If you look at the career of George Hamilton IV, one might be prone to label him as simply a stalwart of the Grand Ole Opry and one of traditional country music’s most durable artists. However, Hamilton — who passed away Wednesday (Sept. 17) at a Nashville hospital at the age of 77 — was much more than that. He was one of the first Nashville-based artists to blend country with folk, recording many songs by up-and-coming songwriters as Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell. He also recorded many Gospel records which were well received by fans and critics alike.
Hamilton was born July 19, 1937 in Winston Salem, North Carolina. After high school, the singer attended college at UNC / Chapel Hill. During his college career, he recorded a song for Colonial, a small regional label. Titled “A Rose and A Baby Ruth,” the John D. Loudermilk-penned song climbed to No. 6 on the Hot 100 in 1956. The flip side of the song, “If You Don’t Know,” was very much in the rockabilly fashion. The record was acquired by ABC / Paramount, where Hamilton would remain through 1960. He would place nine more releases on the Billboard pop chart, with the biggest being 1958’s “Why Don’t They Understand,” which hit No. 10.
In 1959, Hamilton moved his family to Nashville, and became a member of the Grand Ole Opry soon after. 1960 would see the singer earn his first top ten on the country charts with “Before This Day Ends.” After that, the singer signed a contract with Chet Atkins at RCA Victor. His first top ten for the label came in 1961 with “Three Steps To The Phone.” The hits continued throughout the decade, with the biggest being 1963’s “Abilene,” (also written by John D .Loudermilk) which topped the country charts for four weeks and hit No. 15 on the Hot 100.
The singer continued to be a chart favorite throughout the sixties, and with 1966’s “Steel Rail Blues,” he began to record songs from the folk world. Lightfoot penned the song, as he would “Early Morning Rain” and “Break My Mind,” a No. 6 hit in 1967. He also took Mitchell’s “Urge For Going,” also a top ten hit. He continued to record for RCA through 1974, then signing with ABC / Dot later in the decade, where he earned his final chart entry with 1978’s “Only The Best.”
Though his chart-making days were behind him in the U.S. (He placed singles on the Canadian country charts through 1980), Hamilton still had an impact on the country music world. He took his music overseas, developing followings in locations such as Russia, Germany and Asia. Due to his worldwide popularity, Hamilton earned the moniker “The International Ambassador of Country Music.” He also hosted a weekly syndicated show in Canada, and was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2010. His last album was 2011’s In The Heart of Texas, recorded on the Heart of Texas label.
Hamilton continued to play the Grand Ole Opry, where he would frequently serve as a celebrity tour guide backstage. His annual Yuletide show, A Moravian Country Christmas, had become a yearly holiday tradition at Nashville’s Ernest Tubb Record Shop. Hamilton is survived by his wife Adelaide “Tinky” Hamilton, two sons, Peyton, George V, and a daughter, Mary.