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George Jones: The greatest American pop singer ever recorded

Opinion: Johnny Cash had a stock answer to that oft-asked question, "Who is your favorite singer?" "You mean," he teased, "apart from George Jones?"

Yes, there's pretty much universal agreement among country singers that Jones, who died Friday at age 81, was the greatest of all time. From the oldies -- Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard -- to the relative newbies -- Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Randy Travis -- all were of one mind.

And even non-country singers appreciated him -- none other than Frank Sinatra called him "the second best white singer in America." (No prizes for guessing first place)

What they loved was that rarest of combinations: a seamless voice -- no change of tone and timbre between low and high registers -- exquisite phrasing, and enough soul to rival Ray Charles and Otis Redding.

I believe, though, that there is also a case to be made that Jones was the greatest American popular singer ever recorded. The ones usually named are Charles, Billie Holliday, Sinatra, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin. I would argue that he has them beaten on all counts. Sinatra's phrasing, without Sinatra's forcedness. Charles's soul, without Charles's hamminess. Franklin's power, but without Franklin's screeches. Holliday's ability to laugh at his troubles, but without her self-pity. (Redding, though brilliant, was not tested by a long career.)

So, why isn't he usually mentioned among this pantheon? Why, when I bring up my Jones obsession, do people say, "Isn't that the guy who was married to Tammy Wynette?"

Partly because, somehow, he didn't manage to die young.

Also because country music has hardly ever been cool. Mostly, it has operated in its own universe, rarely crossing over into the pop world. And the artists who have had mainstream hits, such as the brilliant Patsy Cline, are about as far removed on the country spectrum from Jones as you can get.

And partly because he was drunk and/or high most of the time, a fact that made his career trajectory one of a few highs and many lows. Jones loved the music fiercely, but the limelight frightened him, a fear that led him to inoculate himself with the bottle and harder drugs, which in turn resulted, famously, in missed concerts, exasperated record companies and fuming fans. And his lack of self-control led him to sign contracts he was too bombed to understand, leaving him to be dragged into session after session to mouth lyrics that he should have known were rubbish. He put out (literally) hundreds of albums, mostly filled with trash.

Among the dreck, though, were diamonds. Quite a few, in fact, including 15 No. 1 hits (and dozens of Top 10 ones), starting with "White Lightning" in 1959. If Jones honed in on a song he liked, he put his heart and soul into it.

His biggest success came in the '70s and early '80s with such hits as "The Door" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today," the latter often cited as the greatest recorded country performance of all time. I think, though, that his best recording came in the early '60s before his long association with producer Billy Sherrill, the Nashville schlockmeister he signed with in 1972, after he met Wynette and with whom he made "He Stopped Loving Her Today.” It's not that I don't like the later material; it's just that the earlier tracks, free of the dubious delights of massed violins and warbling choruses, highlight his incredible voice. At the same time, enhanced studio technology -- including the newly created stereo -- had improved on the sound quality that marked his rudimentary early discs.

Jones was best known for his ballads, especially in the later part of his career; however, he was actually a greater master of fast-paced material. His rhythmic genius was particularly effective when matched with a tight session band, such as with "Mr. Fool," a driving honky-tonker about lost love that is perhaps the supreme recorded example of Jones's exquisite phrasing. "No one can ever call me Mr. Fool no more," runs the last line of the chorus. Each of four renditions of the phrase takes you on a spellbinding journey of his vocal arsenal -- swooping, clipping, playing with the beat, riding herd on the back-up band. In those lines, as with the rest of the song, you never know where Jones is going to lead you; at the same time, none of it sounds forced or contrived. The whole happy confection is aided by the spare production of his first producer (and discoverer), Pappy Daily.

I also think that the early '60s, when "Mr. Fool" was recorded, was when he was at his vocal peak. Writers often rave about how Sherrill persuaded Jones to explore a greater range, but the high-lonesome sound on this cut has a rawness and emotion that travels even further into the heart than his later efforts. (If you agree, "Cup of Loneliness," a 1994 double-CD, is worth the investment. It has 51 songs -- with hardly a dud -- excellent liner notes, and has been carefully re-mastered from the original recordings.)

What these songs do is breathe emotion. In his never-equaled way, Jones drifts across the beat, never failing to surprise with a speeded-up phrase or a well-placed drawn-out note. At the same time, he never made a mush of the lyrics; one of his great assets was that the listener understands every word.

Jones just sounds so sad, it's painful. He's as sad-sounding as Hank Williams at his most abject. Of course, the difference is that Jones could sing, whereas Williams only wailed. Some words are clipped, some are stretched and played with, as only Jones did. Some lines are almost whispered; others cried out -- all beautifully set up by man who really understood -- whether by design or instinct -- what to do with a lyric.

High and lonesome, but not always alone. A measure of Jones' greatness was his generosity and skill as a duetist. Most often, he took the harmony part -- the most difficult -- and never sought to dominate. His most famous duets, of course, were with third wife Wynette ("Golden Ring," "We’re Going to Hold On"), but probably his best are with Melba Montgomery in the mid-'60s. In these collaborations, he was the much bigger star and could easily have hogged the sessions. But no -- these are real duets, not a lead singer with a backup.

As a live performer, Jones was even more mixed than his records. He could be very lazy and unfocused, leading to lackluster concerts that were intensely disappointing. But when he was on, it was electrifying. I feel bad saying this, but the drunker and higher he was, the better was his performance. It seemed that the more reason was stripped from his mind, the better he sang, as if his emotions were uncontrolled and he was operating on instinct alone.

I will never forget one concert I witnessed, in the early '80s, when he was at the depth of his drinking and drugging. As was his usual pattern, he had his band, the Jones Boys, warm up the audience with several songs. But the tunes just kept on coming, and there was no George. After about six songs, there he was, literally being dragged onto the stage. "Oh, no," I thought, "he’s going to be terrible." It was the best concert I ever saw. In contrast, the ones I witnessed when he was stone-cold sober (or a near facsimile) tended to be rote and unrewarding, with Jones making light of his material -- "slobbing tear-jerkers" was how he disparaged some of his greatest songs.

Quite simply, no one else -- before, then or now -- was capable of his vocal fireworks, or at least carrying it off without making it sound like he or she is showing off. That was one of the joys of Jones: Though he had every tool at his disposal, he never used them other than to enhance the song.

That’s why he was often called "the singers’ singer." Powerful, yet somehow understated. Apparently revealing raw personal emotion, but at the same time a mystery. If one were to compare him to a painter, I pick Velazquez.

Unlike Velazquez, though, who was loved and lauded by his patrons, Jones was too wild and uncompromising for the tastes of the Nashville establishment, a factor that kept him from its greatest prizes until relatively late in his career.

For instance, on the cover of one of Jones' early 1960s albums is a photo of him next to an incongruously inset picture of the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Somehow, though, Jones didn't make it in until 1992 after many inferior singers had been chosen for admission.

That's like making Babe Ruth wait until the '70s to get into Cooperstown.

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Matt Diebel is a senior producer for NBCNews.com. He has been listening to George Jones since he was a teen in England. His son is named George.

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