1937 - 2014
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
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
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