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1937 - 2014

George Hamilton IV
George Hamilton IV

George Hamilton IV, the 50-year "Grand Ole Opry" star known as the "International Ambassador of Country Music," died Wednesday at a Nashville hospital. Mr. Hamilton was 77 and had suffered a heart attack on Saturday.

Mr. Hamilton burst onto the national music scene in 1956 with the million-selling "A Rose and a Baby Ruth," a John Loudermilk-penned song that rose to No. 6 on the all-genre Billboard Top 100 chart. He scored two more Top 40 hits before becoming what "Definitive Country" encyclopedia contributor Lesley-Anne Peake called "the first pop artist to switch to country." "This was a radical move for an established pop singer, at a time when rock 'n' roll was at its height and many country stars were trying to 'go pop,'" Peake wrote.

For Mr. Hamilton, his 1959 entry into country music was a natural transition. He grew up in North Carolina, listening to "Opry" stars Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Jimmy Dickens and Eddy Arnold. He joined the "Opry" himself in February 1960, and Chet Atkins signed him to RCA Victor as a country artist. He notched his first Top 10 country hit in 1960, with "Before This Day Ends," and repeated that success with "Three Steps to the Phone (Millions of Miles)" and "If You Don't Know I Ain't Gonna Tell You." But his biggest hit came in 1963, with "Abilene," a loping tribute to a Kansas town and a four-week No. 1 country single.

Mr. Hamilton became infatuated with folk singer-songwriters, and in 1965 he became the first American recording artist to record a hit written by poetic Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. His 1966 "Steel Rail Blues" album featured songs penned by folk-leaning writers Lightfoot, Phil Ochs and John Hartford, and Mr. Hamilton became the most popular country music singer in Canada. He hosted a Canadian television show for six years and he recorded albums that crossed genres and borders. His 1967 version of "Urge For Going" also made him the first artist to record a song written by Joni Mitchell.

Mr. Hamilton played a starring role in London's "International Festival of Country Music" in 1969, and he and Bill Anderson helped persuade the Country Music Association to present a Nashville version of that International Festival: The music city festival came to be known as Fan Fair and is now branded as the CMA Music Festival, Nashville's signature event. Mr. Hamilton also hosted numerous BBC television series.

In 1973, Mr. Hamilton completed what Peake wrote was the "longest international concert tour in country music," performing 73 shows in three months. And in 1974, Mr. Hamilton became the first country artist to perform behind the Iron Curtain, playing in Czechoslovakia and in Russia. In the latter country, he lectured on the history of country music.

Mr. Hamilton left the "Opry" for five years, beginning in 1971, and by the time of his 1976 return he was known as country music's "International Ambassador." He was a passionate advocate for country music, and for his deeply held faith, frequently performing as part of Billy Graham's Christian crusades.

Mr. Hamilton's final Top 40 country hit came in 1973, but he remained vital as a touring artist and "Grand Ole Opry" attraction for the remainder of his years. In the new century, he often gave backstage tours at the Opry, providing visitors with firsthand stories about long-gone "Opry" stars Patsy Cline, Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb.

Written by Peter Cooper, The Tennessean

Visitation for George Hamilton IV will be held on Tuesday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Williamson Funeral Home located at 3009 Columbia Avenue, Franklin, TN. Visitation is open to the public.

On Wednesday, Mr. Hamilton's funeral, which is also open to the public, will be held at the Ryman Auditorium beginning at 11 a.m.

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