‘Should I know him?” a colleague asked. “I haven’t heard of him.” Maybe that was no surprise, I said. It has been a long time since his fame peaked.
But the world today is minus one of the good guys. George Hamilton IV died last week in Nashville. In his 77 years Hamilton was very famous and then not so famous at all, but his keel never was thrown off. He was a Winston-Salem native who had a head-turning experience at the age of 19, when, as a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he had a hit record with “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” which hit No. 6 on the pop music charts.
There followed tours with Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, during which Hamilton, in white bucks and a tie, would supply the teenage ballad part of the show.
Heady stuff for a youngster, but then and later, when he became something of a country music star with the song, “Abilene,” Hamilton remained true to himself. He was married for over 50 years to his high school sweetheart, Tinky, was a father and grandfather, and accepted with good grace the fact that teen idols, of which he was one, don’t last forever, and that the freight trains of “outlaw country” and then “modern country” didn’t really stop for him.
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His style was the ultimate in tradition. On the Grand Ole Opry, where he landed membership in 1960, he dressed up out of respect for the show and sometimes included little history lessons between songs.
For that, he was well-suited. Hamilton, though he never became a big star, was in the thick of the rise of country music. Though his clean-cut looks and straight-arrow demeanor seemed out of place with some of the stars who came along after his own fame had faded, he was readily accepted by them.
He was, for example, there when Kris Kristofferson, unknown and scruffy, played “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “Me and Bobby McGee” for other musicians in a hotel room downtown. Hamilton also recorded the work of a then-unknown Canadian folksinger, Gordon Lightfoot, and toured with Rev. Billy Graham.
And inspired by country music festivals abroad, Hamilton had a role in starting a Nashville festival that ultimately became the city’s biggest annual event. He rarely got credit or sought it.
After he switched from pop music to country in the late 1950s, Hamilton went on a tour with a legend, Patsy Cline. “She was so great,” he told me once. “We were in the car once and Patsy and the other guys were sharing a bottle and I didn’t and she looked over at me and my coat and tie and white bucks and said, ‘Hoss, what you goin’ for? Pat Boone?’ And everybody laughed.”
Yes, though his name might now be a footnote to even ardent country music fans, Hamilton was respected by three generations of artists. His tenor voice didn’t suit many of the songs being written as the 1970s became the 1980s and so on, but he retained his Opry membership and performed the old hits time and again.
In his last decade or maybe last two decades of performing, he continued to play clubs abroad (he was the first country singer to really explore foreign markets) and at Christmas, he would travel around playing churches for no fee, doing a combination of songs and stories. He became, in other words, a member of a dwindling profession, the troubadour who goes around by himself in a car, playing to small audiences. Some shows he played with his son, George V, who also joined his dad on the Opry.
Hamilton was a gentleman to his core, unfailingly gracious, modest, never talking about what might have been had he been more aggressive in career pursuit and not as happily consumed by family.
Instead, George Hamilton found his audience in Moravian churches and others, singing the songs of his youth and folk music long gone from any popular music charts. He played, and ate church suppers a thousand times with those gathered, and celebrated countless New Year’s Eves in those fellowship halls with sparkling cider.
Yes, perhaps you never heard of him, and wonder why his passing merits note. But it does. Whether the one good man who leaves us is famous, or just a grandfather and father and husband who was not famous at all, he is worthy of a pause and a reflection. We owe that to those who made our world better.