Updated: Apr 3, 2021
" A four-decade career was salvaged by a three-minute song."- George Jones
George Jones was the greatest country singer of all time! Even Waylon said, if singers had a choice to sound like someone, they'd all like to sound like George Jones. One of the things that differentiated Jones from the rest of the pack was his emotive, heartfelt delivery. He lived it! And often the stories were fodder for the press, and then some. The tractor incident is something George shared in his autobiography as a regretful occurrence. As were several other things he did under the influence. But in some ways it also added to his legendary status.
Though shenanigans may keep you in the headlines it cannot replace talent, and George had plenty of it. One particular skill he had was picking great songs. George earned 13 #1 hits, and charted 69 top ten hits. It takes more than luck to have that kind of success. But Alas George was a mere mortal, and did not always pick hits. as a matter of fact, he passed on so many hits that he put together an album titled "Hits I Missed, and One I Didn't" that were big hits for other artists.
One particular time George was wrong could have cost him a career comeback, and a milestone in country music. As the story goes, in 1980, George had not had a #1 song as a solo artist in six years. His last hit was "The Grand Tour", a song I dearly love. And when George charted that hit he was already on the downside of a once successful career.
His last number one before "The Grand Tour" was my all-time favorite George Jones song "Walk Through This World With Me" dating back to 1967! George did chart several top 10 hits, like the James Taylor penned "Bartender Blues", and "Her Name Is" but no chart toppers.
Billy Sherrill heard "He Stopped Loving Her Today", and knew it "could" be a great song for George.. Johnny Russell had already recorded the song, but his label refused to release it. The original song killed off the heartbroken protagonist too early, and ended after the first chorus. Billy reached out to Bobby Braddock- one of the writers of the song, and asked him to write a spoken word part before the last chorus. Bobby, and Curly Putnam, another co-writer went back to work.
Now I think it's very important to understand a couple of facts about George to really appreciate the impact of the success of HSLHT. Though George was widely regarded as one of the best country singers ever, he had never earned a gold record as a solo artist. His only gold record came in 1977 by way of a greatest hits compilation of duets with his ex wife the First Lady of Country Tammy Wynette.
Another shocker, George had not won any of the three major industry awards: Grammy, CMA, and ACM. And the CMAs hadn't nominated George for an award until 1980.. Let that sink in for a minute.. But George Jones was not without accolades. Billboard named him Male Vocalist Of The Year several times, and he was a Grand Ole Opry member.
Also exacerbating matters even more was the fact that George was still abusing alcohol, and drugs. His Producer Billy Sherrill said it was difficult to work with George, and recording the song was a feat. In 1980, the general consensus was that his hit making days were behind him.
As the story goes George did not like the song. He felt it was too sad, and lacking commercial appeal. He even wagered a $100.00 bet with Billy because he was so sure it would not be a hit. Thank God for visionary producers that can hear what no-one else can. Billy Sherrill pressed on, and did one better, he added Millie Kirkham! Now Millie was broadly regarded as the Nashville Soprano. A respected session vocalist who had sung on classics such as Ferlin Huskey's crossover hit "Gone", and Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry".
However, it was her work with Elvis Presley that cemented her industry reputation. She was often referred to as the 5th Jordanaire due to the frequency Elvis tapped Millie to sing on his albums. Millie's almost angelic like harmonies in the recitation part of HSLHT coupled with Billy Sherrill's signature strings elevated the song to ethereal heights. Of course that feel or ambience created tied in nicely with the theme of the song, a man dying with a broken heart.
Recorded at CBS Studio B in Nashville, Billy Sherrill said the session was a literal nightmare. It took about a year to get the song fully recorded. One early issue was that George kept singing the song to the melody of "Let Me Make It Through The Night". They ended up recording the recitation part about a year later. Once Billy, and the songwriters heard the end product, they knew it was special.
Both Bobby Braddock, and Curly Putnam credit Jones' soulful delivery, and Billy's masterful production for the success of the song. When they wrote it back in 1977, it wasn't anything great. The song kicked around for several years with no real takers. After George's unprecedented success everyone from Johnny Cash to Josh Turner have recorded the song.
Pete Drake, who also played on Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors" takes his soaring steel to near magical heights on the album cut. Here's a video of George Jones singing his career defining hit.
The success of HSLHT helped boost the album "I Am What I Am" to platinum. His first ever. And the song is broadly considered to be the greatest country song of all time. Long live George Jones!
In my follow-up installment, I'll explore the back story of HSLHT from the perspective of one of the songwriters Bobby Braddock.
Awards, Recognition, & Reception
ACM Single Record of the Year, 1980
ACM Song of the Year, 1980
CMA Single of the Year, 1980
CMA Song of the Year, 1980
CMA Song of the Year, 1981
Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance, 1981
Grammy Hall of Fame, 2007
Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, 2008
Billboard Most Honored Country Song of All Time
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All Time
#3 on the Billboard Year End Country Chart
#4 on Rolling Stone 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time