Thursday, 18 September 2014

George Hamilton IV - memories of a country star

George Hamilton IV
1937 - 2014

Woke to sad news this morning that George Hamilton IV died yesterday, following a heart attack at the weekend. Hamilton came to fame in the 50s, when he was the teen idol singer of A Rose And A Baby Ruth

He went on to have 40 country hits, including the chart topping Abilene. His travels abroad earned him the title, The International Ambassador of Country Music. He was particularly popular in the UK, where he appeared at the first of the legendary Wembley Country Music Festivals and went on to host the BBC's TV coverage of that long-running event. He later played the part of narrator in Patsy Cline: The Musical on the West End stage and in several UK tours.

Over the years I interviewed George many times and was always impressed by him as a person and performer. In the Patsy Cline musical, for instance, his co-star Sandy Kelly was outstanding as Cline. But Hamilton stole the show with his smooth, seated performance of A Rose And A Baby Ruth. At the song's climax, he smoothly slid a Baby Ruth - an American chocolate bar - from his pocket and with that small but perfectly timed action proved he was worth his weight in theatrical gold.

I first interviewed George at a hotel in Croydon. I was a young music writer and wore a leather biker jacket with a painting of Jerry Lee Lewis on the back. George never forgot that jacket. In 2012, I bumped into him backstage at the revived Wembley country festival and the first thing he said was, “I remember that jacket you used to wear...”

The festival had some big names on the bill including Reba McEntire and Lonestar. But the two moments I remember best both featured George. The first was a moving duet on Me And My Old Guitar, which he sang with Raymond Froggatt. Later in the show, westerrn swing stars Asleep At The Wheel brought George out as a guest to sing Abilene with them. The Wheel features some of the finest musicians in the world, their set had the best sound balance on the night and it was gratifying to hear Hamilton backed by such a superb musical arrangement.

Hamilton entered a recording renaissance in his latter years. In 2001 he recorded a stunning album of traditional Irish songs with his Patsy Cline co-star Sandy Kelly. More recently, he recorded albums of Texan honky tonk and country Gospel for acclaimed label Heart of Texas.

He toured the UK annually, often in a Patsy Cline-themed show with Kelly and also as a solo performer, often in churches and other small venues. I especially remember sitting in the front row for his tribute to Luke the Drifter, the Gospel music alter ego of Hank Williams, the Father of Country Music. Ever the gentleman, he introduced me to the audience and mentioned my recently published book about the Irish entertainer, Dominic Kirwan.

Hamilton was a compelling narrator and he held the audience spell-bound as he wove the story of Hank in with his songs. A couple of years ago, George recorded his show on the CD A Tribute To Luke The Drifter - The Other Side Of Hank Williams, and it’s one of the best country music recordings you could ever buy. The moment when he describes Hank’s death is spine-chilling.

More recently, Hamilton released a Christmas album of spoken stories set to music, called The Christmas Storyteller. Nobody could tell a story like George and he had me in tears on every other track. I urge you all to get a copy and listen to it fireside this Christmas Eve.

There will be many tributes to George and many will no doubt concentrate on what a perfect gentleman and all-round nice guy he was. I won’t argue with that. He was the nicest man I’ve ever met - and the only singer to send me a Christmas card every year with a personally written message thanking me for whatever reviews or articles I’d written about him. But amid the tributes to him as a person, I’d hate the world to forget that he was also a superb performer. As a narrator and spoken voice recording artist he was the best in the business.

George was also one of the hardest working men in the music business. He was due to tour with Kelly again next month in a second run of dates in the Patsy Cline 50th Anniversary Tour - a tour so popular it was in its second year.

He will be sorely missed. My condolences go to his childhood sweetheart and wife of 58 years, Tinky, and two sons, who include fellow country star George Hamilton V.

Patsy Cline
Click here to read George Hamilton IV's memories of Patsy Cline.

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