George Hamilton IV, whose gentle demeanor and soothing folk-country vocal style earned him worldwide acclaim, died Wednesday (September 17th) at a Nashville hospital, following a heart attack which he suffered on Saturday. He was 77.
A 50-year veteran of the Grand Ole Opry, Hamilton was known as the “International Ambassador of Country Music,” having toured successfully throughout Europe, Asia, the Soviet Union and Australia.
Born and raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Hamilton scored a major hit in 1956 with “A Rose and a Baby Ruth.” Penned by John D. Loudermilk, the tune reached Number 6 on the Billboard Top 100 chart. As a singer of teenage ballads, Hamilton also toured with Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers.
Transitioning seamlessly from pop music to country, at a time when the opposite was far more common, Hamilton became an Opry member in February 1960, and that same year he reached Number Four on the country chart with “Before This Day Ends.” Hits that followed included “Three Steps to the Phone (Millions of Miles),” “To You and Yours (From Me and Mine)” and “If You Don’t Know I Ain’t Gonna Tell You.” In 1963, he scored his greatest success with “Abilene.” Co-written by Loudermilk with Bob Gibson and Lester Brown, the single logged four weeks at the top of the country chart and reached Number 15 on the pop chart. In 1993, the song reached a new audience by way of A Perfect World, the film starring Kevin Costner and directed by Clint Eastwood. While many mistakenly believed the song was inspired by Abilene, Texas, it was, in fact, written after Gibson saw a Randolph Scott western called Abilene Town, which was set in Kansas. He did, however, follow up the Abilene album with one called Fort Worth, Dallas or Houston.
In 1965, Hamilton was the first American singer to record a hit penned by Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. His success in that country led to a Canadian television show, which he hosted for six years. In 1967, he also became the first artist to record a song penned by another Canadian-born folk singer when he cut Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going.”
Proud of his Scottish ancestors, Hamilton was instrumental in organizing London’s International Festival of Country Music at Wembley Stadium in 1969. With fellow Opry star Bill Anderson, he persuaded the Country Music Association to present a Nashville version of that festival. First known as Fan Fair, it is now the CMA Music Festival. He also hosted several BBC television series.
The first country artist to perform behind the Iron Curtain, Hamilton played in Russia and in Prague, Czechoslovakia. During a five-year hiatus from the Opry, beginning in 1971, he toured overseas extensively. A close friend of the late Patsy Cline, Hamilton took on the role of narrator for Patsy Cline: The Musical, which ran from 1993 to 1998, and played London’s West End in 1994.
In June 1958, Hamilton married his high school sweetheart, Adelaide Peyton, better known as Tinky because of her childhood fascination with Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell. The couple celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 2008. They had two sons, Peyton and George V, and daughter, Mary.
In recent months, Hamilton could be spotted backstage at the Opry, giving tours to small groups of visitors and regaling them with stories of Opry stars past and present.
“The Opry is a walking, talking, living, singing museum,” he said in his official Opry biography. “It’s not artifacts, it’s heart and souls.”