Grand Ole Opry Star George Hamilton IV Dies at Age 77

Famous for "Abilene," a No. 1 Hit in 1963

Veteran Grand Ole Opry star George Hamilton IV, who first soared to pop stardom in 1956 via the teen confection “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” died Wednesday (Sept. 17) at a Nashville hospital at age 77.

Hamilton, who last played the Opry on Sept. 6, suffered a heart attack on Saturday.

Born George Hege Hamilton IV in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on July 19, 1937, the singer was just a freshman at the University of North Carolina when he recorded John D. Loudermilk’s “A Rose and a Baby Ruth” for a local label. The recording was soon picked up by ABC-Paramount, which boosted it to No. 6 on the pop charts.

The song would be the tall, courtly Hamilton’s highest-charting pop record, although he went on to score a Top 10 in 1957 with “Why Don’t They Understand.” In a nod to his county leanings, he covered Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” in 1958 and saw it peak at No. 72.

On the strength of “Baby Ruth,” Hamilton toured with such pop peers as the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. He was a regular on The Jimmy Dean Show in the late 1950s and hosted his own half-hour, five-days-a-week TV show on ABC during April and May of 1959.

Hamilton charted a total of 10 pop singles for ABC-Paramount during his three years with the company, one of the most interesting of which was “The Teen Commandment,” a spoken-word pep talk on morality that co-featured labelmates Paul Anka and Johnny Nash.

It was clearly crafted to assure parents they had nothing to fear from rock ’n’ roll. One of the “commandments” Hamilton intoned was, “Don’t let your parents down — they brought you up.” The mini-sermon, which also advocated church attendance, made it all the way to No. 29.

In 1960, Chet Atkins signed Hamilton to RCA Records’ country division. That same year, the young singer joined the Grand Ole Opry. His connection with RCA lasted for 14 years.

Hamilton notched his first country hit, “Before This Day Ends,” in 1960 on the ABC-Paramount label. It topped out at No. 4.

His biggest hit — and only No. 1 — came in 1963 with “Abilene,” another Loudermilk composition. The breezy ballad topped the charts for four weeks and climbed to No. 15 on the pop rankings.

Hamilton had an unerring song sense, tapping into the catalogs of such stellar tunesmiths as Harlan Howard, Bill Anderson, Cindy Walker, Ernest Tubb, Maybelle Carter, Lee Clayton and James Taylor.

Popular in Canada, he became a champion of Gordon Lightfoot’s music and charted with four of his songs, including the folkish “Steel Rail Blues” and “Early Morning Rain.” He had a Top 10 with Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going.”

Of the 36 singles he charted for RCA, eight reached the Top 10. He last appeared on the country charts in 1978 with “Only the Best.”

Hamilton’s penchant for touring abroad, particularly in Canada and the British Isles, earned him the unofficial title of International Ambassador of Country Music.

His son, George Hamilton V, is also a performer and recording artist and often played in his father’s bands.

Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.