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VOL. 36 | NO. 5 | Friday, February 3, 2012

London calling, y'all

Veteran country artists have a tip for today’s stars: Get on a plane!

By Tim Ghianni

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George Hamilton IV doesn’t take credit for it, but he is a country music business pioneer.

The one-time pop heartthrob – he converted to country after sharing the stage with Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and even Satchmo – maintains he became something of an accidental international icon after a quick courtesy stop in London.

“The British fans seem to like traditional country,” says the genial 74-year-old, whose career still sparkles in England long after his star has faded in the States. “Certain artists have received a warmer response there than here back home.”

He’s not only one of them, he’s generally considered the guy who built a new business model for generations of musicians by conquering England and then leaping over the English Channel to broaden his fan base across the continent.

It is a pathway to enduring box office success.

“I want to make sure that I point out that I was by no means the first to go over there,” the dapper gentleman explains.

Still, his 45 years of popularity and success in Jolly Old England demonstrates how artists, overlooked or even forgotten in the pop-oriented world of modern country music, can continue to make not only waves but rake in the dough before legions of adoring fans in the United Kingdom.

In Nashville, Hamilton is considered a beloved Opry act, and that’s fine by him, as becoming a member of that cast in 1959 solidified his leap from pop to pure country. And he has a dedicated, if aging, U.S. audience still captivated by Abilene, Break My Mind and Early Morning Rain. If they can’t make it to Nashville to see him, he’ll take his music to them, as he did in a recent weeklong tour of Florida’s blue-haired retirement meccas.

But it’s overseas, particularly in the U.K., where the guy – crowned the International Ambassador of Country Music for his worldwide success – remains a star attraction.

And he doesn’t want to keep his formula a secret. This low-key international superstar urges others, especially the rising stars, to make the leap of faith across the Atlantic.

“My advice to an artist just getting started here is to make sure they don’t overlook that market,” he says. “There is a huge market, particularly in the British Isles: England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

“The artists who have taken the trouble to go over there and tour have all done really well,” he says.

The Grand Ole Opry’s gentlemanly legend is given credit by many local musicians as the guy who mapped the trail to European stages.

Hamilton appreciates that he has been recognized for perhaps setting the benchmark for success. But he shrugs off the “pioneer” tag and instead directs it to a yodeling 89-year-old living in relative obscurity in Middleburg, Fla., about 30 miles southeast of Jacksonville.

“The first person I know to become an international star by playing in England was Slim Whitman,” Hamilton says of his pal from Florida.

George Hamilton IV

Whitman’s batch of UK hits – Indian Love Call, Rose Marie, Unchain My Heart and I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen and more – made him a constant on the Brit pop charts beginning in the mid-1950s, pushing him to superstardom “before anybody in England had ever heard of the rest of us,” Hamilton says.

“He was playing the London Palladium in the mid-1950s and packing it. And he did a lot of concert tours in the mid-’50s and he’s remained popular over there until recent times.”

While America has pretty much relegated Whitman to late-night infomercials – or for Baby Boomer readers: The model for a Johnny Carson sketch character – the lively 89-year-old says promoters still call, knowing he could still pack them in beneath Big Ben.

But his voice is out of shape, he says, and maladies of aging keep him from that kind of travel – so far.

“My legs give me trouble,” he says as he sits in his chair in the home nestled on the 40-acre estate he and his late wife, Alma Geraldine, dubbed “Woodpecker Paradise,” his home base during a globe-trotting career that was sparked and fueled by his enduring success in England.

“I started out in England in 1956 and my last tour over there was 2002, before my wife died.”

His path into England was lighted by Rose Marie, which London Records – the same label that launched Mick, Keith and The Stones a few years later – decided to push as a pop hit after Indian Love Call whetted the appetites of the record-buying masses. It was the beginning of a half-century’s success.

“We had hoards of records after that, and then (London Records) started putting out albums. I’d have albums going No. 1 on the pop charts. That is what built me up in England,” Whitman says.

First booked to play on a variety bill that was to tour the country, including an extended stay at the London Palladium, he laughs about what he encountered upon his first steps on British soil after climbing off the plane in London in ’56.

“There were these great big posters (promoting Whitman), about 20 feet long when I got off the plane. They had the sign out saying ‘Welcome the World’s Greatest Cowboy,’ and I’d never been on a horse.”

He laughs and allows: “I still haven’t been on a horse.”

The crowds were thrilled to see him, so much so that he went back in 1957. His following there had grown “because I had been there before.”

He still is in semi-wonderment about the gap between his success in the U.S. and what he encountered in England and the U.K.

“I’d been playing one-nighters in the United States and then going over there where I was playing only the big (halls and arenas). That was kind of backwards,” he says with a laugh, adding that “my people” in England are so loyal that even though he took a 13-year break from that country after 1957, he returned atop a country bill that jammed folks in.

Of his 120 million records sold, more than half are in England, Whitman says. Meanwhile, he’s relatively unknown or at least forgotten here because, he says, the industry “ignores me because I didn’t ever have a No. 1 record here in the U.S. ... Nashville didn’t think I’d done anything.”

Slim Whitman

Whitman says for some reason he’s always been billed as a “pop” act in England and insists that his pal George Hamilton IV lighted the way for country artists.

Hamilton, though, testifies as to the importance of Whitman’s success. “He was the pioneer … He preceded all of us. Sadly, he has been totally overlooked by the CMA (Country Music Association) and the Hall of Fame.

“He has every right to be in the Hall of Fame: He was selling millions of records in the ’50s,” he says, noting that Whitman defined the meaning of “international star” for country musicians in the U.K. and beyond.

Though he’s maintained more than four decades of success by taking multiple annual trips to play anything from large theaters to country churches in the United Kingdom, Hamilton would rather talk about other artists’ British successes.

First among those is Bobby Bare, who invited a group from Liverpool to make a record here in Nashville. No, not that group, but The Hillsiders, who performed in England with Bare and also with such acts as Marty Robbins, Gene Watson and Glen Campbell.

“They did come to Nashville with Bobby Bare and they were the first British group to appear on the Grand Ole Opry,” Hamilton says.

“Bobby had invited them to play there and he did an album with them here in Nashville. Chet (Atkins) produced it,” Hamilton says of the 1967 album The English Countryside, recorded at RCA on Music Row.

Hamilton says Bare, Atkins, Skeeter Davis, The Browns, Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys and the Anita Kerr Singers all did their time in the spotlight in England.

It’s just that Hamilton has been touring England ever since his almost “accidental” first visit.

“I made my first trip over there in 1967,” he says. His manager, Wesley Rose, of Acuff-Rose, had booked him for a tour of military bases in Germany.

“In those days, in the 1960s a lot of Nashville artists went over to play the bases. There was a huge military presence in Germany and in Europe during the days of the Cold War and Iron Curtain and all that.

“There was a lot of tension between the Soviets and the USA.”

Most of the Opry family made trips to Cold War outposts, and Hamilton, with his polished good looks, pop-music chops and mellow voice, was an instant hit with the GIs, their families and the many German citizens who were “sneaked” into the enlisted men’s and officer’s clubs and other concert locales.

“There are a lot of real loyal country fans in Germany, Spain and Italy. These civilians managed to get themselves invited as guests to these shows because they were real country fans and it was their opportunity to see Nashville artists.”

On one of these trips in November 1967, his return to the States was diverted. “Wesley Rose suggested that I stop by in London on my way home.

“I’d never been to London before. He said we had offices in London. He said ‘Why don’t you stop off and visit our people in the London office and kind of check out the scene?’ He said ‘Country music is very popular there.’”

Charlie Walker

So the Opry heartthrob first set foot in England in 1967, the same year a British act released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the soundtrack to the hippie movement and the “Summer of Love.”

Sure, it was a time when, as Roger Miller sang England Swings (like a pendulum do), yet there was plenty of love to go around for old George IV, who again not only credits Whitman but other predecessors.

In addition to Whitman, Hamilton says he also owes a debt to Jim Reeves, who “had preceded me there and he was very popular in the British Isles. While I was there, they got me on a country music BBC live radio show in front of an audience. It was sort of the British version of the Opry.”

On the BBC Playhouse Theatre on the Thames, he rolled out a few of his hits and “I was pleasantly surprised to find out they were popular there.”

Of course, by the time Hamilton arrived, Reeves, who had developed a solid international following with his gentlemanly style and Nashville Sound-pitch-perfect phrasing, had been dead for more than three years, victim of a June 31, 1964, plane crash near Brentwood.

Because he was following fellows like Whitman and Reeves, Hamilton’s smooth, folk-oriented ballads were easily accepted by the Brits.

“After one of the radio interviews I did with the BBC, these guys took me to a little pub for a pub lunch. I was sitting at a table with a group of BBC presenters, programmers and some guys from the record company there in England.

“The topic of conversation was that this fellow Mervyn Conn (legendary promoter) had announced that he was going to promote the first International Festival of Country Music at Wembley Arena.

“These radio and record company types were all laughing and giggling about Mr. Conn’s proposed festival. The line of conversation was that ‘he won’t be able to draw enough to fill his living room.’”

Hamilton didn’t laugh. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘that sounds like a great idea.’”

Conn came to Nashville to entice top talent, with the plea that the festival would be a steppingstone to Europe. He couldn’t pay, though he did provide air transport, room and board and expenses for the artists who participated in the inaugural fest, Easter weekend 1969.

Hamilton was joined by Charlie Walker, Bill Anderson, Acuff and the Boys, the Glaser Brothers and others.

“We all came back to Nashville, very enthusiastic about the possibilities of country music in England, Ireland and in Europe,” Hamilton says. “The festival jump-started country music on that side of the Atlantic. As we had hoped, the festival lighted a fire under the scene.”

That annual festival ran through 1991, and Conn is bringing it back in late February with stars like Reba, Charley Pride and Ricky Skaggs and the still-loved-by-Brits Hamilton.

Conn says ticket sales so far haven’t been great, for the economy or other reasons, but he’s pushing ahead because of the urging of others in his business.

“They told me ‘why don’t you bring the festival back? Country music has lost its momentum since you stopped doing the festival,’” says Conn, adding that the biggest draw for the stars and the industry is that “England is like an aircraft carrier for Europe” for music acts.

Hamilton says the 1970 Wembley Fest – broadcast by BBC – pretty much cemented him in the hearts and minds of Queen Elizabeth’s subjects. In addition to his voice and good humor, he says his sartorial sensibilities aided in his launch to Brit stardom.

A BBC producer, overseeing TV coverage, saw Hamilton on screen and was intrigued.

“I looked quite unlike the cowboy, and the producer said ‘I think I can use that guy.’ He had been thinking of doing a country music series in London and he was looking for a host that might bridge the gap between England and Nashville, who might be palatable to the great British public, who weren’t used to country music.”

After all, wasn’t the late Mr. Reeves known in Britain for his tailored, suit-and-tie appearance?

“I just happened to be wearing a pin-striped, three-piece suit with a Roman number IV on my breast pocket,” says Hamilton, remembering his big break.

Seen as accessible to British hearts because of his gentlemanly appearance and his polished performance style, he was asked to host a U.K. country music series, turning him into a household name. “It was ridiculous the amount of exposure I was getting,” Hamilton says, with a lilting laugh.

Shortly thereafter, guys like Don Williams and Boxcar Willie became stars because of their Wembley appearances.

“Boxy was virtually unknown in the States until he became a huge star in England. Mr. Acuff was at Wembley when Boxcar got a standing ovation. He came back here and invited Boxy to get on the Grand Ole Opry,” Hamilton says.

At the time of this writing, Williams – Tulsa Time and Some Broken Hearts Never Mend – was on tour in the U.K. His management declined a request for an interview.

Others who made that smooth transition to British stardom included Johnny Cash, Gail Davies, Nanci Griffith, Hank Snow, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and others who stayed true to the folk-like vein of country music.

“Certain artists have received a warmer response there than back here home,” Hamilton says. “Most of the ones who have done well there have been people who sing traditional country music or who have the Don Williams approach, the smooth ballads and story songs.”

While anxious to participate in the reborn festival – and hopeful that it will help invigorate country’s popularity in England – Hamilton doesn’t need the exposure now, 43 years since his first Wembley shows.

He goes to England an average of two times a year. And he finds his devotees waiting to greet him.

Sometimes there are concert appearances and TV shows in which he fronts a band of British musicians, which keeps his personal expenses low, since he doesn’t have to fly his own pickers into Heathrow.

“Through the years I’ve begun to do more and more church work on my own – solo acoustic – in addition to the theater shows. I just go with my guitar.”

Those shows, with pastors serving as host /emcee, are paid for by free-will offerings.

“They remember Abilene and Early Morning Rain, Break My Mind,” he says. “I do about 20 minutes of hit records and then ease into country gospel for them.”

As he notes, these shows “aren’t a financial windfall,” but expenses are low, acoustics are great and the spiritual rewards fulfilling.

Course, he still draws well in theaters throughout the U.K. and Ireland. He also leapfrogs across the northern part of the continent, including the former Iron Curtain countries.

He chastises many of today’s stars for making a huge mistake. “A lot of the superstars are doing so well here and making so much money, they don’t feel it’s worthwhile to hop a plane and go to London.

“They say: ‘We can play a packed coliseum here, close to home, and make a good living.’

“But there always comes a day in an artist’s career when the hits stop coming and there aren’t records on the charts. If they had taken the trouble to court that market over there and make themselves known, they then would have had a whole second career internationally.

“It’s a big world out there and there are more country music fans than one would think.”

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