Fifty-six years ago today, George Jones landed his first Number One hit with “White Lightning,” a revved-up tribute to a vice that would follow him for most of his life: alcohol.
Appropriately, when Jones showed up to Owen Bradley’s Quonset Hut Studio to record the song, he was seriously buzzed. It was February 1959, and the man who’d written “White Lightning” — J.P. Richardson, known to rock & roll fans as the Big Bopper — had died one week earlier in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. Everyone in the Quonset Hut was still reeling from the loss of those three icons, and they hoped “White Lightning” could serve as some sort of last-minute tribute to the Big Bopper. Producer Buddy Killen had even put together an A-list studio band for the occasion, with Pig Robbins on piano and Floyd Jenkins on guitar.
Jones wasn’t making it easy, though.
“Killeen played upright bass on the record and came up with the tune’s kickoff,” he remembered in his 1997 autobiography, I Lived to Tell It All. “It was a bass solo for a few bars. I don’t think I’ve ever heard another country song begin that way.”
The band spent hours in the recording studio. Jones, who kept drinking throughout the session, forgot the words every single time, requiring Killen to stop the performance, rewind the tape and kick off another take with the same finger-plucked bass riff. Eventually, Killen had to take Band-Aids to the tips of his four fretting fingers, hoping to protect the blisters that had formed after the fortieth or fiftieth take. It wound up taking the band 83 takes to get the right performance of the “White Lightning”. . . and even then, they had to settle for imperfection.
“The word ‘slug’ is slurred in that record,” Jones wrote. “That’s because I was drunk. But Killen said everyone was so tired of the song and all of the takes that he called the session to an end. If you listen to the original recording of ‘White Lightning,’ you can me stumble over the word ‘slug.'”
The 83rd performance of “White Lightning” was good enough for country fans, though, whose support helped send the song to the top of the charts for five weeks. It remained in the Top 40 for more than 150 days. Jones went on to score more than 100 additional hits. (The video above shows a 20-something Jones performing a live version of “White Lightning” in 1959, the same year the song was recorded and released.)
Although he struggled with alcohol addiction for a half-century, Jones sobered up for good in 1999, after a drunken car crash nearly took his life. He died more than a decade later, in 2013. Earlier this year, his widow, Nancy Jones, unveiled plans to commemorate his first big hit by partnering with a Kentucky distillery to produce White Lightning Moonshine, a 90-proof spirit that packs a punch as big as her late-husband’s voice.
“He’d say the alcohol controlled him all his life, and now he’s controlling it,” she told Rolling Stone Country in January.