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Country legend Tammy Wynette Dies in Sleep

April 7, 1998 12:00 AM ET

Country music quietly lost its "first lady" on Monday, April 6 when fifty-five-year-old legend Tammy Wynette passed away in her sleep. Wynette's longtime physician Dr. Wallis Marsh, said the cause of death was a blood clot to the lungs.

Wynette, who had a long history of health problems, including chronic abdominal difficulties which led to the removal of part of her stomach in 1986 and an infection that placed her on a respirator in 1993, always managed to return to work with renewed vigor. Her last release was 1995's One, a collaboration with her famous duet partner and one-time husband George Jones. She was scheduled to perform alongside Melissa Etheridge and Trisha Yearwood for a live performance on TNN May 8.

Wynette, who had sold more than thirty million records over the course of her storied career, was born Virginia Wynette Pugh in Itawamba County (near Tupelo), Mississippi on May 5, 1942. She nurtured dreams of performing and writing music from a very young age, and secured a deal with Epic in 1966. She came out of the gate with a barrage of successful singles, beginning with Johnny Paycheck's "Apartment #9" in 1967 and peaking with her 1969 number-one hit, "Stand By Your Man." Wynette co-wrote the latter with her long-time producer, Billy Sherrill. In 1969, Wynette joined the Grand Ole Opry. That same year saw the release of her Greatest Hits, Volume 1, which became the first album by a female country singer to be certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Although her winning streak continued into the '70s, her greatest fame in that decade would come from her chart-topping duets with George Jones. Their songs together, including the number-one country hits "Near You" and "Golden Ring," are among the most famous duets in popular music. The couple were married in 1970, but the tumultuous relationship ended in divorce in 1975; nevertheless, they would continue to work together sporadically. The pair performed at country music's Fan Fair 1995 in Nashville and did a series of thirty concerts in the U.S., the UK, Ireland and Switzerland.

Wynette continued to record and perform throughout the Eighties and Nineties, complimenting her "living legend" status by staying on top of things with collaborations with the likes of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Randy Travis and, bizarrely, the English rave outfit KLF. Her single with KLF, "Justified and Ancient," struck international gold, going to number one in eighteen countries in 1992. The same year saw the release of Tears of Fire, a three-CD/cassette box set commemorating Wynette's twenty-five years with Epic Records. In 1994, Wynette collaborated with the likes of Wynonna Judd, Lyle Lovett, Elton John and Sting for her album Without Walls.

During the 1992 Presidential campaign, Wynette found herself in the thick of things through a widely publicized fracas with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Clinton's remark to an interviewer that she was not idly sticking by her husband "like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette," provoked Wynette to demand an apology and decry the statement as an insult to "every true country fan" and every person who had "made it on their own with no one to take them to a White House." Clinton apologized, and Wynette put aside her bygones to perform at a Clinton fund-raiser.

In a statement Jones remarked: "I am just very glad that we were able to work together and tour together again. It was very important for us to close the chapter on everything that we had been through. I know Tammy felt the same way. Life is too short. In the end, we were very close friends, and now I have lost that friend. And I couldn't be sadder."

Wynette is survived by her fifth husband, producer/songwriter George Richey, five daughters, a son and seven grandchildren.

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