In the early 1960s, George Jones had a huge hit record featuring such a phenomenal vocal performance it instantly turned him into a living legend. He didn’t handle it well.
Contents (Click/Tap to Scroll)
- Primary Sources – books, documentaries, etc.
- Transcript of Episode – for the readers
- Liner Notes – list of featured music, online sources, further commentary
Transcript of Episode
A Suit of Lights
Less than 20 years before The Sun Also Rises changed American literature forever by stripping a story down to its skeleton, Juan Belmonte did the same thing to bullfighting. In the two centuries after Spanish noblemen relinquished the bullfight to commoners, much gravitas and prestige was introduced to the event. But anyone reading this who thinks they know what it looks like when a matador engages a bull – even if your only frame of reference is a Bugs Bunny cartoon – would think you were watching the most nervous bullfighter in history if you saw any matador prior to Juan Belmonte. Because a simple philosophy was formed in the carnival sideshow era, as soon as the main character in a bullfight moved from horseback down to the ground: either you move or the bull moves you. Do whatever you gotta do to make it look like you’re the big, brave man who’s in control of this situation… But if a thousand-pound bull is trying to kill you and you don’t want to die, then you do need to get out of the way. This is what every matador thought and did for 200 years until Juan Belmonte stopped getting out of the way. Before we talk about that, though, we’ve got to go back to Joaquín Rodríguez Costillares, whose eternal influence can not be overstated.
In the previous episode, we left off with Costillares’ decision to start wearing clothing fit for a king while fighting bulls. Evidently the audience desired a game of kill or be killed, so he intended to be dressed for the occasion of either outcome. Earning triple the amount of money as his assistants, Costillares could well afford the cost of dressing in the expensive fabrics and lavish embroidery then in style with Spanish royalty. When aristocratic fashion trends changed, Costillares’ sense of style did not, thus establishing the idea of a certain kind of costume or uniform to be worn by a matador and his bullfighters. Costillares viewed everything within the ring he could control as an opportunity to manipulate the experience of spectators. Where previous bullfighters used a cape as a tool to attract and direct a bull’s attention, Costillares saw his cape as an instrument of drama, introducing a formalized technique of cape passes involving large, sweeping flourishes. He is said to have invented an early version of the verónica pass. Named for the sainted woman who wiped the bloody face of Jesus as he carried the cross to Calvary (thus reinforcing the bull as avatar of universal life force), the basic verónica is the one where a bullfighter begins by using both hands to hold up the large cape at roughly torso height, like a devout infantryman raising the banner of his lord’s house in battle. This in itself is a visual novelty because the purpose served by every functional act in a bullfight is to bring and keep the bull’s head low enough to finally kill it by reaching over the horns and stabbing it in the back. Every torture suffered by a bull in the ring is meant to damage its extraordinarily strong neck muscles, inflicting enough pain to prevent it holding its head high or otherwise engaging these muscles unless it believes there’s a chance to kill a bullfighter. And bulls are not so stupid as we may assume from watching one after another die trying to attack a cape instead of the man holding the cape. As a charging bull approaches the verónica or any derivative pass, the cape comes to occupy more and more of the bull’s field of vision until it can see little else. As long as the cape is held right in the bull’s face, it obscures the presence of the matador, who waits until the horns have passed or turned away to snatch the cape back (or up to the sky) just before the bull can connect with it. What we are seeing is not the stupidity of a bull but the intelligence of a killer who knows he cannot let the bull actually run through the cape or it will develop sentido, the sudden awareness (or “sense”) it has been trying to attack an illusion, at which point it will find something real to attack. The margin for error, here, is gravely small. A single gust of wind could mean the difference between life or death and, the smarter the bull, the fewer mistakes can be made. Even if the matador never makes a mistake, every bull learns more with every pass. This is the whole reason there’s a time limit on each fight; because most bulls bred for fighting require little more than half an hour to figure out the trick of the cape, whether they’ve touched it or not. Any indication of this lightbulb coming on means it’s time to kill that bull because no matador wants to try reaching over the horns of a bull with sentido.
Costillares’ increased use of his cape exposed each bull to many more passes, which made killing recibiendo even riskier than it already was. So, Costillares invented a new coup de grâce by essentially reversing the action. Rather than receive a charging bull, the matador kills volapié by running the cape toward a standing bull and diving over the horns to strike a non-moving target. This acrobatic maneuver is still very dangerous and the effect is visually sensational, yet its true purpose was always to provide the matador with an easier kill while satisfying popular demand for death-defying circus acts. Foundational as he was in establishing the core tenets of modern Spanish bullfighting, what most aficionados would now call his lasting contributions to the aesthetic of elegance and flair, Costillares’ contemporary detractors saw as flamboyance and femininity. They complained his style came at the sacrifice of substance and much preferred the work of his great rival, Pedro Romero, who had perfected his grandfather’s recibiendo method and used it to kill over 5,000 bulls in his three decades as a matador.
In 1793, Costillares was three decades into his own career when he petitioned all major bullrings to update their dress codes. At the time, a remnant of sumptuary laws intended to prevent commoners dressing above their station allowed only bullfighters on horseback to use silver thread in their costumes. Since Francisco Romero long ago relegated bullfighters on horseback to the role of assistants, Costillares’ request was granted and all bullfighters were allowed to wear silver thread. Near the end of the decade, when the great master painter Goya made a portrait of Pedro Romero, the matador’s entire torso was wrapped in silver thread. (Though he was never a bullfighter, when Goya painted a self-portrait near the end of the 18th century, he painted himself wearing the outfit of a matador, indicating the eminence and heroism which had become associated with the occupation.) A later update to the dress code granted matadors exclusive use of golden thread in their costumes, reflecting their new role as maestro of the bullfight and leaving silver thread to their assistants.
In 1836, matador Francisco Montes Reina, aka “Paquiro,” wrote the book on Spanish bullfighting. Tauromaquia (a.k.a. “bull killing”) codified the structure of a professional bullfight, delineating the separate segments of a fight, specifying the number of bullfighters to a team and so on. Paquiro is said to have counterbalanced Costillares’ feminine influence by introducing certain physical postures to communicate an arrogant machismo in the matador persona, a trend which has only escalated in the two centuries since. He was the matador who began waiting as long as possible before jumping out of the way of a charging bull, exaggerating the suspense and danger to prove he could remain calm in the face of death. He was the matador who modified the cuts of his costume so it hugged tighter to the body and allowed greater range of motion in the arms. “Bull killing” has always been done in the afternoon sun, so Paquiro added reflective sequins to his already outrageous conglomeration of golden-threaded embroidery, thus inventing el traje de luces (or “suit of lights”), which remains visually synonymous with bullfighters to this day. Paquiro was the first matador to wear that black hat with two almost-Mickey Mouse ears on it while sunlight sparkled radiantly off his clothing, chin raised high in defiance and shoulders set back as he thrust his hips or chest forward, physically challenging the bull to do its worst. In Spain, Paquiro was nothing less than a superstar, with the accompanying wealth, social status and publicized private life to show for it. After him, sexual conquests outside the ring became as much a part of a matador’s image as anything he did inside the ring. In the late 1800s, the famous matador Frascuelo was involved in a bit of a scandal when he walked into the bullring wearing his traje de luces, which the audience instantly recognized as matching the colors of the dress worn by a woman of Spanish nobility already seated in a place of honor in the stands. Although we can’t be certain of her detailed motives for shamelessly broadcasting intimate foreknowledge of Frascuelo’s chosen colors for the day, she was obviously some kind of exhibitionist and/or had a reason to wanna piss off her aristocratic family by making sure everyone knew she was fucking a bullfighter.
Get Rich or Die Trying
Where old money tends to look down on those who attain wealth through celebrity in the entertainment business, the poorest members of society tend to look up to the most visible representations of freedom from financial worry. While famous matadors predate the existence of famous baseball players (and, again, Spanish bullfighting has never been a sport), celebrity athletes are the closest parallel we have in America. Over the next 50 years, as illustrated magazines and large billboards came into existence, marketing departments increasingly relied on celebrity endorsements and matadors were paid to hawk wines, tobaccos and various other products. Children in the Spain of Pablo Picasso’s youth hunted packs of cigarettes to collect matador cards instead of baseball cards. And, still, every last one of these legendary matadors would be made to look like a day one rookie if he shared the ring with Juan Belmonte.
To be fair, common knowledge of the era placed standing still in front of a fighting bull’s charging horns somewhere in the realm of suicidally insane. In the late 19th century, an entirely separate daredevil act developed around this very idea. To perform a Don Tancredo, any idiot desperate for money, thrills or bragging rights merely had to stand as still as his nerves would allow on a stool or other platform while an angry wild bull was run into the ring to decide whether or not this human statue was worth demolishing. Things often went very poorly for the statue. Because all matadors of the era believed they must move or be moved, they remained light on their feet anytime they were near a bull and did a great deal of running and hopping away from bulls, kinda like a rodeo clown. And no matter how cocky these particular rodeo clowns seemed to be about their job or fame or wealth or the way they were dressed, no matter how many arrogant postures and death-defying stunts they pulled to show their lack of fear, they all remained visibly prepared to cut and run if a bull tried to gore them. One early 20th century matador even found a way to spin this necessity by exaggerating his seemingly fearful movements to the point of comedy. Rafael Gómez Ortega (aka “El Gallo,” or “The Rooster”) could have been a popular guest on the TV show Jackass. While regarded as a great matador, El Gallo was known to occasionally pretend to give into his “terror” and run away from a bull high-stepping like a rooster, working the crowd for laughs. When El Gallo “conquered” his fear to slay the beast with skill, audiences loved him all the more. And he was an exception, one of the few matadors able to keep performing his act unchanged for another fifteen years after Juan Belmonte changed everything.
As Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises, the rapid growth of Belmonte’s fame can be partly attributed to the common opinion among fans and other bullfighters that everyone should see Belmonte fight at their earliest opportunity, since he was sure to be a dead man very soon. Where other matadors stayed in near-constant motion while close to a bull, half-crouched in case they had to jump and run away, Belmonte prepared for a pass by shuffling his feet into position, planting them and locking his knees to stand erect as the bull ran by. He then shuffled in pursuit of the bull to remain close enough to do it again and again and again… Few spectators could believe what they were seeing and nearly nobody thought he even knew what he was doing. By this time, matadors were supposed to project pure alpha energy while performing with physical grace. But Belmonte was weak and frail, his posture was poor and he fought with a visible absence of formal training or technique. Yet, still, he worked closer to the bull and for longer periods of time than anyone had ever done or ever thought was possible. In the first year of his career, various theories were put forth to explain… any of this. Some said a medical condition kept his muscles from developing or his legs had been damaged in childbirth and thus Belmonte could not run away like other matadors. Others suspected they were witnessing a man more desperate, more deranged or more drunk than any they’d seen perform a Don Tancredo take a variation of the same act to extreme lengths. It is true Belmonte’s pre-show ritual was to visualize himself being gored and killed over and over and over with the belief if he could accept beforehand he was only going out there in order to be gored and killed then the fear of it happening would never affect his performance. But the full truth is Juan Belmonte was born into poverty in 1892 and grew up, not anywhere near a ranch or bulls, but in the city streets of Sevilla, the capital of Andalucia. He was the oldest of his father’s eleven children and the family never had enough food to build strong bodies. Juan only went to school from the ages of 4 to 8, so he could read and write but little more, and he never successfully held any kind of job before becoming a matador. He and the other poor boys who ran around in the alleys of Sevilla all dreamt of growing up to become rich and famous matadors, as did all poor boys in every alley of Spain. Unlike most, Belmonte and his friends actually tried. They began walking miles outside of the city to trespass on private property and fight bulls in pastures in the middle of the night.
Now, if these were bulls bred for fighting then probably none of us would have ever heard the name Juan Belmonte because he’d have been killed in adolescence, either gored by an industrial-strength bull or shot by vigilant guards hired to prevent jackasses like this from inadvertently teaching sentido to fighting bulls. But bulls of just about any breed can be incited to charge and this is how Belmonte developed the mechanics of his style, using his jacket as a cape while standing inside what little light his friends could provide with two gas lanterns. If a bull got away from him and outside the light, then it would disappear into the darkness of night, where it would still be very angry at who was now the single most well-lit being in the entire field. So Belmonte learned to get close and stay close to a bull, where he discovered for himself how the cape effect could be pushed far beyond its believed limitations. These may not have been fighting bulls but they still weighed hundreds of pounds and had horns. Belmonte was hurt and often during this learning process. But it only taught him what he could survive, a lesson he learned again and again when he was gored by fighting bulls in nearly every one of his first real fights in the year 1910. (Another true cause of the sickly appearance and poor posture he displayed in his early career: unhealed injuries sustained in previous fights.) Still, no matter how much blood he left in the ring, Belmonte performed previously unthinkable acts and walked away a killer of bulls. And no matter how many people said he was a fluke or anomaly or idiot who would soon be dead, Belmonte did not die. Instead, he got even better, fighting in the light of the sun and with real capes designed for the purpose. By the third year of his career, many were calling him the greatest matador in history. He became so famous he had to wear a cap low over his face to sneak on his first merry-go-round ride, an unfulfilled wish he’d never been able to afford as a child.
Because a typical bullfight features three matadors and their teams who each take turns fighting and killing their own bull, then repeat the cycle for each matador and team to kill a second, then third bull, every matador in a bullfight has to follow every other matador’s act. So if one of these guys walks out there and starts doing some crazy shit like standing relatively still to perform cape work in sustained proximity to a bull, far beyond what any matador in history previously thought could be done, the other two guys are gonna look like frightened teenagers when they go out there hopping around like bunny rabbits as if a stone cold murderer hadn’t just walked out of the ring. The longer Belmonte worked without dying, the more other matadors were forced closer to the bull and for longer periods of time. Those unwilling to take greater risk were booed and several matadors left more than blood in the ring trying to please the crowd. El Gallo, the “rooster” who ran for laughs, he had a younger brother known by the name of Joselito who’d already gained a reputation as a great bullfighter when Belmonte came along. Of Belmonte’s 90 fights in the year 1915, 68 were with Joselito. Though aficionados of the time thought of them as bitter rivals, the two young bullfighters became fast friends as they traveled and fought in the same rings together for several seasons. Joselito recognized Belmonte’s style as the way of the future and incorporated what he could, then returned the favor by sharing his own formal training with Belmonte. Each matador so directly affected the other, it would be accurate to say from this point forward Belmonte fought with a trace of Joselito’s technique while Joselito fought with a trace of Belmonte’s daring. Or, as Joselito is supposed to have once said to Belmonte, “You can fight a bull better than me but I am a better bullfighter than you.” They became as two sides of the same coin. The true feud was always between their fans, who argued and fought and cheered and booed according to their preferred side of the coin.
These years are now regarded by most aficionados to have been a golden age in bullfighting but contemporary fans of both matadors grew increasingly dissatisfied as this “rivalry” wore on. The problem, essentially, was Joselito and Belmonte got too good. As they became more adept in fighting closer and closer to the bull, for longer and longer periods of time, they were gored less often. Even though they were performing acts well beyond what was considered impossible only a few years earlier and continuing to push past even their own limits, they got good enough to make it look easy and audiences became convinced these famous matadors were now too rich and comfortable to continue taking great risks. Because if they weren’t playing it safe, then why were they not bleeding as much as they used to? Crowds seeing Belmonte for the first time, in particular, could not help but be disappointed after having heard all the stories of this drunk, mangled lunatic who was sure to be dead any day now. It was bad enough he continued living but now he had the audacity to keep his blood inside his body and fans were sure they’d been cheated, convinced he held back his best performance out of laziness or complacency. In 1920, Joselito and Belmonte were booked for a series of fights. On the first day, they were savagely heckled by the crowd to such a degree Joselito refused to return on the second day. Instead, he went to fight in another city, where was fatally gored at the age of 25. Juan Belmonte kept fighting another fifteen years. He was never killed by a bull.
The Clouds Are Gathering
Some country music fans believe and repeat a myth which usually goes something like “George Jones never wrote a song in his life but he sure could sing one.” This myth was probably born of how many stories there are about George taking partial credit for songs he had no hand in writing. But this was a universal practice in the industry at the time and George doing the same thing as everyone else doesn’t mean he never wrote a song. According to Pappy Daily, George could sit down with a guitar and come up with songs all day long. The problem was he would rarely record demoes or even write down his compositions. Pappy seemed to think George just didn’t give a shit but it’s likely the opposite was true. If the standards George held for his songwriting were half as high as his singing, there’s no reason to think he’d write down a song unless he believed it was good. We know for a fact he didn’t even think all the ones good enough to write down were necessarily good enough to record himself. He never recorded “Shakin’ the Blues,” the song he wrote for Donny Young. George wrote both sides of Benny Barnes’ first Starday single and never cut either song. If the way Benny sang it is any indication, Jones was doing his best to channel Hank Williams’ songwriting on the a-side, “Once Again.” And Benny’s first record may very well have been a hit if Starday didn’t put “No Fault of Mine” on the b-side. (That’s George Jones playing the lead guitar.) Benny’s first record wasn’t a hit and neither were all the songs George Jones ever wrote or co-wrote but, as you’ve already heard, quite a few of them were. George wrote “You Gotta Be My Baby” and “Just One More” entirely on his own. “Life to Go” and “Don’t Stop the Music” are known to be legitimate co-writes. And for a singer who typically goes unrecognized as a writer, “The Window Up Above” is just a monster of a song. Examine the writing style of Leonard Cohen, a devout George Jones fan, and ask yourself how many hours he must’ve spent obsessing over the opening lines: “I’ve been living a new way / of life that I love so / but I can see the clouds are gathering / and the storm will wreck our home.”
Since the storm is revealed to be marital infidelity, witnessed by a husband from his second-story bedroom window, and his own marriage began to fall apart within a couple years of this “oh-so-rare” George Jones composition, some fans have speculated this song was inspired by true events. But the truth is his favorite songs to sing were the slow and sad ones, so most of what he wrote for himself was slow, sad and given to themes of failed relationships. Several months prior to “Window Up Above,” he recorded another of his own songs, called “Glad to Let Her Go,” written on the same theme and using part of the same melody he’d use again in “Window Up Above.” In this one, he’d already gone cold on the relationship by the time she started cheating. There is no reason to suspect either of these very similar songs was inspired by Shirley Jones cheating on her husband, as they were both written near the beginning of the two or three year period she described as the happiest of their marriage. George wrote “Window Up Above” one morning at home while Shirley cooked breakfast for the family. Whatever storm clouds he may or may not have foreseen coming along years in the future, they did not arrive from Shirley’s side of the relationship. If anything, the gathering storm was delayed by “Window Up Above.” Released in September of 1960, it stayed on the charts for 34 weeks and peaked at #2, a big enough hit to justify another Nudie suit, as literal as any he ever made: clouds, windows, the whole thing…
This single was all over the airwaves in October, when the Country Music DJ Convention took place at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville. Earlier in the year, a young singer named George Riddle came to Nashville to break into the music business. He was wandering the halls of the hotel during the convention when he heard what sounded a hell of a lot like George Jones singing inside a room, so he just walked inside, where he found George Jones laying on a bed, playing guitar and singing to himself. Riddle introduced himself as a fan and aspiring country singer, so Jones threw out a couple songs to hear the kid sing and then said he’d actually been hoping to hire a harmony singer while in Nashville because he had a tour starting the next day. Riddle said he could totally leave the next day, thus becoming George Jones’ first full-time band member, no more relying entirely on honky tonk house bands or borrowed players from other acts on the tour. With Riddle (who soon found himself being called “Georgie” what with his boss having the same first name and all), Jones now had a traveling sidekick who knew his records, sang harmony and kept all those pickup bands on track while Jones focused on singing. He could’ve hired someone to do all of this at any point after “White Lightning” hit #1 and put him in a higher tax bracket. The sudden need to find a touring harmony singer came from “Window Up Above” hitting #2 as his first release to feature a Nashville-style vocal group, the Anita Kerr Singers. Because of these background vocals and already-discussed misconceptions, this is often incorrectly referred to as Jones’ first “Nashville Sound” recording. Really, that happened the first time Hank Garland walked into a George Jones session and cut “Too Much Water” in 1957. The A-Team players on “Window Up Above” – Hank Garland, Grady Martin, Floyd Cramer, Tommy Jackson, etc. – had all done Jones’ Nashville sessions for years by this point. However, this was his highest charting record to date with an actual country song and it was a ballad to boot, so Jones reinforced his position by bringing a singing partner on tour to help give fans something a bit closer to what they heard on his records.
“Window Up Above” was such a huge hit, Jones didn’t get back in the studio for another ten months. When Georgie Riddle left Nashville the day after meeting his new boss, he was thrown straight into the big show for the next four or five years. On most of Jones’ television appearances in the early 1960s, it’s Riddle you see leaning in to frame to sing harmony. The other reason for a ten month lapse in recording was how much tape Mercury already had in the can. The day before recording “Window Up Above,” Jones cut an entire twelve song LP of Hank Williams hits in one marathon session extending from 3 o’ clock in the afternoon to probably past midnight. As is often the case in Pappy Daily’s quantity-over-quality filler sessions, the arrangement of every song is nearly identical, which makes for a monotonous listening experience but it is interesting to hear how secure Jones has grown in his vocal identity, only rarely slipping into what it would be more accurate to call acknowledgements rather than imitations of the voice he once clung to like a security blanket. A couple days before the marathon Hank session, Jones pulled another nine hours (or so) in the studio cutting a bunch of covers and rerecordings of his own hits, like “Why Baby Why.” This material was likely chosen and rush-recorded in mass quantities to compete with the catalog George left at Starday. These sessions roughly coincide with the end of the 18 month period during which Don Pierce continued to receive half the publisher’s share of George Jones’ writing royalties. Those would’ve been some pretty huge checks to just stop receiving one day and Don Pierce made up for the lost revenue by doing the thing everyone knew he was always going to do: repackage the George Jones recordings still owned by Starday and flood the market with compilation LPs featuring his earliest hits, all the soundalikes and even those Year One sessions when Jones still sounded like a Hank Williams impersonator. After spending a few decades fielding questions on Thumper Jones and the soundalike tapes nobody was ever supposed to know he did, Jones eventually grew to hate this side of the record business. Only a few years later, in the mid-1960s, Starday released another batch of early Jones soundalikes around the same time they put out a collection of early, cheap-sounding Buck Owens demos and soundalikes. Jones and Buck both got pissed off about it and went down to Starday’s office to kick up some dirt but, according to Buck, they left about half an hour later with their arms full of rare country music albums any fan would love to have and no memory of why they’d been so mad. The first time Starday pulled this stunt with Jones warranted no response other than some marathon sessions to build a competing catalog. Even if he was mad, he probably forgot all about it while spending the better part of a year touring a #2 country single.
By the time Jones finally got back in the studio in Feb. 1961, Shelby Singleton had become his producer at Mercury. Shelby did bring future A-Team guitarist and producer Jerry Kennedy up from Louisiana to lead his sessions but it sounds like Shelby and Jerry were still hanging back to learn how things were done in Nashville. The instrumentation is nearly identical to Jones’ previous, pre-Shelby session for “Window Up Above.” Tommy Jackson returns on fiddle, Buddy Harman’s back on drums, Pig Robbins does a pretty spotless Floyd Cramer impersonation on piano. The biggest change comes from replacing the Anita Kerr Singers with (for the first time on a George Jones session) The Jordanaires, who brought Millie Kirkham. Known as the “Nashville soprano,” Millie’s extra-high-pitched background vocals had already featured in Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” and Ferlin Husky’s “Gone.” While the instrumentation stayed the same, the arrangement and performance of the first single released from Jones’ first session with Shelby is much more dynamic. The Owen Bradley influence is there from the opening notes: piano, front and center, accompanied by bass and a brushed snare. Jones’ voice slowly makes its way through a verse, three or four words at a time, accompanied by lazy fiddle and fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Where we expect a second verse, instead, the song suddenly lifts into a quick chorus with The Jordanaires behind Jones like the soundtrack of a cartoon sunrise. Millie Kirkham soars in to join the vocal interplay for the second half of the chorus before all the background singers drop back out to give Jones another verse, pedal steel replacing the fiddle until the cycle repeats. A/B this against “Window Up Above” and you’ll immediately hear which song has the more dynamic arrangement. For example, on the earlier track, any time you hear George Jones, you will also hear the Anita Kerr Singers because they stay right with him the whole song. After the piano break on “Tender Years,” Pig Robbins stays in the mix, throwing around splashes of high notes à la Floyd Cramer until the song’s end. If it were possible to copyright production techniques, Owen Bradley would have made a lot of money on this song, mostly thanks to two other first-timers in a George Jones session: Walter Haynes (one of Owen’s favorite pedal steel guitarists, who would soon play on most of Patsy Cline’s greatest hits) and bass player Bob Moore (who by this time had worked with Owen for ten years and would soon become George Jones’ uncredited producer through most of the 1960s – while also playing on all those Patsy Cline hits). After “Tenders Years” became Jones’ second #1 song, the next single released from the session went #5. “Aching Breaking Heart” picked up the tempo while keeping the Bradley-esque dynamics in place. Listen to the way everyone hits a stop at the end of a verse then jumps back in all together once Jones kicks off the chorus on his own. (There’s a small piece of trivia attached to this preview of the Owen Bradley impersonation Bob Moore would perform on George Jones records for most of The ‘60s, itself a preview of how Billy Sherrill would use Owen’s studio and musicians to stretch the limitations of the Nashville Sound on George Jones records in The ‘70s and ‘80s. “Aching Breaking Heart” was written by Rick Hall of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama but FAME was originally located across the river in Florence until Rick split with one of his founding partners, Billy Sherrill, who moved to Nashville about a year before this George Jones session.)
Jones’ second session with Shelby Singleton took place later the same day as his first but, this time, Shelby brought his wife to work. In Season 1, you heard how Margie Singleton’s musical ambitions brought her husband into the industry and how he learned the promo business under Don Pierce, who personally hated Margie’s rockabilly-flavored records and her voice. I’ve never been able to find a comment on the topic one way or another from George Jones but, for what it’s worth, he loved doing duets, especially with women and these recordings do sound to me like he’s having a great time. Either way, it is hilarious Shelby Singleton, ever the hustler, spent half his first day as George Jones’ producer cutting duets with his wife, who was of course now a Mercury recording artist and, wouldn’t you know it, co-writer on two of the songs, including the lead single, “Did I Ever Tell You.” It’s a silly, upbeat love song, far more pop than country, but it still charted at #15. The second single sounds like it may have been the first song they recorded, maybe even the first time George and Margie ever sang together. Their phrasing is noticeably out of sync for most of the song, probably the result of everyone assuming they didn’t need to practice what had become a genre standard over the past five years. Beautifully written by Jack Rhodes (Leon Payne’s step-brother and co-writer on Red Hayes’ “A Satisfied Mind”), “Waltz of the Angels” was first cut by Lefty Frizzell as a b-side in 1956. It’s since been recorded by everyone from Kitty Wells to Johnny Paycheck. As you heard last season, Wynn Stewart’s version is particularly great. The song being a pretty sure thing on its own merits, the George and Margie version went #11 despite its faults.
With a handful of duet and solo hits from these two February 8th sessions, Jones took another seven month break from recording to focus on more non-stop touring. When he did come back to the studio in September of 1961, everyone knew they were cutting his final tape for Mercury. Billboard magazine announced his new deal at United Artists in the same month. True to form, Shelby Singleton used his last day with George Jones to record nothing but duets with Margie, rushing through ten songs in five hours giving Mercury enough to press a full LP. Due to the purpose of the sessions and the absence of Bob Moore, the results are largely uninteresting with one standout exception. Far and away the most dynamic cut of the bunch, only ever released as a b-side, was “When Two Worlds Collide,” one of Roger Miller’s sadder compositions. Whether inspired by the singular vibrato of Margie’s voice, the appropriately sparse arrangement or the fact he was leaving the label and truly didn’t give a fuck how it sold, Jones made some epic choices on this track. He practically hijacks his own vocal cords, predicting some of the vocal acrobatics in his later career, as well as the aching horniness of Conway Twitty. It sounds like he’s trying to see if it’s possible to pull a muscle in his throat.
Now, the 5-year contract Jones originally signed with Mercury-Starday did go into effect in January 1957 and was therefore set to expire in January of 1962 but that didn’t necessarily preordain his exit from Mercury. Once they dropped Starday from the equation, George instantly began having bigger hits, recorded exclusively in a state-of-the-art studio with the best musicians available. Money may not be able to buy happiness but it sure can buy everything else and it’s probably not a coincidence the period Shirley Jones called the happiest of their marriage roughly coincides with her husband’s time as a Mercury recording artist. So why would Pappy Daily not leverage his boy’s success to negotiate an even more generous contract with Mercury? When reporters asked Jones why he was leaving the label, Jones said Mercury’s interests had turned from country to rock & roll. This was just as true as it was several years earlier, when Mercury dropped Starday’s country operation but went through great lengths to retain the contract of George Jones, whose sales figures then exponentially increased as he released one Top 5 single after another, including two #1s. There is no question Mercury remained very “interested” in George Jones, regardless of what he said in interviews, probably nothing more than him repeating whatever Pappy Daily told him to say if the subject came up. Pappy insisted there was never a formal management contract between himself and George Jones, which is entirely plausible, but the only reason anyone asked the question is because of how much Pappy walked, talked and made deals exactly like he was George Jones’ manager. Contract or not, he effectively always was. His formal title may have been “producer” but the closest he ever got to production work was in the old school sense of selecting and negotiating terms for the material George recorded. Wielding such control while having George signed to a publishing contract in an era when major artists received writing credit as compensation for cutting songs meant Pappy took down a way larger percentage than whatever he’d net from a standard management deal. If we’re looking for the actual reason George Jones left Mercury, we’re looking for a man by the name of Art Talmadge, one of Mercury’s co-founders, who (according to Shelby Singleton) was the main mover and shaker at the label during the 1950s. In June of 1960, Talmadge left Mercury, presumably for a greater profit share and near-unilateral control as Vice President of United Artists Records. The September 1961 issue of Billboard announcing George Jones had joined United Artists also announced Pappy Daily as the label’s new head of Country & Western A&R. Long story short, Art Talmadge once more went through Pappy Daily to poach George Jones over to another label.
And the Storm Will Wreck Our Home
His day on this podcast is yet to come but record producer and songwriter Cowboy Jack Clement was one of those larger-than-life, stranger-than-fiction characters not even Hunter S. Thompson could have dreamt up; a very fun and infinitely quotable being, possibly from the same solar system as Roger Miller, wherever that is. Near the end of 1961, Cowboy opened a new studio in Beaumont, TX, called Gulf Coast Recording Studios. His partner, Bill Hall, was technically George Jones’ first manager back in the mid-50s (though, again, Pappy was always who really ran the show). Gulf Coast studio was only about fifteen minutes down the road from Jones’ ranch in Vidor, so when George was off the road, he’d often swing by to hang out with Cowboy and Bill. Still in the happy era of home life, spending time with friends at the studio helped keep him out of trouble. Well, like every other producer, Cowboy owned a publishing company and two of his writers had come up with a song so perfect for George Jones it probably kept Jack awake at night imagining how good it would sound if he could only get George to cut it. Every time Jones came by, Cowboy picked up a guitar and sang the song at him. George wasn’t sure about it. He thought the lyrics were too repetitive, what with how every line started with the words “just because” over and over and over. Whenever Cowboy started pitching it again, George would deflect to this little tape recorder unit in the office, asking how much money they’d take for it. After running through this routine a few times, Bill Hall finally said they’d give him the tape recorder if Jones just cut the damn song. In the end, Cowboy had to give up 50% of the publishing to Pappy Daily but, when the contract with Mercury expired, Pappy and George hit the studio right away, cutting Cowboy’s song in their first session for United Artists.
When Dickey Lee and Steve Duffy wrote “She Thinks I Still Care,” they intended it as something like a pop take on Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You,” admitting to the same pathetic behavior but trying to play it off with wacky sarcasm. (Think Daffy Duck or Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot.) But Cowboy knew this silly song would play an entirely different way if someone like George Jones sang it as though there was nothing funny about it at all. And he was right. When you hear people compare Jones’ voice to a pedal steel guitar, “She Thinks I Still Care” is one of the performances they’re referencing. It’s in the way he glides smoothly between and through the notes. Jones careens throughout his vocal range, demonstrating unbelievably tight control wherever he goes, veering back and forth like slow-motion footage of a motorcyclist illegally navigating traffic on a four-lane highway. The single came out in February and spent six weeks at #1 – his second #1 in two years – establishing a new standard in the genre and his eternal status as a superstar, a paragon of country music. From this moment in time forward, walking into any half-decent honky tonk in the world and loudly insulting George Jones would be a pretty quick way to get your ass handed to you.
Some of his first singles were covered by other artists but once Jones started hitting with ballads and showing off what his voice could do, the contemporary covers pretty much stopped. It took four years for Johnny Cash to record “Just One More” and even then it was a filler track on a whole album of covers. Other than some lowly soundalikes, a Stanley Brothers single that bombed and a few uses as album filler, nobody really touched “Window Up Above” until Mickey Gilley had a hit with it fifteen years after the original. There were zero notable contemporary covers of “Don’t Stop the Music” or “Color of the Blues.” Songwriters used to say George Jones cutting one of your songs was a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you got to hear him sing your song and there was a decent chance it’d be a hit. On the other hand, you weren’t likely to have many other people record it because nobody wanted their version to be compared to Jones. Because another thing everyone used to say about George Jones was when he sang a song, it stayed sung. Then, with “She Thinks I Still Care,” something changed. The way Jones did this one made everybody else wanna sing it, too. Not because they thought they could also have a hit with it, not because they thought they could sing it better or even had anything to add. Jones just sang it so good, they had to sing it. Ferlin Husky, Eddy Arnold, The Wilburn Brothers and Faron Young all recorded “She Thinks I Still Care” within a few years of the hit record. This is when other artists began doing “a Jones song,” either one of his hits adapted to their own style (as Cash did with “Just One More”) or adopting key traits of Jones’ style in near-impersonation. This was something more than appreciation, appropriation or commentary. This was homage to a living legend. Six months after the original hit, international pop superstar Connie Francis recorded it as “He Thinks I Still Care,” which wound up on the b-side of a Top 40 pop hit and was immediately covered by international pop superstar Cher on her first solo album. It is so very important to note these pop artists did not reintroduce the comedy intended by the songwriters, who wrote it as a pop song. Connie Francis made every effort to mimic Jones’ apathy, which is why she went to Nashville to record her version in the Quonset Hut with the Nashville A-Team. And even Cher with Sonny Bono’s cheap imitation of Phil Spector circus music behind her was unable to put any kind of humor into her performance. That’s how sung this song stayed after George Jones was done with it.
They dumped a pile of awards on him at the 1962 DJ Convention. Billboard and Cash Box both named him Male Vocalist of the Year for 1962 and 1963. And, even though he continued to release major hits, those were the last major industry awards he received until the 1970s, probably because everyone was worried if they gave him an award he may show up to accept it. Somewhere in here, as “She Thinks I Still Care” started to become more than just another #1 record, Jones lost control. He’d heard how great of a singer he was since childhood but drunk people in honky tonks saying you’re the best they’ve ever heard is one thing. This was a totally different thing. Once major label artists began doing “a Jones song” – not merely covers but tributes to a master stylist – anyone with the idea George Jones may be the Greatest Country Singer Ever was able to sit down with a stack of records and make song-by-song comparisons. An overwhelming majority of the people who’ve ever done this walk away having made the same conclusion, which may be the worst thing that could’ve happened to George Jones. This is when the honky tonk crowds went from yelling he was their favorite or the best they’d ever heard to yelling he was the best to ever do it, calling out his heroes by name and saying he was better than they had ever been, better than Roy Acuff, better than Lefty Frizzell, better than Hank Williams. And it wasn’t just the honky tonk crowds. Now, it was everyone, the magazines, other country stars, some of his heroes. This is when his stage fright during TV appearances becomes consistently and visibly apparent. You can see it in his eyes. Not anxiety. Terror. The only times he doesn’t look drunk and afraid are the times he looks so cadaverously hungover from the night before he couldn’t have felt anything but a splitting headache, which was probably the whole point of getting that drunk. There’s a black-and-white video of “She Thinks I Still Care” with Georgie Riddle on the Grand Ole Opry from 1962. At the start, Jones’ voice sounds like he’s been punched in the throat but he manages to work through the sandpaper and get where he needs to go. When the camera moves in close, the bags under his eyes are so severe they look like bruises covered with makeup, as if he didn’t sleep for two days and then got into a fight, which could very well be what happened.
According to Georgie Riddle, Jones managed to get in at least one big fight per tour from the very beginning. This was the baseline, a dependable and evidently acceptable side effect of his substance abuse on tour, even in a period when his happy home life and not-yet-living-legend level of fame weren’t major sources of stress. From there, Riddle watched it all get worse. Call it Phase II of George Jones’ addictions. When George later claims his drinking didn’t get out of control or become violent until the early 1960s, he’s talking about the transition into Phase II. Not the beginning of what most people would call problematic intake but the next stage of its evolution. This is when Jones started pulling no-shows often enough to build a reputation for it. This is when rumors of his alcoholism reached the degree his attempts to stay off the bottle were met by an obnoxious club owner hounding him for days to have a drink until he finally had a drink and tried to break everything in sight, including that club owner’s face.
In 1962, Jones shared a road manager and did a lot of touring with Johnny Cash. One night in a hotel room, Jones got all pissed off and broke something while Cash and the manager were sitting there. Cash had his first #1 record back in 1956, so he was a few years ahead of Jones and had worked through a lot of this stuff already. He calmly stated out loud the dollar amount this hotel would charge Jones for the broken item. When Jones responded by breaking something else, Cash again announced how much he’d be billed. It turned into a sort of game for Jones, to see if he could break something Cash hadn’t broken before. Turns out, he couldn’t. When Jones got the bill, Cash’s inventory was almost dead on. He’d priced everything correctly except for two lamps. Based on tree leaves in the pictures, it looks like spring or summer of 1962 when Jones played two days in a row at the New River Ranch, an outdoor stage in the middle of the woods near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. He showed up drunk on the first day, cussed out the local backing band in front of an all-ages audience, fired the band onstage in the middle of the show, then left Georgie Riddle to deal with all the questions while Jones stomped off in his fancy western suit and cowboy boots a half-mile down the road to the nearest telephone, presumably to cuss out an agent, manager or maybe Pappy Daily on the topic of why in the fuck are he and Georgie Riddle out here in the middle of nowhere playing with some band of strangers who don’t even know his records? How’s he supposed to put on a good show, let alone meet the zealous expectations now placed upon him by everyone expecting to see the Greatest Country Singer Ever? It goes back to the Mercury-Starday question: if there’s such a thing as being a country music star, shouldn’t it pay enough to not have to cut corners? Never mind how Pappy Daily or whoever else was likely to respond with bills for smashed hotel rooms and all the stories they’d heard about their Grand Ole Opry star flushing hundred dollar bills down toilets and lighting ‘em on fire. Jones was probably under the impression a country music star’s income should be sufficient to cover those expenses, too. The next day at New River Ranch, Jones returned wearing hungover embarrassment and the same suit he had on the day before. Backed by the same band he’d fired onstage, he played his whole show without any problems. When he came back to New River Ranch in 1963, Jones arrived in his first tour bus along with The Jones Boys, the band Georgie Riddle had been told to assemble soon after the previous year’s incident. Georgie stuck around to lead The Jones Boys for about another year, until late 1964 or early 1965, when he bailed after it became evident a bus and a band were not going to keep this show on the road.
Also advertised on the poster for George Jones & The Jones Boys’ 1963 concert at New River Ranch: Melba Montgomery.
Melba was born in Tennessee in 1938 and raised in Florence, Alabama. Her father played guitar, fiddle, sang and taught music to his children. Melba got her first guitar at the age of 10. Ten years later, in 1958, she and one of her brothers made it to the final round of an amateur talent contest at WSM, where Roy Acuff was one of the judges. Acuff happened to be looking for a singer to replace “The Prettiest Smokey Mountain Boy” June Webb and he was impressed enough by Melba to hire her for the job. She sang and toured in Acuff’s show for four years, until (with Roy’s blessing) she went solo in 1962. Both of her singles on the indie label Nugget were produced by Shot Jackson and featured his dobro with Buddy Emmons’ pedal steel over thumping country rhythms and every word of Melba’s self-penned lyrics twisted through her deep Alabama accent. George Jones heard the unfiltered honky-tonk of “Your Picture (Keeps Smiling Back at Me)” and decided he was in love with her voice before he even knew what Melba looked like. He wanted to cut some duets with her, so he asked Pappy Daily to track her down and set up a meeting, having no idea they’d already met.
According to Melba, she was still in Roy Acuff’s band when she got done playing The Opry one night, went across the alley behind The Ryman into the backroom of Tootsie’s and ran into a blacked-out George Jones. I don’t believe she’s ever repeated exactly what Jones said to her but it sounds like it would have been sexually suggestive if he was in any shape to back it up. It also sounds like he knew he wasn’t in any shape to back up whatever he said, which is maybe why the comment played for a laugh with Melba. Then, close to a year later, here comes Pappy Daily with a United Artists recording contract, saying George Jones wants to sing with her. And his interest at this time does seem to’ve been purely in her voice. Later in life, looking back on his career, George will praise the many women who were his duet partners before admitting, regardless of who he sold the most albums with, Melba Montgomery fit his vocal style the best. To say the least, she’s the only singing partner he ever sent a recording contract after. Imagine the confirmation he must have felt all the way down to his soul when he asked if she had any good duet songs and Melba responded by picking up a guitar to sing “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds.” Melba said he started harmonizing with her the first time she played it, then said he knew it was a hit. They cut it the following day. Released in March of 1963, the single made a slow climb up to #3 in July, spending a total of 23 weeks on the charts. Over the next five years, George Jones and Melba Montgomery charted six more duets and toured together extensively.
George had sung with people before but this was his first serious collaborative and commercial partnership, much different from the studio rush jobs with Margie Singleton, the two singles documenting his party days with Sonny Burns or even his tour-only, never-in-the-studio work with Georgie Riddle. The only singer who possibly had a chance to beat Melba to this territory was Jeanette Hicks but her career was never given a chance to play out. Jeanette became the first woman to sing on record with George Jones when they cut a few songs at Gold Star in the summer of 1956. In the fall, one of those songs was included on George Jones’ and Stardays’ first LP, the Grand Ole Opry’s New Star compilation. When it was released as a single, “Yearning” went Top 10 in January of 1957 and was reissued with greater distribution and promotion on the brand new Mercury-Starday label. There are moments in the chorus where it sounds like Gold Star’s gear can barely withstand such powerful voices singing at the same time. But the thing about “Yearning” is it was always secretly a Jeanette Hicks record featuring George Jones. You can tell because the b-sides of both the Starday and Mercury-Starday pressings were Jeanette Hicks solo recordings. Technically, “Yearning” isn’t even a duet because George never sings by himself. Jeanette takes the verses on her own and Jones only joins in on the chorus. In later interviews, he will state his preference for the woman’s voice to take lead in duets between a man and a woman but that’s not what’s happening here. What’s happening here is a country star doing a favor for his record label, putting his name and voice on a single to give their new artist a boost. In return, the label got songwriter Eddie Eddings, who’d previously cut “Yearning” without crediting any co-writer, to list Jones as a co-writer on the record with Jeanette. Financial motivations aside, the product is stellar. After “Yearning” hit the Top 10, Mercury-Starday was ready to plug Jeanette Hicks into the system. They started by adding her to all of Jones’ tour dates, which is when Jeanette’s husband decided to end her career. Maybe he thought he could pretend to support her dreams for a while until she failed and gave up or maybe he’d never given serious consideration to the prospect of his wife leaving their small children at home with him for weeks while she went on tour with George Jones and a bunch of male musicians. Whatever his reasons, he absolutely forbade her from leaving. When she did leave, she took the kids, determined to make this tour happen even if it meant simultaneously being a single mother while on the road. But the husband tracked her down at the first motel, told her to come home, she did and that was that. Jeanette was never able to capitalize on her one hit or pursue a recording career with Mercury. Years later, on Shelby Singleton’s final day of recording Margie and Jones, one of the songs they did was “Yearning.”
So, prior to anyone else, Melba Montgomery was George Jones’ first true singing partner. He also happened to be obsessed with her voice. Although each had a strongly-defined and adventurous vocal identity when they met, they were still young enough – she in her mid-20s, he in his early 30s – to be forever influenced by working together. Again, you will not hear this as any noticeable transfer of mannerisms from one to the other in either direction. As you can hear on “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds,” instead of either singer pulling the other toward their own comfort zone, both of them reach toward something new, moaning and howling into sonic territory they’d not have found without each other. To George, working with Melba hardly felt like work at all. Touring was easier knowing she’d be there to sing with him, onstage and off, bonding over shared influences and teaching each other their favorite country songs. There’s no telling exactly how soon he fell in love with her but it happened fast and he started asking her to marry him. As for her, she did enjoy his company very much and had a lot of love for him. She said he never directed his “bad side” toward her. She said he was sweet and shy, treated her with respect. At one point in 1963, her niece racked up a huge medical bill, so George held a benefit show and raised money to pay it. But, whatever possibility of romantic feelings may have existed, Melba did recognize the bad side was there and it was only one of the reasons he was undateable. He just so happened to be an already-married, barely-functioning addict with an evidently fundamental misconception of how money even works. One time, George bought hundreds of dollars in tackle and bait so he and Melba could go fishing. They had a great time and everything but, after using the gear only once, Jones had no further use for it and left it all in Melba’s car for her to deal with. In addition to his regular habit of getting blackout drunk and trying to fight people, this is the era when Stonewall Jackson claims he first noticed George Jones stopped arriving anywhere in the same car twice. If Jones saw another car he liked better than the one he’d driven to wherever he was, right then and there, he’d offer to trade pink slips with the other car’s owner, regardless of either vehicle’s value. This is not the guy you marry. It’s his screw-up friend who gets too drunk at every party, gives everyone there the wildest story they’ll ever tell and has to hitchhike home.
Melba Montgomery’s career, however, was already hitched to George Jones for the immediate future. Cash Box magazine had named her 1963’s Second-Most Promising Country & Western Female Artist but this was largely on the strength of “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds” and that was about the peak of her accolades in this period. Sales and airplay of her solo records were not comparable to the duets with George Jones. In addition to her contract with United Artists, Pappy Daily had signed both Melba and her brother to writing contracts with one of his publishing companies, Glad Music. (This is not Melba’s brother Carl Montgomery, co-writer of Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road,” but Earl “Peanutt” Montgomery, who began writing songs as a young boy just to prove he was equally worthy of the praise their mom gave to Carl. Peanutt was a writer for the Wilburn Brothers’ Sure-Fire Music when he stopped by the session for “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds” and instantly became George Jones’ new best drinking buddy, at which point Pappy Daily hired Peanutt away to write for Glad Music.) So it was in the best interests of everyone’s careers to continue working together despite any awkwardness stemming from George’s unrequited love for Melba. And with unrequited love for his ever-present singing partner added to the list of things that made George Jones wanna take a drink, you’d better believe there was awkwardness. In the studio, on tour and even for television appearances, he’d come up with any excuse to play Melba’s guitar instead of his own, proudly displaying her name on a custom, tooled leather guitar strap for all to see. If he was drunk enough onstage (and, in Phase II, he often was), he’d interrupt whatever song they were singing in order to propose marriage over the microphone for all the audience to hear. This went on for years.
The Winner Loses All
In June of 1963, when George Jones recorded “The Race Is On,” he was allegedly so drunk he had to be carried to his hotel room 30 minutes after the last take. This is probably a true story. Every witness agrees he was shitfaced during the “White Lightning” session and there, same as here, he only botched one word. In the first verse of “The Race Is On,” Jones misses the initial “b” in “break right down and bawl,” causing most listeners to hear “rake right down” as “lay right down” or something similar. Other than the one word, the master they chose is flawless. Since this was the only song they cut in the session, it’s safe to assume there were many more takes with many more mistakes. Honestly, these lyrics are such a logistical nightmare, being drunk may have helped. Songwriter Don Rollins was spending the day at a horse racing track when he got the idea to use all the jargon of people who bet on horseraces for another of those “wacky heartache” songs popular at this time. Almost every single line in the resulting lyrics achieves the seemingly impossible task of using either twice or half but never as many words as it should, thus forcing a singer to alternate between cramming syllables together and stretching them out in order to stay approximately on meter by repeatedly pulling ahead of and falling back behind the beat, like a carousel horse pulling ahead and falling behind the other horses but remaining in the same row. It’s no easy trick Jones accomplishes, here, and this song is exhausting to perform. In fact, nearly every other person who’s even attempted to record “The Race Is On” has had to alter the lyrics or tempo. They change “cold and deep inside” to “goin deep inside.” “My heart’s sprung a big break” becomes “my heart’s gonna break.” And “break right down and bawl” morphs into “break right down and cry.” Any little shortcut to make it easier, which, of course, strips the risk and excitement from the performance and leaves it feeling nothing like a horserace at all. For instance, Jack Jones’ 1965 cover hit #15 on the pop chart, despite sounding like a room temperature cup of decaf coffee in comparison to the original.
Similar to how Jones’ mistake in “White Lightning” is probably why it was the last single released from the session, United Artists held back “The Race Is On” for over a year before releasing it in September of 1964, by which time Pappy Daily and Art Talmadge knew they were gonna move George to yet another record label at the end of the year. “The Race Is On” went #3 country and stayed there for six weeks, a period of time in which it’s possible Jones spent maybe a day or two sober. Phase II began somewhere in 1962, picked up speed in ’63, and by 1964 he had it running wide open, literally staying wasted for weeks at a time. He acquired such a reputation for missing and bailing on shows, unprincipled concert promoters began advertising and selling tickets to George Jones dates they’d never actually booked. When the scheduled day came around, these scammers would let the audience arrive at the venue and spend several hours buying beer before telling everyone Jones must have gotten too drunk to show up. Even after refunding the price of admission for those who didn’t wanna keep their ticket stub as a No Show Jones souvenir, the revenue from beer sales made it a profitable scam. The concert where he refused to go onstage without being introduced as Hank Williams and Johnny Horton, then caused a riot by letting the audience watch him walk out? That one’s somewhere in this era.
There must be at least thirty books which partially recount the Madison Square Garden story. In 1964, the Garden scheduled a comprehensive “Who’s Who in Country Music” lineup, featuring George Jones, Ernest Tubb, Ray Price, Webb Pierce, Bill Monroe, Dottie West, Buck Owens, Skeeter Davis, Bill Anderson, Stonewall Jackson, Porter Wagoner and several other notable acts. What with having well over fifteen major artists on the bill, each was to play only two songs. The promoters were especially concerned with keeping the evening on schedule because the whole event would become an instant loss if they had to cover overtime pay for all the union workers. For obvious reasons, everyone behind the scenes viewed George Jones as the single largest potential threat to their financial solvency. The safest move would’ve been to place him early in the day so any disasters could be mitigated by adjustments well before curfew. But he’d gained such status in recent years they had to promote and schedule him as one of the headliners. Still, they put him next-to-last on the lineup, giving themselves one co-headliner as a buffer between Jones’s set and the curfew. Now, normally, singing at Madison Square Garden in New York City would have scared George Jones shitless but he had nearly every other living country star there and the one co-headliner scheduled to follow him just so happened to be Buck Owens. As mentioned, Buck Owens was a huge fan. He learned to sing from listening to Jones’ records and when Buck needed a pseudonym to secretly cut his own rock records, he went with Corky Jones. However, Buck Owens was also an unapologetic asshole, who’d developed a half-friendly rivalry with Jones while spending much of the previous year on tour together. See, 1963 was the year Buck had his first #1 record with “Act Naturally.” As far as he was concerned, another singer being his hero had nothing to do with who should headline a show, so he and Jones spent almost every day of this tour arguing with each other and the promoters over who was gonna open for who on each night. Since Buck did presently have a #1 country record on the charts, he often won and played last. But Jones rarely let it end there. One night, he waited until Buck got into singing a real serious ballad, then snuck up onstage behind the guitar amps while wearing a pair of khaki shorts. Every time Jones popped up from behind the amps and did a dumb rooster dance with his pasty white legs sticking out of those shorts, the audience fell into hysterics and Jones ducked back down behind the amps before Buck could turn around, all pissed off, trying to see what the hell was so funny. Another time when Jones lost the argument and had to play first, he went onstage and sang Buck Owens’ entire set list instead of his own. Buck was left with no choice but to walk out there and sing every song George Jones had just sung, which is every country singer’s actual worst nightmare. So, when Jones showed up to Madison Square Garden in 1964 and found out he was “opening” for Buck Owens one more time, stage fright was the last thing on his mind. He had a show to put on. After playing his two songs, Jones launched into a third and everyone backstage who’d spent the whole day worried about this exact thing happening found a clock or wristwatch to stare at. Ralph Emery, the show’s emcee, tried to use another microphone to thank Jones over the P.A. and usher him off stage but Jones ignored it, played out his third song and rolled right into a fourth with the crowd going crazy. Meanwhile, curfew crept closer and the promoters were pulling out their hair. Even if they did get him to stop before union overtime threw the whole event in the red, Buck Owens still had to play two songs or they’d be dealing with pissed off audience members demanding refunds. When Jones started his fifth song, Bill Monroe finally went over to Ralph Emery and said he’d take care of it. Monroe and one of the Blue Grass Boys went onstage, lifted Jones by the arms and, as he continued singing, carried him offstage. Fortunately, Buck Owens & The Buckaroos knew how to play fast. They ripped through two songs at breakneck speed and saved everyone’s paychecks with only seconds to spare.
Other stories from this period are far less amusing.
If it even needs to be said, the “happy days” in George’s marriage to Shirley Jones were over and done. After her husband began making public displays of affection (and marriage proposals) toward Melba Montgomery in 1963, it seems Shirley fell in love with J.C. Arnold, owner of the building leased for the George Jones Chuck Wagon Restaurant and Museum. At some point in 1964, George found out about the affair and things got sloppy. Probably not as sloppy as the persistent rumor he actually caught J/C. and Shirley in bed together, then put a load of buckshot in J.C.’s ass… But whatever did happen wasn’t good and nothing about the marriage ever got better. George and Shirley grew increasingly spiteful in their behavior toward each other. Sometimes he’d run a Johnny Cash Special on his own home, smashing the place up like it was any hotel room in the middle of nowhere. One source alleges Jones slapped Shirley when he caught her flirting with some random guy outside of a honky tonk. She wanted a divorce but George always talked her out of it. And who knows why? The kids? The shame? The holy oath? Maybe there were moments when they both legitimately thought he could get better. Jones had his first stay in some kind of rehab or psych ward in this period, possibly in an attempt to save the marriage. But the white walls didn’t take. Even though their divorce was still a few years down the road, the irreparable harm had been done.
And right around here is when Jones’ already-frivolous attitude toward combining automobiles and mind-altering substances enters new and disturbing territory. He trades and gives away cars to strangers with a frequency which becomes impossible to track. When he forgets where he parked a car or which one in a parking lot is the one he’s driving at the moment, he never bothers to find out and simply buys another. Sometimes friends will find him passed out on the ground with the driver’s-side door still hanging open and six-figure sums of cash spilled all over the passenger seat. Where other country artists of this era talk about taking speed pills to stay awake on long drives, Jones takes speed just to stay awake, sit in a chair and drink more booze. Whatever he thinks about when he does this, sometimes it makes him want to take out a gun and shoot holes in things, so that’s what he does, too. One night after a concert, he instructs the tour bus driver to drop off The Jones Boys at their hotel then aimlessly spend all night driving Jones around the highways of whatever city they were in. He didn’t sit up front to talk with his driver. He sat alone in the back of the bus, drinking. He loaded up his revolver and began shooting holes in the ceiling, walls and floor of his own tour bus. The driver kept driving the whole time but, the next morning, he quit his job, disappeared and nobody saw him again. For as long as Jones owned that bus, the bullet holes stayed, letting in diesel fumes while going down the road and cold air during the winter.
In this period, Jones played many shows with Charley Pride. One night Charley decided to hang out with Jones at some local DJ’s house and have a couple drinks. But Jones didn’t really like for any of his drinking partners to have “a couple” while he was trying to take down a bottle or two, so he said Charley had to match him drink for drink. Charley agreed but soon passed out, at which point Jones and the DJ decided it would be funny to go outside and paint “KKK” on Charley’s car. Then Jones went inside and passed out in the same bed as Charley. When they woke up the next morning, that DJ acted like the Klan showed up in the middle of the night and told Charley to look out the window at his car. Charley, dealing with a head-splitting hangover, believed it for a minute before realizing these two idiots thought they were being funny.
At some point in 1965, Jones rushed back to Texas because his father had been hospitalized. It wasn’t much of a surprise – two years earlier the old man was sent to a state mental hospital to dry out – but this time the doctors told George his father could be about to die. His decades of heavy drinking may have finally caught up with him for good. One day at home, waiting to see if his father was gonna die or not, George walked outside, got behind the wheel of a Cadillac, then proceeded to drive the car through a shed, a barn and all the fencing on his ranch, letting his horses and cattle loose to roam the countryside and totaling the Cadillac. George’s brother-in-law, one of several people who’d been more of a father figure than his actual father, assumed George did all this because he was drunk and went looking for him to prevent further catastrophe. When he found George totally sober, he asked why on earth he’d caused all this damage to his own property. George couldn’t come up with a reason. The only thing he could say was, “I just done it, is all I know. I just done it.” A few days later, having wrecked his own car, George caught a ride with the brother-in-law to go visit his father in the hospital. Someone cracked a joke about it probably being the first time in a long time George Jones found himself riding in such an old beater of a pickup truck and George started to cry. He pleaded with his family to understand he didn’t think he was any better than them. The truth is he knew they were better than him.
Thank you for reading Cocaine & Rhinestones. Every episode is written by me, Tyler Mahan Coe. While you’re on the website, I hope you’ll take the time to check out the Support page to learn how you can help me keep making this podcast. Nothing about this is easy and every bit of help goes a long way. If none of those support options make sense for you right now, word-of-mouth has been one of the most important factors in this show’s continued survival so please share it with friends, followers, readers, watchers, pen pals or whoever else you’re in communication with.
When the podcast returns in a couple weeks, I’ll be saying a lot more about a name you’ve heard many times this season: Pappy Daily. And I’ll be talking more than a little bit about a name you’ve heard much less: Gene Pitney. And I’ll be doing all of that in order to unpack the Musicor years of George Jones’ life and career. Though this is a legendary period in his catalog, there is also much speculation, rumor and outright misdirection associated with it, so there’s a lot to clean up here and that’s what we’re going to do.
This episode featured excerpts from the following songs, in this order [with links to purchase or stream where available]:
- Benny Barnes – “Once Again” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Benny Barnes – “No Fault of Mine” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Window Up Above” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Glad to Let Her Go” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Half as Much” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Why Baby Why” (re-recorded) [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Tender Years” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Aching Breaking Heart” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Margie Singleton – “Did I Ever Tell You?” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Margie Singleton – “Waltz of the Angels” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Lefty Frizzell – “Waltz of the Angels” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Kitty Wells – “Waltz of the Angels” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny PayCheck – “Waltz of the Angels” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Margie Singleton – “When Two Worlds Collide” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “She Thinks I Still Care” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny Cash – “Just One More” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Faron Young – “She Thinks I Still Care” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Connie Francis – “He Thinks I Still Care” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Cher – “He Thinks I Still Care” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Melba Montgomery – “Your Picture Keeps Smiling Back at Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Melba Montgomery – “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Jeanette Hicks – “Yearning” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Margie Singleton – “Yearning” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “The Race Is On” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Jack Jones – “The Race Is On” [Amazon / Apple Music]
These videos were excerpted in the episode. For any number of reasons, YouTube may remove them in the future but here they are for now:
Commentary and Remaining Sources
These Liner Notes should be pretty short. That won’t be the case for every episode in the rest of the season but I do expect the average length of Liner Notes to become a bit shorter from here on out. As you’re beginning to see, this is a product of the whole season functioning as more of a single entity than Season 1’s relatively scattershot approach. Since the main content of all the remaining episodes is relevant or relative to the main content of all the other remaining episodes, there will be far fewer “odds and ends” left in the scrap pile. There is always at least a little bit of something else, though.
For everyone hunting all the links between various topics covered in this season, helado is a very popular frozen dessert that’s been served at bullfights since at least the early 1900s. As far as I know, Pablo Picasso never seriously tried to become a matador but he did design a traje de luces for Luis Miguel Dominguin.
I should point out that I’m aware it’s still standard in certain commercial genres of music for artists to take a piece of the writing credit on songs they didn’t actually write. This absolutely does still happen but it’s nowhere near as universally accepted as it used to be. A lot of people may still do this but in the time period I’m talking about nearly everyone did this. As mentioned in the Liner Notes of the Starday episode, there is still room in such a system for parasitic and ill-intentioned men to reveal themselves. You can find many examples of producers taking full writing credit for songs their artists wrote, sending them on their way with a flat fee or fancy car or whatever else. Again, that’s much different than participating in an ecosystem nearly every informed person voluntarily entered without complaint.
On a related note, the song “Tender Years” was credited to Darrell Edwards but it seems he actually bought the song for $100 off of Tommy Blake and one of the writers on both “Lonely Street” and “Am I That Easy to Forget,” Carl Belew.
In case anyone needs further evidence for my suggested perspective on Shelby Singleton’s reasons for having Margie and George Jones record together, it’s worth pointing out that their version of “Yearning” features Margie taking the verses alone just the way Jeanette Hicks did. It’s also worth mentioning there wasn’t even a photoshoot for the Margie and Jones LP on Mercury. They are pictured separately on the album jacket.
My main sources on bullfighting were all of those given in the previous episode, as well as Juan Belmonte’s autobiography, Juan Belmonte: Killer of Bulls. Various books on bullfighting over the years have printed all those different explanations people came up with for why Belmonte had such an unusual style, so once I found out he’d written an autobiography I had to go get the truth straight from the source. And I’m glad I did because there were several more important insights and connections to the rest of this season’s narrative. For everyone who doesn’t want to see to me talk about bullfighting anymore, you’ll be pleased to learn the intro of the next episode is not about bullfighting but you are going to have to deal with me speaking some more Spanish.
My main sources on all the George Jones stuff are all of those given in previous episodes, as well as everything on the Season 2 Library page. The source most pertinent to this episode which I’ve not yet discussed in any Liner Notes would be the Bear Family Records box set, She Thinks I Still Care: The Complete United Artists Recordings. As with their box set on the Starday and Mercury years, this is just an incredible resource. One of the first things that became clear to me when I started working on this season was I’d need to sit down and listen to everything I could of everything George Jones had ever recorded. These box sets made that a much easier and faster task than it otherwise would have been. And that’s just the music. All of the who, when and where data given on recording sessions kept the booklets from all of these box sets within an arm’s reach of my desk the whole time I was researching, writing and fact checking this season.
Okay, come back in a couple weeks to learn about Pappy Daily, Gene Pitney and how George Jones came to be on Musicor Records.