I’ve been travelin’ down the highways with my guitar for so long
Shakin’ hands and meetin’ lots of folks
Living my life my way with a handshake and a song
Caring little if I was rich or broke
Cause there’s country music in my soul
People music for the young and the old
I’ll keep on singing my song keep on keeping on
Cause there’s country music in my soul
From “County Music In My Soul” written by Bobby Bond
Many musicians who have met Freddie Hart have commented to me that he is the one of the nicest people that they have ever encountered. I‘ve never had the pleasure of meeting Freddie Hart, but if he is nicer person than George Hamilton IV, he must qualify for sainthood. I’ve met George IV on a number of occasions over the last 39 years, and a finer gentleman can’t be found.
George Hamilton IV has always had country music in his soul, although his recording career, like that of a number of country stars, started off in pop. Unlike other country boys such as Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Narvel Felts and Billy Craddock, who started off as rockabilly stars, George’s early endeavors were straightforward pop rather than rockabilly or rock and roll.
Hamilton was born on July 19, 1937 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was raised on the country music loved by his grandfather, George Hamilton II, and he learned to play the guitar at the age of 12. While in high school he formed a country band, and while still a freshman at the University of North Carolina, he met John D. Loudermilk, first cousin of Ira and Charlie Louvin (formerly Loudermilk), at the time a struggling songwriter. Landing a contract with the Colonial label, Hamilton recorded “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” Loudermilk’s first attempt at teen pop. The single did very well regionally during 1956 and was picked up by ABC-Paramount later that same year. Since the song hit #6 on the pop charts and sold over a million copies in the process, ABC-Paramount signed Hamilton to a regular contract. During this time he transferred to American University in Washington DC to continue his studies.
Since Hamilton was never really comfortable recording pop music, subsequent efforts failed to achieve the heights of “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” although the next four singles made the pop top 40, with “Why Don’t They Understand” reaching #10 in early 1958. After an appearance on The Jimmy Dean Show 1957-58, Hamilton was given his own short-lived show by ABC-TV in 1959.
Even while signed to ABC-Paramount, Hamilton was recording country songs such as “Why I’m Walking,” “Even Tho’” and at least seven songs associated with Hank Williams. His first entry on the country charts (“Before This Day Ends”) rose to #4 in late 1960.
In 1961 George switched labels, moving to RCA Victor, where Chet Atkins promised that he could record as a country artist. After top ten entries in 1961 (“Three Steps to the Phone,” “Millions of Miles”) and 1962 (“If You Don’t Know I Ain’t Gonna Tell You”), Hamilton finally hit the top of the country charts in 1963 with “Abilene,” a song penned by his old friend John D. Loudermilk. The single topped the country charts for four weeks in June and crossed over to #15 on the pop charts. During 1964, Hamilton charted three singles and returned to the top ten with “Fort Worth, Dallas or Houston.”
Deeply influenced by the folk music artists of the “Hootenanny Era,” George became a major conduit for introducing such future folk deities as Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson, and Joni Mitchell to American audiences. Indeed, Hamilton probably recorded more Gordon Lightfoot songs during the mid 1960s to early 1970s than any other artist including such classics as “Steel Rail Blues” and “Early Morning Rain,” both hits in 1966. George’s version of “Urge for Going” (written by Joni Mitchell) hit #7 in 1967; “Break My Mind,” another John D. Loudermilk song, hit #6 later in the year. During this period Hamilton recorded songs by the likes of Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, Buffy St. Marie and countless other singer-songwriters. Not ignoring his country favorites, in 1965 he recorded an album in tribute to Ernest Tubb, enjoying a hit with “Walking The Floor Over You.”
George continued to record for RCA until 1974, but major chart success largely eluded him except for the #3 hit “She’s a Little Bit Country” in 1970. This is not to say that he quit making great records, as some of my personal favorite Hamilton tracks such as “Ten Degrees (and Getting Colder)”, “West Texas Highway” and “Country Music In My Soul” came after 1970.
While his stature as a singles star waned, George took on a greater prominence as the “International Ambassador of Country Music” thanks to his several world tours, 10 visits to Great Britain, numerous visits to Europe, and his BBC television programs (seven seasons). He became the first country artist to perform behind the Iron Curtain, and also toured Africa, Asia, New Zealand, Australia, and even the Middle East.
In recent years Hamilton has focused on gospel music, although he still plays dates in which he performs secular music. I saw George five years ago at the Florida Sunshine Opry in Eustis, Florida; he still put an an excellent show, and hung around as long as anyone wished to speak with him. Two years later I saw him at the Rolling Hills Moravian Church in Longwood, Florida where he performed an excellent show that was about 2/3 religious material – just GH4 and his guitar. Hamilton once mentioned to me that he’d like to live long enough to meet George Hamilton VII. It seems that GH1 (his great grandfather) was alive long enough for George to remember him, and son George Hege Hamilton V has a son George Hege Hamilton VI who should soon be of age to start a family.
Imagine that – getting to know seven generations of George Hege Hamiltons. I hope he makes it.
George Hamilton charted six pop singles and forty country singles during a chart career that ran from 1956 to 1978. Despite this, almost none of his classic RCA material is available in affordable form, to say nothing of the ABC-Paramount material. The German label Bear Family has released a six CD set that takes George’s career up through 1965, but this will set you back over $120.00. Bear also released a three CD set titled My North Country Home. This set collects the various RCA recordings made by GH4 of eighty plus songs written by Canadian songwriters such as Gordon Lightfoot, Hank Snow, Leonard Cohen, Buffy St Marie, Ian Tyson, Ray Griff and many more.
Collectors Choice Music currently has a Greatest Hits collection available featuring most of his biggest hits. It is also possible to obtain gospel recordings from Hamilton from various sources including CD Baby. In recent years GH4 has been recording for Lamon Records. Most of what I’ve seen on Lamon has been religious music, but George has issued a recent secular album titled In The Heart Of Texas which features tracks with guest artists Tony Booth, Justin Trevino and Darrell McCall http://lamonrecords.com
Unfortunately, “Gasoline” , a semi-comic song set to the tune of “Abilene”, does not appear to be available at this time.
Hamilton’s LPs are, of course, long out of print, but sometimes can be located online or at used record shops. He has one of the warmest and friendliest voices ever, so I would recommend any album you come across that is in decent enough shape to warrant purchase. My personal favorites are:
Canadian Pacific which features songs by Canadian songwriters such as Ray Griff, Bruce Cockburn, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Hank Snow.
George Hamilton IV In The 4th Dimension, which is easily the most eclectic collection of songs any country artist recorded during the 1960s or 1970s, including Buffy St. Marie’s “Take My Hand For A While” and Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”.
George Hamilton IV was Hamilton’s major label farewell, and was issued in 1985 on MCA-Dot. It includes several excellent remakes of his biggest hits but also includes a song written by Bob Dylan, “Forever Young,” that he gives the definitive treatment. Hamilton has incorporated this song into his stage shows for the last 23 years and it is always a highlight.