The King is dead. Country singer George Jones, who entered Nashville's Vanderbilt University Medical Center on April 18 with a fever and irregular blood pressure, checked out for good early this morning. Cause of death has yet to be made public, but it's amazing that the hard living honky tonk singer made it to age 81 at all.

Born September 12, 1931 in Saratoga, Texas, he endured a miserable, poverty stricken childhood but early on found significant spiritual refuge in the country music he heard on the radio. By age 11, Jones could be found singing on the streets of Beaumont, where he was surprised that people offered him money. As he said years later, “I would've done if for free.”

Apart from a 1950-53 stint in the Marines, stationed for a time down in Oceanside, California, he never did anything else but sing country music. By 1954, he was recording for Starday Records. The disks all had a rough, rowdy and ready-for-action feel, and once Jones scored his first hit, 1955's manic lament “Why, Baby, Why,” his career went, and he was successful for the better part of the next three decades.

His infamous 1969 marriage to First Lady of country music Tammy Wynette produced some of the most perfectly realized boy-girl duets in the idiom's history. It also made for some of the most spectacular battles and bouts of marital malfeasance ever charted. Jones would go on a bender, smash furniture, shoot the house up; she'd hide all the car keys, resulting in that fabled lawnmower ride to the liquor store. It got so bad the boys in white jackets were once summoned to slap a straitjacket on him.

Following their 1975 divorce, Jones missed numerous dates, using so much speed and cocaine that his weight slipped below 100 pounds. Still, in 1980 he released his masterpiece I Am What I Am. Even at his very worst, Jones' rich interpretive prowess and knack for an excruciatingly well-manicured brand of honey-coated psychic agony was riveting.

His 1983 marriage to Nancy Ford Sepulvado brought a degree of stability and a loudly trumpeted climb onto the wagon. But when investigators at his near-fatal 1999 car wreck — which tore up his liver and nearly silenced him — found a bottle of vodka under the front seat, it was clear the Jones was still the same old reliable hell raiser. The incident resulted in the stunning single “Choices,” one of the best performances in his already incomparable career, but country radio would barely play it.

Jones kept working right up until last month, and while the luster of his pipes diminished somewhat, his skill and distinctive phrasing style never faltered. It can be persuasively argued that Jones was country music's finest-ever singer, a balladeer capable of stunningly communicative depth and a graceful sensitivity that bested even his most effective colleagues.

The style developed slowly, from the heavily Hank Williams influenced keening approach of his Starday releases to the elegant heart-stopping style of hits like “The Grand Tour” and “She Thinks I Still Care.” The singer first revealed his vast potential with 1962's harrowing jukebox ruler “He Stopped Loving her Today,” but the key upshift came when he hired Donny Young, later much better known as Johnny Paycheck, as bassist and harmony singer.

Paycheck exerted a critical influence on Jones, as Nashville producer Aubrey Mayhew told me in a 1990 interview. “I don't want you to misunderstand this statement but, George Jones learned to sing by listening to Johnny Paycheck.” said Mayhew. “What Paycheck does is phrase on the vowels. And that was unheard of prior to him. Nobody did that, but Paycheck did, in the mid- and late-'50s when he was working as a harmony singer. Go back and listen to the Jones records of the 1950's and then listen to his records after “The Race is On.” It is the harmony that makes the record and that harmony is Paychecks. Jones, Wynn Stewart, Haggard — they all learned from Johnny Paycheck.”

Ultimately, Jones owed nothing to any other singer and rose, on his own, to a towering artistic primacy that can never be rivaled. Because, even at his lowest, when he'd book a show at North Hollywood's Palomino and then opt to spend the evening just a few doors away drinking in some dive bar until owner Tommy Thomas strong-armed him onto the Pal bandstand, Jones was more like a man possessed than a mere singer. Though he was perceived as a withdrawn and often inarticulate character, Jones was capable of occasional, profound insight, particularly in the matter of country, the one thing that consistently ruled his life: “It's as if country music has a strange power over those who love it,” Jones said, “and it's the only thing I know of that you can love and curse at the same time.”

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