George Jones, Country Legend, Dead at 81

The country-music legend had more than 160 hits in a career that spanned five decades

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George Jones, circa 1970

George Jones, perhaps the greatest country singer of all time, passed away Friday, April 26, at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 81.

(READ: George Jones: 7 Essential Tracks)

His throaty baritone and expressive phrasing practically defined the modern country sound — and placed him among the most significant performers in the history of American popular music. “A singer who can soar from a deep growl to dizzying heights, he is the undisputed successor of earlier natural geniuses as Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell,” wrote Bob Allen in the Encyclopedia of Country Music. Fellow country-singer Waylon Jennings, in his song “It’s Alright,” seemingly spoke for all of Nashville when he said: “If we all could sound like we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones.”

(READ: Country Stars Remember George Jones)

Jones, nicknamed “The Possum,” had more than 160 charting singles in his career, both as a solo artist and in recordings with other artists — the most of any artist in any format or genre  — and had No. 1 singles in four consecutive decades (from “White Lightning” in 1959 to “I Always Get Lucky with You” in 1983). Other Jones hits include such Nashville standards as: “She Thinks I Still Care,” Walk Through This World with Me,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and “Tender Years,” and “The Race is On.”

The larger-than-life singer was equally famous for making news outside the stage and studio. His hard drinking led to frequent alcohol-fueled rages (and a reputation for missing so many performances that he eventually earned a second nickname, “No Show Jones”).  His 1969 marriage to “First Lady of Country Music” Tammy Wynette was a joining of Nashville royalty — the couple stayed together for six years.

Jones was given a Kennedy Center Honor in 2008, and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2012.