Country Singer Tammy Wynette Dies At 55

The woman who `rose from humble beginnings as a hairdresser, to superstardom' with her 1968 hit `Stand By Your Man' died at home of natural causes, according to police.

Tammy Wynette rose from poverty in the cotton fields to become the first woman in country music to sell more than a million copies, for her 1968 hit "Stand By Your Man."

Miss Wynette, the First Lady of Country Music, died last night at her home. She was 55.

Miss Wynette died of natural causes, police said. Her husband, George Richey, was at her side.

Miss Wynette had gone to sleep while watching TV, her friend Nancy Jones said last night. Her family was unable to wake her. It is believed that she died of a blood clot.

Over the past 20 years, Miss Wynette had been hospitalized several times for abdominal problems and other ailments.

"Her story is really the story of country music," said Kyle Young of the Country Music Foundation. "From humble beginnings as a hairdresser, to superstardom.

"The strength of her music was she connected with a wide audience, because she really tapped into real situations in people's lives," he said.

Kenny Rogers, on tour in Australia, said his heart had broken when he heard of her death.

"It really is a tragic thing. She was a great lady."

"She was one of the giants of the industry and was far too young to be lost," Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist lamented. "Tammy was a trail-blazer in every sense of the word, and her success in country music was richly deserved. Tennessee joins the rest of her huge fan club in mourning the loss of this country-music legend."

Miss Wynette, who set herself apart with a powerful voice and a teardrop catch that embodied heartache, recorded more than 50 albums and sold more than 30 million records, scoring 39 Top 10 hits from 1967-88. Twenty topped the charts.

Country-music fans polled for the annual Music City News awards voted Miss Wynette a legend in 1991. She said it was premature: "I don't consider myself a legend. I think it's kind of overused."

She was a three-time winner of the Country Music Association's female vocalist of the year award - 1968 to 1970. Only Reba McEntire has won the honor more times, with four.

"Stand By Your Man" won numerous awards for Miss Wynette, including a Grammy in 1969 for the best country vocal performance by a female, but it also got her involved in a controversy.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton, stressing that her support of her husband was more than routine, said: "I'm not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette."

Miss Wynette replied angrily that Mrs. Clinton "offended every true country-music fan and every person who has `made it on their own' with no one to take them to a White House." She added that if she and the Yale-educated Mrs. Clinton ever met, "I can assure you, in spite of your education, you will find me to be just as bright as yourself."

Mrs. Clinton said she didn't mean to hurt Miss Wynette's feelings, and Miss Wynette later performed at a Clinton fund-raiser.

Born Virginia Wynette Pugh on May 5, 1942, Miss Wynette grew up in Itawamba County, Miss. Her upbringing was so strict she had to wear long pants when playing basketball in high school, because her grandfather forbade her to bare her legs in public.

After high school, Miss Wynette worked as a hairdresser. But when her third daughter, Tina, was born prematurely and required extensive medical treatment, she pursued a music career to pay medical bills. And on Aug. 18, 1965, she made the first of several trips to Nashville in an effort to land a recording contract.

By chance, on one of those trips later that year, she met Epic Records producer Billy Sherrill. After signing her, Sherrill gave Miss Wynette the name "Tammy" and produced her records for more than a dozen years, though Miss Wynette never allowed her beautician's license to lapse until the 1980s.

Her early hits included "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad," "I Don't Wanna Play House," "My Elusive Dreams" with David Houston, "Stand By Your Man" and "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," a title which would haunt her personally through the years.

In August 1968, Miss Wynette and country-music singer George Jones announced that they had married. But the event didn't actually occur until another six months, on Feb. 16, 1969. The couple had one of the most celebrated marriages in country-music history, touring in a bus that read "Mr. & Mrs. Country Music" on its side.

When Jones spent $100,000 to buy out a record contract and moved to Epic with Miss Wynette, they began a string of duets. Many of their hits parodied their life as man and wife, including "The Ceremony," "We're Gonna Hold On" and "Take Me."

The marriage produced one daughter, Tamala Georgette, but it was a stormy union. Jones frequently left for days at a time, and Miss Wynette was unable to cope with his drinking problem.

"I always say that he nipped and I nagged," she said in 1989. "I guess we were both very good at it."

Miss Wynette's recording career had outpaced Jones' during their marriage, as she reached the Top 10 with each of her 15 solo singles during that period, including: "My Man (Understands)," "Another Lonely Song," "Good Lovin' (Makes It Right)" and " 'Til I Get It Right." But Miss Wynette felt insecure and leaned heavily on her husband during their live performances.

After several splits, the marriage came to an end in December 1974. While Miss Wynette was at the dentist, Jones left and never returned. Ironically, it was one day after they recorded the song "Near You." The D-I-V-O-R-C-E was granted March 13, 1975.

Once separated from her husband and singing partner, Miss Wynette was compelled to take the reins on her live show and thus gained confidence as a performer and as a vocalist.

She had one more failed marriage, to Michael Tomlin, in 1976. Ironically, on the way to the wedding, the radio played "Golden Ring," a song she recorded that spring with Jones.

But, Miss Wynette finally found a man she could stand by when, after romances with Burt Reynolds and Rudy Gatlin, she struck up a relationship with keyboard player, songwriter, producer and record executive George Richey.

The two married on July 6, 1978, and remained together "till death do us part."

She often remarked that her love for Richey brought "the end to the sad songs" she had become known for writing.

But it didn't mark the end of the struggle. On Oct. 5, 1978, she was abducted from a Nashville parking lot, beaten and left along the highway. She suffered numerous hospitalizations for repeated abdominal problems, a hysterectomy, respiratory ailments and the mumps. She performed a concert in spite of a death threat, endured a public bankruptcy case created by the collapse of a bank and entered the Betty Ford Center for an addiction to prescription drugs.

"I think it made a better person out of me to go through the highs and lows, the peaks and valleys," Miss Wynette told The Tennessean in 1985.

In 1992, she revived her career by joining the KLF on "Justified & Ancient," a dance single that reached No. 11 on Billboard's pop singles chart and topped the charts in 18 other countries. In 1993, Miss Wynette began recording an album of duets that paired her with a diverse lineup of pop stars, including Elton John, Aaron Neville, Sting and Cliff Richard.

In addition to her husband, Wynette is survived by her daughters, Jackie Daly, Gwen Ignaczak, Tina Jones, Georgette Smith and Deirdre Richardson, her son, Kelly Richardson and seven grandchildren.

Information from The Associated Press and Reuters is included in this report.