In the early 1970s Bob Powel, the editor of the UK magazine, Country Music People, described George Hamilton IV as "the international ambassador of country music". The sobriquet was perfect. No performer, before or since, has done so much to promote the music he loved around the world and in many ways, he was George Hamilton the First.
George Hamilton IV was born in 1937 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The previous George Hamiltons had been a farmer in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a railwayman, and the owner of a headache powder company. Hamilton described himself as "a city boy from a middle class family but we would listen to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights".
While at the University of North Carolina in 1956 he persuaded a local label, Colonial, to record him. His friend John D Loudermilk had a song, "A Rose And A Baby Ruth", and Hamilton found himself a teen idol. The record was issued in the UK, but because a Baby Ruth was a commercial product, rather like a Mars Bar, it had to be doctored for BBC airplay.
He had a US Top 10 hit with "Why Don't They Understand", written by the British entertainer Joe "Mr Piano" Henderson and one of the first songs about the generation gap. He also revived the Scottish folk song, "I Know Where I'm Going" and made "The Teen Commandments Of Love" with Paul Anka and Johnny Nash.
Hamilton toured in rock'n'roll package shows but his second album, released in 1958, was Sing Me A Sad Song – A Tribute To Hank Williams. "It was a terrible time in the States with signs like 'No Blacks Allowed' in restaurant windows," he once told me, "and when I was in a taxicab in Atlanta with Sam Cooke, the driver got pulled over and fined for driving an integrated taxi. But we all got along great on the tours and I realised that music was transcending racism and politics. I can remember Sam Cooke picking up my guitar and singing Hank Williams songs and I talked about the Louvin Brothers with Chuck Berry."
In 1958 Hamilton married his childhood sweetheart Adelaide "Tinky" Peyton and a son (now the performer George Hamilton V), was born in 1960. Moving to a major label, RCA, as a country artist, he returned to the US Top 20 with John D Loudermilk's adaptation of a western song, "Abilene" (1963).
"I loved country music," said Hamilton, "but there were too many dark-end-of-the-street, let's-go-to-the-barroom songs for me. I found that I preferred singing Canadian songs." As a result, he was among the first to record songs by Gordon Lightfoot ("Early Morning Rain"), Joni Mitchell ("Urge For Going"), Leonard Cohen ("Suzanne") and Ian Tyson ("Summer Wages"), and his album, Canadian Pacific (1969), was a cultural breakthrough.
In 1969 Hamilton was featured at the first International Festival of Country Music at the Empire Pool, Wembley and he was to appear at many more, also regularly touring the UK and starring in summer seasons. He hosted numerous BBC TV series and he promoted local country performers such as Pete Sayers, the Hillsiders and the Duffy Brothers as well as American stars. He made an album with the Hillsiders, Heritage, in 1971.
Quite possibly a true thoroughbred country artist wouldn't have been able to break through in the way Hamilton did. He wore a suit and tie and there were no rough edges: the British country singer Hank Wangford used to say it was down to his "sincere eyebrows". He did, however, look awkward: why did such a tall man play a small guitar?
He became a household name in the UK, and the fact that he was often confused with the actor George Hamilton worked to his advantage. "I accept that some folks think I'm bland, easy listening, and it's pretty obvious that I'm not a great vocalist," he said. "However, I can communicate with an audience and I do try to interpret songs which say something."
In 1974 Hamilton became the first country artist to perform in the Soviet Union and he lectured at Moscow University. Increasingly he became more committed to Christian causes. He often worked on Billy Graham's crusades and he sang and preached in British churches, driving himself round. He worked with the Irish singer, Sandy Kelly, in a tribute show to Patsy Cline.
"I knew Patsy well," he recalled, "and she could hold her own in a bar-room fight. Sandy had some of that fire, too. Once I stopped on a roundabout to read some directions and she went ballistic."
On the whole his records have dated, but he could rise to a challenge. In the late 1970s he made three fine albums with Don Williams' producer, Allen Reynolds, Fine Lace And Homespun Cloth, Feel Like A Million and Forever Young. He made American Country Gothic with the Moody Brothers in 1989 and a tribute to Scotland, Hamilton's Other Country, in 2009. He was always looking out for new material and he recorded "I Will Love You All My Life" by the Birkenhead songwriter, Charlie Landsborough, in 1985.
In recent years, Hamilton had been largely based in Nashville, regularly appearing on the Grand Ole Opry and conducting tours when requested. He appeared on George Hamilton V's internet country show, sometimes with his grandson, so that IV, V and VI were singing together. He was to return to the UK in October to tour with Sandy Kelly but he suffered a heart attack and died four days later.
George Hamilton IV, singer: born Winston-Salem, North Carolina 19 July 1937; married Adelaide Peyton (one daughter, two sons); died Nashville 17 September 2014.Reuse content