Three years ago today, on April 24th, 2013, the world lost the greatest voice country music has ever known. George Jones was born September 12th, 1931, in the “Big Thicket,” the heavily wooded area of Southeast Texas, and his early life was itself densely populated with hardship – an older sister who died at age seven, five years before George was born, was said to be the impetus for his father’s drinking habit, one Jones would soon pick up and which threatened to cut short his remarkable life more than a time or two.
Inspired by the vocal style and honest songwriting of Hank Williams, Jones poured the details of his hardscrabble upbringing into every note he would sing for eight decades, earning countless accolades and inspiring practically everyone who would – ultimately in vain – attempt to fill his shoes in country music.
By July 1959, the burr-headed singer (nicknamed “the Possum”) had landed eight singles in the Top Ten on the country chart, including his first Number One, “White Lightning.” Most of those hits were written or co-written by Jones, who also had songs cut by other country stars including Ray Price, who co-wrote and hit the Top Ten in 1956 with “You Done Me Wrong” and Stonewall Jackson, who landed in the Number Two spot in 1959 with Jones’ mournful “Life to Go.” Inspired by a prison concert he and Jackson gave, the song was also cut by Webb Pierce. Jones also penned (with Darrell Edwards) “Seasons of My Heart,” a Number Nine hit in 1956 for Opry star Jimmy C. Newman.
For his debut appearance on Town Hall Party, a popular California radio broadcast that made the transition to TV on Los Angeles station KTTV, Jones was offered a 10-minute slot during which he performed six songs: “You Done Me Wrong,” “Life to Go,” “Don’t Do This to Me,” “Seasons of My Heart,” and his then-current single, “Who Shot Sam,” which would reach the Top Ten that year, giving Jones a remarkable 35-week run on the Billboard charts that year. Although “White Lightning” was penned by J.P. Richardson (the “Big Bopper”) and “Sam” was co-written by Jones and two other writers, the songs share a similar style and were both recorded under the direction of Buddy Killen. Both hits for the Mercury label, the songs were cut at a time when Jones was doing some of his heaviest drinking, but his live TV performance was seemingly unaffected.
In this vintage clip showcasing one of Jones’ earliest TV performances, the singer is introduced by Jay Stewart (whose voice would later be heard announcing several TV game shows). Jones is joined by regular Town Hall Party band members including fiddler Harold Hensley (seen here in the plaid shirt), Gordon Terry on fiddle (and later electric guitar), Jimmy Pruitt on piano and Pee Wee Adams on drums, along with Skeets McDonald on electric bass, Cliff Crofford on acoustic guitar.
Jones’ voice was admittedly a bit worn from constant touring (among other things), but he finished his first Town Hall Party appearance with an encore of another 1956 hit, “You Gotta Be My Baby.” Introducing it as “one we hadn’t did in a long time around this part of the country,” Jones and band kicked into the quick-tempoed tune with gusto, with another rapid-fire piano solo from Pruitt.
Jones would influence nearly every artist that came after him, especially as his legend grew. Listen closely to the way he delivers the last verse and you’ll hear a similar vocal style in another iconic songwriter he no doubt influenced – Bob Dylan.
In the three years since his death, Jones had been paid countless tributes. A Jones museum in downtown Nashville was opened one year ago this week and a Hollywood biopic, authorized by his widow, Nancy Jones, is soon to start production.