Jones passed in Nashville after being hospitalized with fever and irregular blood pressure

Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty

George Jones, the peerless, hard-living country singer who recorded dozens of hits about good times and regrets and peaked with the heartbreaking classic “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” has died. He was 81.

Publicist Kirt Webster says Jones died Friday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville after being hospitalized with fever and irregular blood pressure.

Known for his clenched, precise baritone, Jones had No. 1 songs in five separate decades, 1950s to 1990s, and was idolized not just by fellow country singers, but by Frank Sinatra, Pete Townshend, Elvis Costello, James Taylor and countless others.

In a career that lasted more than 50 years, “Possum” recorded more than 150 albums and became the champion and symbol of traditional country music, a well-lined link to his hero, Hank Williams.

A spokesman said Jones is survived by his wife of 30 years Nancy Jones, his sister Helen Scroggins, and by his children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Never Quit

Jones was rarely one to slow down. More than 20 years ago, in 1992, PEOPLE was reporting that the music legend was climbing out of a decade-long battle with chronic alcohol and cocaine addictions. Also on his resumé: a bankruptcy filing, a mass of missed concerts, and a role as absentee father to four children by three wives, the last of whom was Tammy Wynette.

But then, the fourth Mrs. Jones, Nancy, who is now is his widow, finally turned George’s life around, but not until he faced a brutal decision in 1985: to dry out or die. “I was down about as low as you can get,” Jones told PEOPLE. “I didn’t think there was any way back, so if I hadn’t lucked out and had Nancy, I would probably have wound up dead.”

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Pentecostal Parents

Jones grew up near Beaumont, Texas, a once-booming oil town that went dry before the Depression. One of seven children of Pentecostal parents, Jones grew up playing gospel music with his family and listening to Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell on Saturday night’s Grand Ole Opry radio shows.

After a stint in the Marines, Jones began playing local country shows for $17.50 a week and co-wrote his first song ever to hit a chart, “Why Baby Why,” in 1955. the ’60s, Jones began racking up a string of country-classic hits (some of which he wrote) like “White Lightning,” “The Race Is On” and “Window Up Above.”

Only the honky-tonk itineraries and the pressures of success were rough on Jones’s personal life. By 1968 he had been married and divorced twice and had three children he rarely saw. He was also drinking heavily.

In 1969, Jones married country queen Wynette, with whom he later recorded a number of top hits. The marriage, which produced a daughter, Tamala Georgette, was turbulent and in 1975 led to a painful split, which Jones credits for accelerating his downward slide.

Turned Life Around

“I let Tammy have everything,” he says. He quit the road and moved from Nashville to Muscle Shoals, Ala., but Jones was on a troubled trajectory that he blamed on bad management, tax hassles, cocaine abuse, drinking binges, massive debt, the notorious No Show Jones act that all but wiped him off the Nashville map and prompted lawsuits by angry promoters, and scrapes with the law (drunk driving and a 1978 incident in which he shot at but missed a friend).

“I kept getting a little lower and lower,” he said. “There was a lot of self-pity.”

Meeting Nancy Sepulvado in 1981 made the difference. They married in March 1983. A year later, warnings from his doctors prompted George to enter the University of Alabama Hospital in Birmingham, where he spent four weeks drying out. Joined in his hospital suite by Nancy. “I did a lot of thinking,” said Jones. “Got thousands of encouraging letters. Said a lot of prayers. And I made up my mind – enough of that.”

In 2002, Jones received that year’s Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush at a White House ceremony. Besides his wife and children, the country legend also leaves behind more than a dozen No. 1 hits.

Additional reporting by ASSOCIATED PRESS