We’re starting our look at the career of George Jones with an overview of his early years, courtesy of this compilation, which covers his spells on the Starday and Mercury labels (focussing on the latter). Starday was a Texas label with limited resources which mainly released singles, but it managed to give George his first hit singles. After he moved on, they would release a number of albums containing back catalog material. It was co-owned by George’s first manager and producer (at least in name) Harold ‘Pappy’ Daily, who was to stay with him through several label moves, always having a significant financial interest himself. In fact George later stated that Pappy had little musical input, most of the arrangements being worked out live in the studio by George and the musicians.
Just out of the Marine Corps, George had not quite developed his own artistic voice, as he started out singing mainly up-tempo material in a slightly higher register than he later settled into, displaying the influences of Roy Acuff and Hank Williams, but he is credited with writing much of his own material while on both Starday and Mercury, including a handful of songs which stand today as genuine country classics. The style is generally hard honky-tonk, with some Nashville Sound influences in the last few recordings.
George’s first hit single, the insistent ‘Why Baby Why’ reached #4 in 1955, although a rival cover by the more established Webb Pierce and Red Sovine went all the way to #1 at the end of the year. George wrote the song with his friend Darrell Edwards, one of his main songwriting partners through the 1950s and 1960s, and it is probably better known than many of his recordings from this period simply because it was the first.
‘Just One More’, George’s biggest Starday hit (it reached #3 in 1956), is a ballad with the protagonist drinking away the memories of a lost love, one drink at a time. It is a fine song which deserved to be a hit, but shows George had not yet refined his vocal ability as he was to do soon thereafter. Also from the Starday years is the first version George recorded of an old blues number, ‘I’m Ragged But I’m Right’, a song he was to re-do later on (and more than once). This version is the rawest. He also recorded some rockabilly sides on Starday under the pseudonym Thumper Jones, but these are not represented here, and it was not really the right direction for him.
In 1957 Daily had George’s singles contract transferred to Mercury, and the next few years saw him become a genuine star in country music, and develop the quintessential George Jones vocal style.
His top 10 hit the plaintive ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ is a lovely sad ballad which already shows his style developing as early as 1957. This really is something of a forgotten gem and deserves to be better remembered. The protagonist is obsessively listening to the jukebox in order to delay his return to an empty home:
Don’t make me go home
I know she’s not there
And I cry all night long
So don’t stop the music
Let it play one more song
The lively uptempo ‘Too Much Water’ was co-written by George with Sonny James, and was a little less successful than most of his singles at this time, missing the top 10 by a few spots. The protagonist here complains about his cheating ex who wants him to settle down, but says too much water has passed under the bridge. It is entertaining but perhaps a little generic, coming across as a Hank Williams imitator.
George’s ballad singing was more distinctive, a case in point being the next single, the plaintive ‘Color Of The Blues’, written with Lawton Williams, which took him back to #7 and is now rightly regarded as one of his early classic records.
On Mercury he was able to record gospel material for the first time, and in fact the first album released by the album was the religious Country Church Time. Two tracks from that release are included here, George’s passionate original ‘Cup Of Loneliness’ (written with Burl Stevens) and a quietly sincere cover of the traditional ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’. Just a few years later, in 1961, the top 20 hit ‘Family Bible’ shows the refinement of George’s singing.
George’s friend J. P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) collaborated with him on several songs before his death in 1959. ‘If I Don’t Love You (Grits Ain’t Groceries)’ has a cheerful and near-rockabilly feel. Released as the flip side of the same single, ‘Treasure Of Love’, in contrast, is a more sentimental ballad featuring Richardson on harmony. Both sides charted in 1958, with the latter being the more successful. After Richardson’s death, George (already in the grips of the severe alcohol dependency which was almost to derail his career) recorded his friend’s light-hearted moonshine-themed semi-novelty ‘White Lightning’, which became his first #1 hit. George was intoxicated through this session and reportedly needed 80 takes to produce the final version, to the displeasure of the musicians. The spoken “white lightning!” which fills in is very reminiscent of Richardson’s own recordings.
The success of ‘White Lightning’ saw it immediately cloned by the story song ‘Who Shot Sam’, written by George with old friend Darrell Edwards. The story is entertaining fluff, but replicates the tune and style of ‘White Lightning’ to the degree that today they would have been slammed with a copyright suit, complete with repeated spoken line. There is even a reference to drinking white lightning, which caused all the trouble. (If you want to know, the protagonist’s friend Sam is shot by his girlfriend, Silly Millie, jealous of Sam playing around with Dirty Gertie.)
The single was another #7 hit, but was followed by a slight downturn, with none of George’s next few singles making the top 10. ‘Big Harlan Taylor’ just crept into the top 20, and is most interesting as an early Roger Miller cut. George had previously written songs with Miller and tried to get Miller a Mercury/Starday deal. Its flip side ‘Money To Burn’, written by Johnny Nelms, offers a cautionary tale contrasting the possession of money and love. Both songs are pleasant but forgettable.
It was perhaps a mistake not to release the lovelorn ‘You’re Still On My Mind’ when it was recorded in 1960; Mercury later put it out as a single in 1962, after George had left the label, and it only just crept into the top 30. It is probably known now mainly from the later cover by the Byrds on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, although I think George’s pained version is better. Another pretty good album cut was the emotional ballad ‘Mr Fool’, another Edwards/Jones co-write.
George’s solo composition ‘Life To Go’, was inspired by a real-life encounter with a prisoner serving life who was performing at a concert with him. It is a sympathetic portrait of a man who made a drunken mistake and ended up in jail for murder; he has served 18 years but still has “life to go”. George allowed his friend Stonewall Jackson to record it first, giving the latter his first hit single in 1959.
George’s chart doldrums were reversed when he wrote the classic ‘The Window Up Above’, which surprisingly just missed the top spot, peaking at #2 early in 1961. This is the story of a man who overhears something he wished he hadn’t about his cheating wife, with a delicately measured vocal expressing some complex emotions:
From my eyes the teardrops started as I listened on and on
I heard you whisper to him softly that our marriage was all wrong
But I hope he makes you happy and you will never lose his love
I lost mine while I was watching from the window up above
The single is marred somewhat by the use of too many backing singers typical of the Nashville Sound, but is still my personal favorite track from the Mercury years. Others may prefer the same year’s ‘Tender Years’, another Jones/Edwards co-write, which was George’s second #1. This features a beautiful vocal performance on a song which has the protagonist stepping back for the moment while his loved one pursues another interest:
So if I can’t be your first love I’ll wait and be your last
I’ll be somewhere in your future to help you forget the past
And you’ll know that I love you with the love that’s sincere
Cause I’ll wait till you’re through living in your tender years
George’s final Mercury hit, in 1962, was the #5 ‘Achin’ Breakin’ Heart’, written by Rick Hall. It is a fine vocal but not that memorable a song, about a man miserably in love with a woman who seems to take pleasure in hurting anyone who loves her.
This is a pretty solid and reasonably priced compilation for the Mercury years, and shows how George Jones’ style and voice developed in his 20s. It also includes one bonus: George’s first single for United Artists, the classic ‘She Thinks I Still Care’. A more in-depth but more expensive set is also available (Cup Of Loneliness), and there are some Starday-centered compilations available too. But this was just the start of George’s career, and there was more and better to come.