George Jones influenced more country singers than  anyone else in history.

George Jones influenced more country singers than anyone else in history.

George Jones, who epitomized the hard-drinking and hard-living country music singer and managed to bridge generations with his distinctive voice and hard-luck songs, has died at 81, after falling ill during what he said would be his final tour.

Jones was hospitalized last week (Apr. 18) at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. He did this morning (Apr. 26), his publicist confirmed.

“Today is a sad day for music. George said to me once, ‘One day I’ll Join the Angel band.’ Well, today he did,” said publicist Kirt Webster said this morning.

“George passed with his family by his side, and the official cause of death is being listed as ‘Hypoxic Respiratory Failure,'” he added. The ailment essentially means respiratory failure.

Essential George Jones

Jones suffered breathing problems from years of smoking cigarettes, and had been using oxygen to help him breathe for the past several years, according to a family member. “His lungs finally just couldn’t do it anymore, and they collapsed, and he passed away. He couldn’t breathe anymore on his own,” a family member told gossip site TMZ.

Jones was born in Texas in 1931, just as the nation began sliding into the Great Recession. His parents bought their first radio in 1938, and he heard country music for the first time. He was singing on street corners by the time he was nine and left home at 16 to sing and play on a local radio station.

He was married and divorced by the time he was 20; he enlisted in the U.S. Marines during the Korean War, although he never left the United States. He resumed his music career after he got out and never really looked back over the course of a 50-year music career.

During that time, Jones was as well known for his hard living and drinking as he was for his music. He picked up a nasty cocaine habit in the 1970s on top of his drinking and had several close brushes with death.

He eventually landed in an Alabama psychiatric hospital for 30 days to dry out. But he never quit drinking or using drugs.

He was married four times, including a high-profile union with country singer Tammy Wynette and had a two daughters and two sons by three different wives. At the time of his death, he was married to Nancy Sepulvado and had just celebrated their 10th anniversary.

Although Jones made millions of dollars in his career he was more often than not broke. Yet, he always managed to dig himself out of a hole on the strength of his record sales.

“With a baritone voice that was as elastic as a steel-guitar string, he brought suspense to every syllable, merging bluesy slides with the tight, quivering ornaments of Appalachian singing,” according to The New York Times.

His first single, “No Money in This Deal,” was released in 1954, and “Why Baby Why,” became is first certified hit a year later. He scored a break-through gig with the Grand Ole Opry in 1956.

Although his marriage to Wynette was stormy, they where known as Mr. and Mrs. Country Music in the 1960s and sang a number of duets. They continued singing together after their divorce into the 1980s. The decade marked his career resurgence and he soared to the top of the country charts again.

He never stopped performing or touring, although his appearances were often erratic because of his drinking. He’d set his final show for this November Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Sadly he won’t make that one, either.