With a rose and a candy bar, he became a teen heartthrob in the mid-’50s while still a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill. Although “A Rose And A Baby Ruth” was the song that put him in the national spotlight in 1959, it didn’t define George Hamilton IV’s career, in tone or genre.

The singer passed away in Nashville Sept. 17 at the age of 77, four days after suffering a heart attack. He will be remembered as a country artist. He crossed over into country in 1963 with “Abilene,” topping the country charts and rising into the Top 20 on the pop side. His version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” was No. 9 on the country chart in 1966, outselling versions by Peter, Paul & Mary; Jerry Lee Lewis; Neil Young and The Grateful Dead. He had a No. 1 hit in Canada in 1969 with “Canadian Pacific,” though “She’s A Little Bit Country” was his biggest U.S. single.

Born in Winston-Salem, Hamilton said he had the privilege to have hillbilly forebears. His grandfather came down from Beaver Creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains to Winston to work for the railroad.

“As a young kid, I used to sit on his knee and play with his railroad watch and listen to the Grand Ole Opry from Nashville,” Hamilton said in an interview from his home in Nashville a few years ago. “He liked the Grand Ole Opry, and he had an old windup Victrola, a lot of records: Gene Autry, ‘The Singing Brakeman’ by Jimmy Rogers. Granddaddy Hamilton taught me to love country music without knowing it.”

Granddaddy Hamilton was a Moravian, a small mainstream Protestant denomination similar to the Methodists, so the young Hamilton grew up in a church environment. That didn’t discourage Hamilton from wanting to perform secular music, however; he started a band in high school, covering Opry artists. “June Carter Cash’s first husband, Carl Smith, Eddie Arnold, Chet Atkins, Ernest Tubb—the stars of the ’50s were my heroes,” Hamilton said.

He entered UNC as a freshman in 1955 and immediately tried to get set up with Orville Campbell, the editor and publisher of Chapel Hill Weekly who also had a small label, Colonial Records. Colonial had recorded Any Griffith’s spoken-word comedy bit “What It Was, Was Football” and also recorded Dizzy Dean and Greensboro ‘s Billy “Crash” Craddock. “I thought I could hitch my wagon to a star through him, get some airplay on country stations and eventually find my way to Nashville,” Hamilton said. “I was in school at Carolina, but my heart was in country music even then.”

Ironically, Hamilton’s first hit, John D. Loudermilk’s “A Rose And A Baby Ruth,” was pop, not country. There was a Durham connection to it, too. “When I was a freshman at Carolina, I used to go over to WTVD, channel 11 and sing on The Jim Thornton Show every Saturday night. And Ty Boyd had a dance party show in the afternoon, like Dick Clark, He was one who told me about John D. Loudermilk, a songwriter working in the art department at that station drawing pictures of clouds and sunshine for weather reports. That’s where I first heard “Rose,” down in the basement of Channel 11. John was artist-in-residence.”

As the record shot up the charts, some folks weren’t happy with an unknown using a trademarked name to make money. But as the song kept climbing, The Curtis Candy Company—makers of the Baby Ruth candy bar, who had initially sent a letter to the label telling them to pull the song or face legal action—followed up with a never-mind missive. Sales of the candy bar had shot up 500 percent in one month, due to teens adapting Hamilton’s sweet apology tactics.

The record’s success put Hamilton on the road with a galaxy of teen stars including Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. You’d think the church-raised Hamilton would have felt like he had been thrown in a lion’s den, rubbing shoulders with rock’s original bad boys. But the singer said it wasn’t all as advertised.

“The odd, wonderful thing about those people—all those guys who loom large in the annals of rock ’n’ roll as wild men—they were all very quiet, very nice guys off stage,” Hamilton said. “I remember Buddy Holly as being really quiet, shy. He didn’t have a lot to say. Gene (Vincent) and Eddie (Cochran) were both very gentle, soft- spoken people. People’s stage persona and all the hype that goes on in show business makes people think what they see on stage is what a person is like 24 hours a day.”

Racial tensions ran high in those years, but Hamilton says that his fondest memories remain interactions with black artists. In 1958, for instance, he did a national tour with Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter, LaVern Baker and Little Richard. He was impressed by how much they loved country music.

“On these tours, we all got along great, no racial tension,” Hamilton said. “We all traveled on buses, not luxurious ones with beds, bunks and showers—just buses with seats chartered for the occasions never heard any kind of cross words, any tension.”

The problem was with the world outside the tour.

“When we hit the Deep South, we started dropping black performers off at seedy hotels on the so-called black side of town. Then buses took white entertainers to Sheratons, Hiltons. I realized that something was wrong in America,” he remembered. “When you start taking somebody like Sam Cooke or Jackie Wilson and dropping them them off at second- or third- or fourth-class hotels, on the other side of town, it brings it home.”

Hamilton theorized that music has much to do with integration and justice because so many white kids in the South grew up listening to those black artists on the radio. “White kids all over the South were doing that, and I think it led, to a large degree, to the integration of the South and the changing of attitude,” he said, “because so many white kids liked black music and related to it.”

But Hamilton still wanted to pursue a career in country. In 1959, he moved to Nashville, joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1960 and signed with Chet Atkins at RCA as a country artist. He got there just as Nashville was undergoing a major change. A lot of country singers were starting to go pop, sporting sideburns, using drums, echo chambers, wearing tuxs and dinner jackets. “A lot of rhinestone cowboys suddenly became something else, sort of pop-country,” Hamilton said.

He stayed true to traditional country. “Abilene” is a county boy’s lament about the big city being a cold and lonely place where the women treat you mean. “Early Morning Rain,” three years later, was another sad song about seeing a friend off and being too down on your luck: “’cus I’m stuck here on the ground as cold and drunk as I can be/You can’t jump a jet plane like you can a freight train.” Even 1970’s “She’s A Little Bit Country,” Hamilton’s last big hit, epitomized his clean-cut, country-boy image. The singer declared that his beloved “makes me think of meadows and clover/apple pie and a pup named Rover, and the good ole days.”

Hamilton became a world-wide ambassador for country and, later, gospel music. In spite of his church upbringing, Hamilton said he felt like a Sunday Morning Christian. A trip to Moravia brought him to his senses. He discovered that Christians who publicly avowed their faith were not allowed to attend colleges.

“I met young people and saw them worshipping and singing hymns with joy on their faces and in their hearts, but if they wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, they could just forget it because they were Christian,” he remembered. “That got me to thinking, to do a re-assessment on my fair-weather Christianhood. I suddenly realized in those days that a lot of people were paying a high price for the right to worship.”

He began to record more gospel than country, going on his first Billy Graham crusade in 1984. He followed that up with more crusades throughout the years with Graham and became an unofficial ambassador for country gospel around the world. “It encouraged me to use my platform as a country singer and Grand Ole Opry member to make more effort to communicate what I believed,” he said. “Not to become an evangelist or a preacher, (but) to get across an occasional message in song.”

That’s a fitting tribute for George Hamilton IV, a man who practiced what he preached, in his songs and his life.

For more on George Hamilton IV, visit his collection in UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection. You can read more about the SFC and Hamilton here.