Even as a child, George Hamilton IV knew he was different. When his grandmother took him to Saturday afternoon picture shows to see Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, he was that kid who didn't boo when the song started. "Usually when the cowboy stars started singing, some of the kids would throw bubble gum at the screen, but that was my favorite part," Hamilton says, laughing in retrospect. "I really enjoyed the music."
Hamilton developed that love for country music growing up in Winston-Salem. "I had the privilege to have hillbilly forebears," he says, at home in Nashville. "Granddaddy Hamilton taught me to love country music without knowing it, being around him as a young boy, listening to the music he loved so much."
By the time he was in high school, Hamilton had a band whose repertoire consisted of Hamilton's heroes from the '50s Grand Ole Opry like Jimmy Dickens, Chet Atkins and Ernest Tubb.
Hamilton's first hit, though, "A Rose and a Baby Ruth" (recorded in UNC-Chapel Hill's Swain Hall in 1956), wasn't considered country. It was a pop record aimed at the teen market. When the record came out, the Curtis Candy company, makers of Baby Ruth candy bars, sent a letter to Hamilton's record label demanding it be pulled for copyright infringement. By the time Hamilton's lawyer replied, Curtis Candy had sent another letter advising the label to disregard the previous one: Sales had gone up 500 percent in the last month, as kids were eating the candy bars more and adults were sending roses and Baby Ruths to their sweethearts all over the country.
And just as music can inspire purchases, Hamilton believes it can inspire social change, too. Hamilton says he was surprised how much the black artists he toured with in the late '50s, including Sam Cooke and Little Richard, appreciated country music. "When we'd go out to get a hot dog in these coliseums or arenas and come back to the dressing rooms, the black guys would be sitting back there playing our guitars, mostly singing Hank Williams' songs," he remembers.
Hamilton believes that music had as much to do with integration as did law and justice, that it "is a bridge builder in a world of walls." "So many white kids in the South grew up listening to those black artists on the radio. It led to a large degree to the integration of the South and the changing of attitude because so many white kids liked black music and related to it."
Hamilton tested that bridge-building theory overseas, becoming the first country artist to perform behind the Iron Curtain, in Moscow in 1974. A BBC reporter dubbed Hamilton the International Ambassador of Country Music.
He soon became another sort of ambassador. While in Prague visiting the mother church of his Moravian faith, he found that young people there were prevented from higher education if proven as avowed church-goers. That caused "a re-assessment on my fair weather Christianhood." Hamilton joined the Billy Graham crusade a few years later, using his status "not to become an evangelist or a preacher, but to get across an occasional message in song, a little bit of my spiritual feelings and thoughts."
Hamilton now combines gospel and country music, as with his latest, Heritage and Legacy. The album includes acoustic versions of his hits--
"A Rose and a Baby Ruth," "Break My Mind," "Abilene," "Early Morning Rain"--as well as some Moravian hymns. But country gospel is his main focus: "I get more satisfaction and joy out of that than I do out of the so-called secular commercial country music."
George Hamilton IV performs Saturday, June 17 at University Baptist Church in Chapel Hill at 7:30 p.m. Charles Pettee & FolkPsalm open. The International Ambassador of Country Music is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his first hit song, recorded at UNC's Swain Hall on June 18, 1956. Legendary songwriter John D. Loudermilk performs as well. Proceeds benefit Habitat for Humanity. The suggested donation is $10, $5 for students and kids under 10 are free. Call 942-2157.