George Jones scored his first No. 1 hit with “White Lightning” on April 13, 1959. While the “Possum” had copped a handful of Top 10 hits in the 1950s, he caught lightning in a bottle with his first chart-topper.
By the time George Jones released “White Lightning” in February 1959, he had already established himself as a gifted vocalist. In 1955, George entered the charts with a honky-tonk tune he had co-penned called “Why Baby Why.” That song stayed on the charts for 18 weeks and peaked at No. 4. He proved his success was more than luck. George followed up with Top 10 hits “What Am I Worth,” “You Gotta Be My Baby,” “Just One More,” “Don’t Stop the Music,” “Color of the Blues,” and “Treasure of Love.”
Penned by J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson (“Chantilly Lace”), “White Lightning,” which referenced homemade moonshine, struck a chord with the hard-partying Jones. Of course, down the line, George traded his “Possum” nickname for “No Show Jones” due to his penchant for missing concerts because of his hard-partying ways.
In 1958, Jones recorded “White Lightning” in an epic session that involved dozens and dozens of takes. In his 1997 autobiography, I Lived to Tell It All, George Jones admitted he entered the recording session totally tanked up. There was a mutiny from the session musicians after approximately 80 takes, including upright bass player Buddy Killen, who blistered his fingers from the repeated strumming.
Nonetheless, George Jones got it done with a vocal performance full of flavor. Jones flubbed the word “slug” in the third verse, but the stutter stuck, and George incorporated it into future versions.
George Jones Reaches the Top
George released “White Lightning” on Feb. 9, 1959. Like a flash, the tune hit the top of the charts on April 13, 1959.
Tragically, days before the song came out, the Big Bopper died in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens on Feb. 3. The tragedy was memorialized by Don McLean in his 1971 song, “American Pie.”
“White Lighting” stayed at No. 1 for five weeks. George Jones would later score another dozen chart-toppers, including “Tender Years” (1961), “The Door” (1974), “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (1980), and more.