George Hamilton IV with Mary Dabney Hamilton, Back cover of George Hamilton IV, souvenir book edited by Bob Powell, folder35, George Hamilton IV Collection (20410), Southern Folklife Collection, UNC Chapel Hill
We were saddened to hear that George Hamilton IV passed away on September 17, 2014. In memoriam of Mr. Hamilton, we pulled some items The George Hamilton IV Collection (20410) in the Southern Folklife Collection to highlight his remarkable career and contributions to the canon of Country music. A native son of North Carolina born and raised in Winston Salem, Hamilton started his singing career while a student at UNC Chapel Hill, recording for Orville Campbell’s Colonial Records. By the late 1950s, Hamilton had moved to Washington, D.C., and became a regular performer (with Patsy Cline, for a time) on Jimmy Dean’s “Town and Country Jamboree” show. He toured with Bobby Darin, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers, along with many other well-known pop stars, and made numerous national television appearances.
George Hamilton IV and Patsy Cline, P4939 in the George Hamilton IV Collection (20410), Southern Folklife Collection, UNC Chapel Hill
Hamilton became a teen pop sensation in 1956 with his recording of John D. Loudermilk’s tune “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” but Hamilton’s heart was in country music and in 1959 he moved to Nashville, becoming a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1960. Listen to Hamilton’s performance of “A Rose and A Baby Ruth” from one of his first appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, introduced by the one and only Ernest Tubb. From open reel tape, FT12086 in the George Hamilton IV Collection (201410):
Later that year, he began recording for RCA Records, having been signed by Chet Atkins. In 1963, John D. Loudermilk’s “Abilene” became a number-one hit for Hamilton on the country charts and reached the top 20 in pop.
Chet Atkins, John D. Loudermilk, Bobby Moore, George Hamilton IV, P4953 in the George Hamilton IV Collection (20410), Southern Folklife Collection, UNC Chapel Hill
He toured Canada and across Europe, developing a devoted fan base. He would eventually tour around the world, performing multiple times in Japan, South Africa, the former Soviet Union, and India. His performance at Moscow University in 1974 was the first for an American country music performer. Other “first” performances on this tour were in Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Later that year, Billboard Magazine began to refer to Hamilton as the “International Ambassador of Country Music.”
George Hamilton IV in Bangalore, India, 1986. P5034 in the George Hamilton IV Collection (20410), Southern Folklife Collection, UNC Chapel Hill
Hamilton’s recording career highlights a mutual admiration for Canadian and European songwriters. In 1965, Hamilton was the first American singer to record a hit penned by Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot and in 1967, he also became the first to record “Urge for Going,” a song by another Canadian songwriter, Joni Mitchell. In 1969, his first record of all Canadian music was released and he hosted a variety show on the CBC for six years.
George Hamilton IV on the set of “Up Country at the Elizabethan Barn,” early 1970s, PHOTO BY DOMINIC MCKENZIE P4821 in the George Hamilton IV Collection (20410), Southern Folklife Collection, UNC Chapel Hill
His long-standing involvement with the annual International Festival of Country Music, held at Wembley (UK) led to an association with the BBC where Hamilton hosted many programs–variety and documentary–that showcased country music.
George Hamilton IV, Rolf Harris, an unidentified woman, Frank Ifield, Olivia Newton-John, Slim Whitman, Miki & Griff, an unidentified man, and Mervyn Conn, at Wembley, 1974, b&w print, roughly 8×10, photo by Dominic McKenzie, P4920 in the George Hamilton IV Collection (20410), Southern Folklife Collection, UNC Chapel Hill
In 1971, Hamilton left Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry for Charlotte, N.C., to join the broadcasts of Arthur Smith’s country music televison show. He continued to work overseas while also maintaining a busy touring schedule in the United States
In the 1990s, he became involved with several musical theater and concert productions that featured the work of Patsy Cline, with Irish singer Sandy Kelly playing the title role. Hamilton has continued to record country, folk, and gospel albums, including two with his son, George Hamilton V . In 2006, he celebrated his 50th year as a recording artist, which included a special reception hosted in London by the United States Ambassador to Britain. Hamilton died on Wednesday at the age of 77. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite recordings by Hamilton, “Break My Mind,” arranged by his longtime collaborator and fellow North Carolinian John D. Loudermilk, from Hamilton’s 1967 LP, Folksy, call number FC 17005.