbating his recovery. But George’s indomitable spirit saw him through that calamity as well.
In an interview, George Jones made the definitive statement regarding his attitude toward his profession. “I never went into this business even thinking about money, what I would do or where I would go. I just wanted my guitar in my hand and to keep going. I just wanted to sing.” Over the course of fifty years, he has maintained that stance, through a stormy career, filled with intense personal turbulence, the result of often erratic, self-destructive behavior.
Still, above all things, George Jones is a survivor. His songs reflect a life lived to its fullest, for better or worse. He embodies the country ethic of hard living and hard loving, displaying a tough sensitivity, which clearly comes through in his best recordings. The king of the broken hearts. He is a legend and an icon, whose life is even more rugged than the hard-bitten context of his songs- which are some of the greatest in all of country music.