Country legend George Jones was nothing if not a survivor. For six decades, he put his heartbreak and hard living on display in his music—and on April 6 the 81-year-old was still on the road, taking the stage in Knoxville, Tenn. "He told jokes, sang his songs," Jones's friend and publicist Kirt Webster recalls. "His voice was great."
Thanks to indelible songs like "She Thinks I Still Care"—one of more than 160 hit singles—that voice lives on. Jones, who died of respiratory failure at a Nashville hospital April 26, was "one of the greatest singers in any genre of all time," says country star Kenny Chesney
, a friend. "He had a voice that was the truth, raw and unfiltered." Adds Dwight Yoakam: "If country has a Mount Rushmore, he's enshrined in stone up there."
Jones's personal life too was the stuff of legend. Born outside Beaumont, Texas, and discovered by a local record producer, Jones struggled with cocaine and alcohol addiction in the '70s and early '80s—even as he continued to produce hits like 1980's "He Stopped Loving Her Today," often hailed as the best country song ever. "When you're just a kid out of the country and never had nothing, and all of a sudden you got everything at your feet," Jones told PEOPLE in 1992, "it can ruin you in more ways than one."
Nicknamed "No Show Jones" for his failure to keep to his professional commitments, the father of four also saw three marriages fall apart. His second wife, Shirley Corley, famously hid his car keys to prevent him from going on a bender; he drove to the liquor store on his rider-mower instead. After years of alcohol-fueled turmoil with his next wife, country icon Tammy Wynette, the couple, who had one daughter, divorced in 1975. "I have no regrets about my marriage to Tammy except for my heavy drinking," he said in his memoir I Lived to Tell It All. "And I regret that period."
Jones, who got sober in 1984, turned his life around with the help of his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulvado, 64, who says of first meeting him, "He was so well-mannered." Of how he cleaned up, Jones told PEOPLE, "I said a lot of prayers and I made up my mind—enough of that." Though he entered rehab once more after a near-fatal drunk driving accident in 1999, his commitment to his career never wavered. Says his producer Billy Sherrill: "He had his demons but he loved his music."
In his final moments, Jones was surrounded by his family, including stepdaughter Sherry Hohimer. "He was watching his Westerns on TV, and he was content," she says. And though he had sometimes strained relationships with his children, he tried to make peace with his clan. Weeks before his death, "he wrote letters to some of the people he loved," says Nancy. "He learned what life was about, he learned what happiness and peace could be."
- Kay West,
- Eileen Finan/Nashville,
- Johnny Dodd,
- Oliver Jones/Los Angeles.