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By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tenn., Sept 18 (Reuters) - Country music legend George Hamilton IV, a star at the Grand Ole Opry for more than 50 years and known as the “International Ambassador of Country Music,” died on Wednesday at a hospital in Nashville, a statement on his website said.
Hamilton, who was 77, had suffered a heart attack on Saturday, the statement said.
Hamilton helped to popularize country music far beyond the United States, performing at festivals across Europe. He was the first U.S. country singer with his own British television series, according to his biography on the website of the Grand Ole Opry.
Hamilton, whose hit songs also included “Abilene” and “Before This Day Ends,” also hosted a television series in Canada.
The musician known as George IV grew up in North Carolina, where as a teenager he would take the Greyhound bus to Nashville to listen to country performances.
His musical career took off with the pop hit “A Rose and a Baby Ruth” in 1956. Several years later, while sitting in the Grand Ole Opry audience, he decided to switch from pop to country.
“We’ve lost a member of our family,” a post on the Opry’s Twitter page said. “George Hamilton IV will be missed by all. Thanks for continued prayers.”
“George was a really good man, a righteous person,” said singer Bobby Bare, 79, who said his friendship with Hamilton exceeded a half-century and included touring together in Europe.
“I’d say (he was) the last of a breed. He was a kind, very gentle person and very religious man.”
Bare, best-known for his classic “Detroit City,” said Hamilton’s recording of John D. Loudermilk composition “Break My Mind,” was essential listening.
Hamilton was still drawing crowds in England, whether in concert halls or in the churches where he loved to play solo acoustic concerts.
He said British fans liked to hear his hits “Early Morning Rain” and “Break My Mind.” “I do about 20 minutes of hit records and then ease into country gospel for them,” he said.
The pay was minimal for the church gigs but he considered the spiritual rewards great. (Reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Fla.; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Bill Trott)