On This Day: George Jones Releases ‘White Lightning’ as a Single in 1959

by Matthew Wilson
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During the start of his career, country music legend George Jones struck musical gold when he recorded his tune “White Lightning.”

The tune sounded like a blend of rock ‘n roll and country and proved to audiences across the country that Jones should be taken seriously. Jones had other successes prior to the song. But “White Lightning” proved instrumental in kicking off Jones’ long career in country music. It remains one of his best works, especially from his early period of songs.

Behind the George Jones Song

According to Classic Country Music Stories, George Jones and J.P. Richardson, also known as the Big Bopper, became lifelong friends early in their careers. Though their music styles differed, they bonded over both being from Beaumont, Texas. In the 1950s, both of their respective careers began to take off. Jones scored his first hit in 1955 with “Why Baby Why” in 1955. Meanwhile, in 1958, Richardson scored the lone hit of his career with the classic “Chantilly Lace.”

During this period, Richardson wrote two songs as well. One song, “Running Bear,” he lent out to a singer named Johnny Preston. But the other tune, “White Lightning,” he saved for his good friend George Jones. The two had also previously worked together on another of Jones’ songs “Treasure of Love.”

That same year, Richardson perished with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in a plane crash. The musician started to hit it big with “Chantilly Lace” and went on a “Winter Dance Party” tour in Jan. 1959. On Feb. 2nd, a portion of the tour group decided to fly via plane to Moorehead, Minnesota for their next performance. Waylon Jennings gave up his seat on the plane to Richardson because Richardson was sick. The plane crashed a few minutes after takeoff.

The Artist Mourns His Friend

A week after his friend’s death, Jones went to Nashville to record the son. Reportedly, Jones was drunk during the recording as a way of trying to deal with his grief. It became like pulling a tooth trying to perfect the tune in Jones’ current condition. The artist failed take after take to the point that his guitarist’s fingers began to bleed from the constant abuse. It was reported that they did between 11 to 80 takes depending on who you asked.

Fortunately, upon reflection, they discovered that Jones had made it through the song on his third take. He had only messed up on one word. But given that Jones was drunk, they decided to use this recording. In the years after, Jones would intentionally flub the part of the song to poke fun at himself during concerts.

Upon release, the song became Jones’ first No. 1 hit of his career. The song helped push Jones to greater heights as an artist. And it remains a lasting legacy for Richardson and his songwriting skills.

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