All Photos: Alan Mercer Lighting: Eric V.
George Jones has been making music since before I was born. I have known his songs all my life! I’ve had the opportunity to see him perform live a few times, once with Tammy Wynette! There are no words to describe how good they were! George and his lovely wife Nancy came to Los Angeles on a February weekend so he could receive his Lifetime Achievement Grammy. Even though they were only in Los Angeles for a few hours, they made time to get photographed and talk with me. We met up at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown LA. The first thing I noticed upon walking through the lobby doors was the bright light of George’s hair and then how beautiful Nancy is! You will never meet a nicer couple. I fell instantly in love with both of them.
In many ways George Jones is as much a myth as a real human being. George is one of the last pure country singers.We all know the many stories of a colorful life lived to the fullest. Certainly you could never argue about his talent or his importance in the world of Country Music. He has influenced everyone and is beloved by generations of musicians of all kinds. George has been listed as the favorite country singer by many of its top performers. He has every award including Grammys, several CMA awards, a Kennedy Center Honor and the list goes on and on. To this very day his concerts continue to sell out everywhere he appears.
He was born on September 12, 1931 in Saratoga, Texas, in a log cabin in an area known as the Big Thicket. This was a hard area to live in and it was filled with lumber camps and oil fields. George was the eighth child born to a heavy-drinking pipefitter and his God fearing wife. His father played guitar and his mother played the piano. They encouraged their son to take an interest in music and they bought him a guitar when he was just nine years old. It wasn't long before George learned how to play it well and he began to play at various local and church functions. When the family moved to Beaumont, he played guitar in the streets for nickels.
In 1947, George got his own radio show where a co-worker nicknamed him "the possum" due to his supposed similarity to the animal. He married his first wife, Dorothy, at the age of 18, but the couple was separated within one year. He then joined the U.S. Marines in 1950. He performed while he was stationed in Southern California. After returning home from Korea in late 1953, George began playing at dances and in clubs all over Southeast Texas. His style caught the attention of a Houston record executive, H.W. "Pappy" Dailey, who helped to prepare the 24-year-old singer for stardom, which didn't take very long. He married his second wife, Shirley, in 1954.
George Jones' first country hit came in 1955 with ‘Why Baby Why.’ This was followed by a brief period as a rockabilly performer. Even though he was asked to perform on the Grand Ole Opry in 1956, he remained in Texas instead of making Nashville his home. That same year, he had several hits, including ‘Yearning,’ a duet with Jeannette Hicks. George had a big hit with ‘White Lightning’ on Mercury records in 1959.
The decade of the 1960's was filled with George Jones hits. These hits included such songs as ‘The Window Up Above’ in 1960, ‘Tender Years’ in 1961, ‘She Thinks I Still Care’ in 1962, ‘The Race Is On’ in1964, and ‘Walk Through This World With Me’ in1967. Georges' second marriage ended in 1968. It wasn't long before he met Tammy Wynette, whom he married the same year. In 1969, George finally joined the Grand Ole Opry.
In 1970, George began working with Tammy's producer, Billy Sherrill, at Epic Records. Despite the differences in the two producers, Sherrill used symphonic strings and other pop instruments, they were able to work successfully together. Some big hits from early 1970's were ‘Take Me,’ with Tammy in 1971 and ‘The Grand Tour’ in 1974. Contrary to the song they had released in 1973, ‘We're Gonna Hold On,’ George and Tammy were headed for divorce.
This began a dark period in George's life. The couple's lives became a Nashville soap opera filled with separations and reconciliations, culminating in 1975 when the two were divorced. It was ironic that George and Tammy continued to record together, and had hits such as ‘Golden Ring’ in 1976. He failed to appear at over fifty concert dates in 1979, earning the nickname "No-Show Jones" from many irate fans and tabloid writers. His doctors warned him to stop drinking and he obliged them by entering an Alabama alcoholism clinic.
George started off the decade of the 1980's in a big way. He won a Grammy Award along with several Country Music Awards for the song ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ in 1980. He followed this success with songs such as ‘If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)’, ‘Still Doin' Time’ in 1981, and ‘Yesterday's Wine,’ with Merle Haggard in 1982.
In 1983, George married his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulveda, who helped him kick his drinking and cocaine addictions. It was because of her support that he was able to close out the decade with hits like ‘I Always Get Lucky With You’ and ‘We Didn't See A Thing,’ with Ray Charles.
George was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992. Upon moving to Nashville, he resumed touring, performing at over 100 gigs each year. George's memorable songs from the early 1990's include ‘A Few Old Country Boys,’ with Randy Travis in 1990 and ‘I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair,’ in 1992. George had open-heart surgery in 1994, surviving a successful triple bypass operation at Baptist Hospital in Nashville. ‘I Lived To Tell It All,' George's autobiography co-written with Tom Carter, was published in 1996, and is an honest appraisal of his life.
George was on my list of artists that I hoped to photograph so it is a real joy to share these photos and our casual conversation with you all.
AM: How does it feel to get a lifetime achievement Grammy?
GJ: Well I’ll tell you I kind of dreaded the trip until I got out here and got to meet a lot of people in the business. It’s turned out that I’ve had a wonderful time. It’s a big honor to get this achievement award, even though I wanted to tell them I’m not quite through yet! (laughter) I’m so glad that I did come because it was wonderful to meet the Allman Brothers Band and so many people that I’ve never met before. Thank goodness they knew me and came to me so I got to shake their hands and meet them. I wouldn’t have known a lot of them.
AM: Did you meet Diana Ross?
GJ: Yes I sure did. I got some pictures with her.
AM: How was Glen Campbell?
GJ: It seems to me like he was doing a lot better. I think working with his family, like his daughter and son, has helped him with his tour. I think it’s really made him feel good.
AM: I hope he makes new strides and really does well with his Alzheimer’s.
GJ: That’s a terrible health problem.
AM: You have sure managed to stay healthy for a long time!
GJ: Well I tell you what, the good Lord has kept me around for some reason. I’m trying to figure out why! I’ve had a great career and so far I’m in pretty fair health. I’m ready to go all the time. I drive my wife crazy at home all the time when we’re off the road. I tell her to get up and get some clothes on so we can go do something!
AM: You have the energy of a teenager!
GJ: I’m telling you! The doctor has me on some kind of medicine for every part of my body. He told me I have the blood of a sixteen year old! (laughter) I hope that lasts!
AM: Do you think it’s your passion for the music that has given you this life force?
GJ: I think it is. Being in the business as long as I have, I’ve always been on the go. I can’t sit still. I guess you could say I’m hyper. At my age you’d think I’d be ready to stay at the house.
AM: Some people are ready to call it a day by the time they reach your age.
GJ: I thought I was, so I cut my dates in half. Boy I’ll tell you what, I like to went nuts!!!
AM: In your current show do reach back and sing the classics or stick to new material?
GJ: I’ve got a couple of new ones that I play around with, and some old songs that people probably haven’t paid any attention to on the albums. I do an up-tempo song called 'The Man He Was’ that fit my Dad and probably fit a lot of people’s Dad. Basically I do start off with and pretty much stick with the hits.
AM: Do you have any idea how many albums you’ve recorded?
GJ: No, my wife knows more about that part than I do. I do know we’ve recorded several albums over the years. At one time it was around seventy or eighty. I’m just guessing, but you know they rehash a lot of the same songs and put different covers on them, especially when you’ve been in this business as long as I have.
AM: You are so famous for your duets with Tammy Wynette. I know you have recorded with other people as well. Do any stand out for you?
GJ: When I first started out I recorded with a young lady who just recently passed away. She was about seventy-six. Her name was Jeanette Hicks. We did a song called 'Yearning’ which really did well locally in Houston, Beaumont and in Oklahoma.
AM: What was the first big hit you had?
GJ: The song that really got me started was ‘Why Baby Why’ in 1955.
AM: Do you still sing the duets made famous by you and Tammy?
GJ: Oh yeah! We still do 'Golden Ring.’ I sing that with a girl in my group by the name of Brittany Allen. She is a petite little thing. She knows all those songs and she sings back-up on some other songs. She also sings a couple of songs before I come on stage.
AM: Sounds like you’re still having lots of fun out there.
GJ: Oh yeah! Once I get on stage I perk up and I feel good again, but when I get off stage I pretty much want to sit down.
AM: Do you meet fans after your show?
GJ: I used to, but it’s so hard to do anymore. Most artists now go to their bus and with a little help from my right arm man, Scott, he brings me the albums and pictures and I sign them on the bus. The legs are the first to go they tell me.
AM: What’s going on with Country Music these days? Do you think traditional Country Music will ever come back?
GJ: I really don’t see it ever coming back to the good traditional sound and that’s a shame. The new babies growing up will probably never get to hear that old stuff and they probably won’t care. I’ve always felt that the money people came in and figured this thing out to change it to be hip for young people. That’s where the money is. These kids don’t have any money but they’ll sure get it from their Mama and Daddy. They are gonna get what they want.
AM: That’s true, kids get anything they want these days.
GJ: They are smart selling to the young people but there was no reason for them to cut out the other good music. There is room for the good stuff. They stole our identity because they use the word 'country’ and WE are country. They’ve changed the style, and even though it’s good, to me they need their own name. That’s the way I look at it, but you can’t buck City Hall. I’m certainly not going to try and change them.
AM: You are not alone in your feelings.
GJ: This is the way a lot of older artists feel and you can’t blame us. You certainly can’t blame the people for making money because that’s what it’s all about. They don’t know the love that some of us have for the traditional.
AM: I love traditional Country music. I have always just loved your music.
GJ: Well thank you so much! I just wish they had gone about it a little different way. They just shut us off all together at one time. It’s not the right way to do these things. You just don’t take something as big as what we had and throw it away without regrets. They don’t care about you as a person. They don’t even know who I am in downtown Nashville.
AM: Well you’re a legend no matter how you look at it!
GJ: Thank you, still having my fans is all that matters to me. We still got em’ and that’s the reason we’re still going.
George and his lovely wife Nancy
To learn more about George Jones visit his web site http://www.georgejones.com/home/