Thursday, September 18, 2014

Gentleman George Hamilton IV, gone too soon

It would have been the summer of  '63, when my pal Fred Birdsong came by the house.  His father was an executive with Blue Bell, at the time one of the world's largest denim manufacturers, and the president of the company had asked a fellow from Winston-Salem to drop by the next evening and sing a few songs for a few friends and family.

I didn't know it at the time, but the company president's daughter was confined to a wheel chair, and this fellow from Winston-Salem had a big hit going.  It was a country song, and while I wasn't into country music yet, I had heard it a time or two on the radio and liked it. It would be a huge crossover hit.

I had never been in the home of Rodger LeMatty before, though I went by it several times a day going to and from Page High School. It was a big white house with columns at the corner of Cornwallis and Elmwood, a couple blocks from a girl I was sweet on.  I was working at a day camp that summer, and just had time to clean up a little before getting to the LeMatty's house at the right time.  Fred and I found seats on the floor, the thickest white rug I had ever seen.

I've had the same feeling a time or two, when the lights went down at the Majestic Theater in New York and the organ began rattling  the walls and tinkling the chandelier in the open moments of "Phantom of the Opera,"  and another time in Arizona when I heard the Kingston Trio's George Grove belting out the first chorus of a song I had written with Wood Allen a few months earlier.   Absolute chills, combined with what felt like partial levitation. Hard to describe it right, but what I heard that evening in the LeMatty home made me want to be in show business.

I don't remember the other songs that George Hamilton IV sang that night.  Probably his 1956 hit, "A Rose and a Baby Ruth" was one of them.  Maybe "To You And Yours (From Me and Mine)."  Could have been "If You Don't Know I Ain't Gonna Tell You."  But I will never forget hearing this short, simple song, a man singing about a place he missed:  Abilene.

It's an eternal theme in a lot of genres.  Performer hits it big, goes off to the crowded city, enjoys the high life, but things aren't always right, people aren't always nice, nothing like back home.  If there's anything wrong with that song, it's that it's just two short.   Just two verses, and before you know it, the song is over, and there you are wanting more.  But maybe the genius of the song is that it was short and to the point, and didn't need anything else.

They say the song was written about a town in Abilene, Kansas.  But every time I've heard it since then -- and every time I've sung it -- it has simply been about a place back home.   I don't know if Hamilton thought of the leafy street he grew up on in the Ardmore section of Winston-Salem when he sang it, but I'll bet it crossed his mind more than once, even as he took country music around the world and delighted audiences everywhere.

I only saw Hamilton that one time, and was sad to read about his death Wednesday in Nashville. From everything I've ever read about him, he was the genuine article -- a low-key, easy-going, charming gentleman, generous with his time, warm in his words and his smiles and his handshakes. I have read about a lot of stars in the music and entertainment world, and some of them are not the kind of person you want in your living room for long.  Some are.  George Hamilton IV always was one of them.

The words:

Abilene, Abilene
Prettiest town I've ever seen
Women there don't treat you mean
In Abilene, my Abilene

I sit alone most every night
Watch those trains pull out of sight
Don't I wish they were
Carrying me back to Abilene, My Abilene.

Crowded city ain't nothing free
Nothing in this town for me
Wish to the Lord that I could be
 in Abilene, Sweet Abilene.

Women there don't treat you mean
In Abilene, my Abilene

-- Bob Gibson, Lester Brown and John D. Loudermilk

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful recollection, Jack! (I wish I'd been with you and Fred during that extraordinary performance.)...Let the record show that, in a show of affection for Fred and for the love we had of this song, you added the two additional verses we now perform together (and showed your rising talent as a songwriter):COLD RAIN COMIN’ DOWN (E7)DAY AFTER DAY, (F)OLD MEMORIES OF HOME(C) WASHIN’ AWAY,