In his long and storied career, perhaps George Jones‘ most iconic song was “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” The song told the story of a man who never stopped loving his ex until the day he died. Jones imbued the lyrics with a tenderness that instantly became timeless and haunting.
Jones released the lead single in 1980, but it was a three-year journey to get the song recorded. Songwriter Bobby Braddock first developed the idea of a doomed romantic, the basis of the song.
“I had the concept,” Braddock told WZTV Fox 17. “A love that was so strong that only death could terminate it.”
According to Classic Country Music, Braddock took the idea to fellow songwriter Curly Putman. The two developed the song together in the spring of 1977. But Braddock disliked the song’s message, believing the main character to a bad role model. The two returned to the song during autumn of that year, creating several versions. A producer urged them to push the reveal of the lover’s death to the end of the song.
The recording for ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ was long and difficult
Initially, singer Johnny Russell recorded two versions of the song. Neither has ever been released.
In 1978, producer Billy Sherrill approached George Jones about the song for his next album. Jones was at a low point in his life. He had divorced Tammy Wynette in 1975. His career had stagnated with fewer hits, and Jones struggled with a substance abuse problem, according to American Songwriter. Jones initially hated the song, believing it to be too sad.
Jones and Sherrill returned to the song with notes. Braddock said, “They said, ‘We want to cut that song, but it needs an extra verse of the wife or girlfriend coming back to the funeral.”
The recording process was long and difficult. It took over a year for Jones to record the song from the first lyric to the last. Initially, Jones kept mimicking the melody from Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night.”
“[Jones] thought it was too long, too sad, too depressing and that nobody would ever play it…He hated the melody and wouldn’t learn it,” Sherrill said in his autobiography.
The lyrics and melody finally clicked for Jones, whose rendition of the song moved Braddock. Still, Jones had his reservations about the song, believing it would never sell. However, Jones was wrong. The song became his first No.1 hit in nearly six years and spent 18 weeks at the top of the charts. The single won the CMA Song of the Year award for both 1980 and 1981. It also led to a career resurgence for Jones and him winning the CMA Male Vocalist of the Year award.
“To put it simply I was back on top,” Jones wrote in his autobiography. “Just that quickly. I don’t want to belabor this comparison, but a four-decade career was salvaged by a three-minute song.”