By Bill Trott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - George Jones, a classic country singer with a voice full of raw honky-tonk emotion and a life full of honky-tonk turmoil, died on Friday at age 81, his spokesman said.
Jones, whose career spanned more than six decades and included hits such as "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and "Window Up Above," died at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in Nashville.
He had been hospitalized since April 18 with fever and irregular blood pressure, spokesman Kirt Webster said.
In November 2012, Jones embarked on a farewell tour after a career that produced his first top 10 record in 1955 with "Why Baby Why."
The "Grand Tour" was to conclude in Nashville in November this year, where Jones was to be joined by some of the many stars who influenced him.
News of his death brought tributes from a number of country music's top stars.
"Heaven better get ready for George Jones. He will always be the greatest singer of real country music - there'll never be another," Alan Jackson said on Twitter.
Dolly Parton said, "My heart is absolutely broken. George Jones was my all time favorite singer and one of my favorite people in the world."
"George Jones has passed. Damn. Thought he'd live forever. Let's break out his catalogue and play it all day," said Toby Keith.
Like his idol, Hank Williams, Jones battled addiction. Alcohol and cocaine frequently derailed his career and at one point his reputation for canceling performances earned him the nickname No-Show Jones.
But when Jones did show up and was in good form, listeners were treated to a powerful and evocative voice. Jones was at his best with cry-in-your-beer songs made extra mournful by his masterful phrasing.
As his late contemporary Waylon Jennings put it, "If we could all sound like we wanted to, then we'd all sound like George Jones."
Born in Saratoga, Texas, on September 12, 1931, Jones began performing for spare change as a boy on the streets of nearby Beaumont. Under the influence of Williams, Ernest Tubb and Lefty Frizzell, he graduated to the rough roadhouses of East Texas.
Jones had an early marriage, a divorce and a stint in the Marines before his first hit, "Why Baby Why" in 1955. His first No. 1 song, "White Lightning," came in 1959, followed by "Tender Years" in 1961.
The next two decades brought a string of top 10 songs - "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)," "Window Up Above," "She Thinks I Still Care," "Good Year for the Roses," "The Race Is On" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today," which Jones said was his favorite. He also had a successful run of duets early in his career with Melba Montgomery.
Jones, who was known as "The Possum," divorced his second wife in 1968 and the next year married one of country music's most popular singers, Tammy Wynette. The pairing was an enormous professional success for both as they recorded and toured together and Jones began working with Billy Sherrill, Wynette's producer.
During his time with Sherrill, Jones refined his honky-tonk voice and sang more ballads, often with the lush string accompaniment that had become a trend in the country music capital of Nashville.
The marriage to Wynette went bad as Jones' addiction problem escalated and Wynette claimed he once came at her with a gun. They divorced in 1975 but later resumed recording together. Wynette died in 1998 at age 55.
Jones continued to put out hit songs in the early 1980s, even as cocaine compounded his personal tumult. Amid a string of hospitalizations and arrests, he disappeared for days at a time, missed shows and recording sessions and took police on a drunken chase through Nashville.
Jones credited fourth wife Nancy, whom he married in 1983, with helping him clean up. But in 1999 he was seriously injured after driving drunk and crashing into a bridge, leading to another stay in rehab.
At one point Jones was so incorrigible that one of his four wives cleared the liquor from their home and hid all the car keys so he could not go for more. Jones responded by cranking up his riding lawn mower and driving it to a bar - an escapade he chronicled in "Honky Tonk Song."
Although he was heard infrequently on mainstream country radio in the later years of his career, Jones was a sought-after duet partner and won a Grammy for the song "Choices" in 1999.
He also won a Grammy for best male country vocal performance in 1980 for "He Stopped Loving Her Today," and received a lifetime achievement Grammy last year.
(Additional reporting by Tim Ghianni in Nashville and Jill Serjeant; Writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Vicki Allen)