Although I have to admit that I am neither an expert on his life nor on his recordings, I always considered George Hamilton IV a great artist. His "Abilene" hit recording is one of the best from that period but he was also versant with the rockabilly sound, as "If You Don't Know" as well as his other great rocker "Everybody's Body" testifiy.
Born on July 19, 1937, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as George Hege Hamilton IV, he came - in contrast to the majority of country singers of his era - from a relatively worthy family. Hamilton's father was vice president and manager of a company in Winston-Salem. Growing up in a city, Hamilton enjoyed many of the advantages of urban life a country boy could not. One of those was going to the cinema, where he would see the movies of the singing cowboys. His love for country music was stimulated by his grandfather, a railroader, who had many of the old Jimmie Rodgers records. Hamilton would also listen to the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville every Saturday evening.
Hamilton learned to play guitar and formed a band while at high school. The outfit performed at local gatherings, civic events and social meetings. By 1955, he attended the University of North Carolina and then the American University in Washington, D.C., which enabled him to perform on the Jimmy Dean TV Show.
In the summer of 1956 came his first big break. Hamilton knew Orville Campbell, who owned Colonial Records in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He persuaded Campbell to sign him to a recording contract and recorded a first session for the label in March 1956 at the WUNC Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina that produced "I've Got a Secret" and "Sam." On that date, Hamilton was backed by Joseph Tanner on electric lead guitar and Henry Heitman on bass. Though, those titles were reserved initially.
When John D. Loudermilk, at that time also a young and unknown songwriter, pitched a song entitled "A Rose and a Baby Ruth" to Campbell, Hamilton was given the chance to record it. In return to recording Loudermilk's teen ballad, Hamilton was also allowed to cut one of his originals, the rockabilly tune "If You Don't Know." Campbell set up a second session again at WUNC Swain Hall on June 18, 1956, which resulted in recording both songs that day. In addition to Hamilton, Tanner, and Heitman, drummer Dennis Beams and a vocal group called "The Blue Notes" were added for the recording of "A Rose and a Baby Ruth." On "If You Don't Know" however, the trio turned into a great rockabilly performance with a strong rhythm guitar by Hamilton, a sophisticated lead guitar by Tanner, and a deep, slapping bass by Heitman.
|Billboard review on September 1, 1956|
|Billboard review on October 20, 1956|
It was released in late summer 1956 on Colonial #420 credited to "George Hamilton IV and the Country Gentlemen", followed by a national release through the ABC-Paramount label (ABC-Paramount #45-9765). It was "A Rose and a Baby Ruth" that caught on and eventually peaked at #6 on Billboard's Hot 100. The record became a million-selling hit and catapulted Hamilton into stardom. He was transferred to the ABC-Paramount label and recorded more teen pop material, similar to "A Rose and a Baby Ruth." His only other pure rocker, "Everybody's Body," again showed his love for a solid rockabilly sound.
In 1959, Hamilton moved his family to Nashville, in order to establish himself as a country singer. In 1960, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry and singed with RCA-Victor. Country hits followed, including the No.1 "Abilene," written by Loudermilk and Bob Gibson. The hits faded in the early 1970s but Hamilton remained active, especially as a live act. He undertook wide tours around the world, which earned him the nickname "The International Ambassador of Country Music." George Hamilton IV died September 17, 2014, in Nashville.