"He Stopped Loving Her Today:" The Story Behind the Song
The songwriters, producer, and fans discuss the genesis and significance of George Jones's hit, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," which many consider country music's number one song of all time.
- He Stopped Loving Her Today would be
the ultimate song that will be sung
for ages and ages and ages to come.
The man's broken hearted; he's lost it all.
She was the greatest thing that had ever happened
to him and now she's gone, cause he said he'd never...
♪ I said I'll love you till I die. ♪
What a song to start with.
I mean what a line to start with, you know.
And he stopped loving her today...he died.
And um, it's...
You know, it's...
That to me is the quintessential Country song.
- Where it came from, I don't know.
There was no epiphany, nothing I can remember.
Curly said I brought him the idea.
We tossed it around and we did
a couple of black humor jokes like,
Boy he really looks good.
You should have seen him a week ago.
And then we got serious and wrote part of it.
It wasn't finished; I took it home
and wrote a little more on it.
And we were gonna get together the next week,
but we didn't get together again for,
I guess it was a few months.
- Well of course Bobby, again, had the idea,
and had it started the song.
I don't know why, he didn't need me,
yet they come to be because, I guess I say
because I kill people off pretty nice in songs.
- I think Curly had a reputation for killing
his song characters.
And so I guess for He Stopped Loving Her Today
I couldn't have found a better collaborator than Curly.
- But this was to me was a heavy, heavy idea
that a guy would love a woman that much
that he underlined every I love you,
and keep her picture on the wall even after
she'd been gone for years.
And so it's got that depth in the meaning.
And that's something you need to look for
in writing Country songs especially, is the depth.
But Bobby came to me with the song and we worked on it
the first time and we came to the part where
we were gonna have her come back or not,
and we kinda let it lay.
We didn't finish it, because we didn't know how
we were gonna do that.
- And initially this was like the Spring of 1977.
We got together in the Fall of '77
and finished it, or so we thought.
We thought it was finished, but it wasn't.
So it was pitched to a few people,
a guy named Johnny Russell recorded it,
twice, two different labels.
But no major cuts on it.
And then Billy Sherrill, George Jones' record producer,
asked us in early 1980 if we could
write a verse about the wife or lover
or protagonist in the song, who had died,
about her coming back to the funeral.
- Anyhow we finally got together and Billy said,
we were singing the chorus after each verse,
so Billy said, called up me and Bobby, can't remember who
he talked to first, said write a part
where George can do a recitation on it.
And not do the chorus until later on in the song.
- They had him, they killed him off there
at the top of the record.
I said, no there's no place to go here boys.
It's a good song, but you need to go away on down
in the record, toward the end, 'fore you kill him.
'Cause after you kill him, there's not much to go on.
What can you say, the boy's dead.
So they said, okay.
So they went back to their office and they wrote
and they came back - they killed him off midway.
I said, that's not enough.
Let him live a little longer.
- So remember this snowy February day,
us going back and forth from tree
to Billy Sherrill's office, I'd say three or four times,
and taking him different drafts
till we finally got one that he felt that we had nailed.
I'm a journal keeper, diary keeper.
I've kept journals consistently since 1971, everyday.
I've chronicled what goes on with the songwriting
and I devised a rating system,
1-10 rating system, for my songs.
How I viewed the song myself,
and how I felt others would perceive the song.
Next to He Stopped Loving Her Today, I wrote 7.
So I gave it a 7, not a 10.
And I don't know why I thought it was a 7
rather than a 10, other than the fact that,
I guess I was not overly moved by it.
My opinion of the dead character
in He Stopped Loving Her Today
was he was a very bad role model.
This is guy who could not move on with his life.
I've seen centenarians on TV and they ask them
why they live so long and all different reasons,
but they all seem to have one thing in common.
That was the ability to let go of things and to move on.
This guy wasn't able to do that.
He loved this woman the rest of his life.
He was not willing to examine the possibility
of him being with anyone else but her.
And so I think he was a bad role model,
but a great song character.
- I knew the song had depth,
because of a guy loving a woman that much.
I guess we all wish we had somebody that loved us that much.
Finally, Billy liked what we did.
He worked with George until, he said it took 10 years
off his life he said, 'cause George was singing
in the tune of Help Me Make it Through the Night.
George said, but that's a better melody.
And Billy said, yeah but I guess Kristofferson
would think so.
- When we did He Stopped Loving Her Today,
Jones was at a low point in his life.
- And he didn't like the song.
He just didn't like it.
He said, you don't write a song about a person dying.
You just don't do it.
- It took a year to produce his biggest hit.
From the first verse of, he said I'll love you till I die,
in He Stopped Loving Her,
until the recitation toward the end,
they were a year apart.
Because he would screw it up.
I'd say, it's not right.
And he said, well I don't know what else to do.
Till finally he came in and said,
I think I know what you want.
I said, well what.
He said, okay let's roll the tape.
- It really capped it all off when he had
the fiddles and the high ethereal voice.
That really made that mean something.
They had Millie Kirkland, high ethereal singing
at the end, just like going up to heaven almost.
- Oh Millie, Millie Kirkham, the greatest.
under the recitation she was supposed to do
the melody of the song, but she had such a high voice
she did it an octave higher.
And it's kinda distracting from the words.
- Miss Millie Kirkham is the best soprano
that's ever been in the history of recording music.
She's got a range, still today at near 90,
C sharps and Ds up there.
And they wanted her to go like,
(high pitched wordless singing)
make that kinda tone on He Stopped Loving Her Today.
And she said, wait a minute.
That doesn't seem to fit this song, listen to this.
And then she went:
There was dead silence in the whole room!
I've got chills thinking about it.
Cause Millie was known for her high voice
and she just didn't want, she said it didn't fit.
And so when they finished that take,
they usually come on the speaker and say something,
we were stunned 'cause the feeling was there
and the engineer was stunned, everybody was quiet.
And nobody said a thing; it was there.
- We had an audio track
and once he did the recitation,
I had to go put on an overcoat.
I had goosebumps broke out all over me.
- About three weeks after that, Curly and I
went to Billy's office and he played it for us.
I thought, Holy Catfish, I mean I knew this was
I knew it was something very, very special.
And I think, not to sound falsely modest,
but I think George's performance
and Billy Sherrill's production elevated the thing
two or three notches and turned it out to be
what so many people consider to be,
in so many polls it's been voted,
the greatest Country song of all time.
And I think the singer and the producer
had a lot to do with that.
And I think too that there was something in that song
that Curly and I just didn't recognize,
or didn't realize at the time.
He Stopped Loving Her Today did not seem like
a super monster hit at the time.
And then, lo and behold, after a few months
we realized that it had sold one million singles,
which was very unusual in Country music
at that time, very unusual.
And then it started getting all the awards,
one award after the other.
It seemed like the longer people heard the song,
or lived with it, the better they liked it.
And so it was the song of the year,
CMA song of the year 1980 and then again in 1981,
two years in a row.
And just about every other award a song can get,
it had gotten it.
George Jones, for the first time in his life,
this great great singer, got the male vocalist
of the year award.
- I'd say the satisfaction comes later on
when you get your first BMI check.
But like you say, you'd write it if you didn't get paid.
The satisfaction to me is to know that my song has been,
and I'm an old boy from Putman Mountain, Alabama,
that wrote something that people
all over the world love and they identify with it.
- I have so many Country songs that have
meant so much to me but if I was to
play a song for a visitor from outer space
or from another country,
maybe not as a way to explain Country music
but as a way to demonstrate the greatness of it,
He Stopped Loving Her Today would be it.
- [Interviewer] Why is that?
- There's so much about that song that is meaningful.
First of all the perspective is so Country.
The guy is dead and we're singing about him.
My favorite kind of Country song is when
the guy has discovered that he's been an ass
and he's singing about that.
I think that there's no song that women
who listen to Country music like more
than the, oh yeah you were right all along, song.
And that song has a little bit of an element of that.
The arrangements on it are beautiful.
It's beautifully song.
It's George Jones, which is the quintessential County voice.
And it's a very smart song.
It's a very basic human song and it's very smart
in how you approach it.
Oh, and it has the talking section.
You know you always want that in a Country song.
It has a little bit of all of the great elements
of Country music.
- If I were to choose just one Country song,
that this is how we should be remembered,
I would think that the whole world agrees with me,
it would be He Stopped Loving Her Today,
that George Jones had.
There's not one, not one beat, of not one bar,
that's not perfect, it's...
I mean it's supreme, it's superb, everything about it.
And it just yanks your heart out.
And it was George's voice.