updated 04/26/2013 AT 10:00 AM ET
•originally published 04/26/2013 AT 10:20 AM ET
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.
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.”