Born 16 April 1929, Leesburg, Georgia
Roy Hamilton had a dramatic, searing baritone in the mould of Billy Eckstine and Al Hibbler. He had operatic and classical voice training before becoming a gospel singer. He had great success on the R&B charts with emotional pop ballads in the mid-fifties, but is best remembered by rock n roll fans for two upbeat performances, "Donít Let Go" (1958) and "You Can Have Her" (1961).
Like many other singers, Hamilton started singing in church choirs, at age six in his hometown of Leesburg, Georgia. When he was 14, his family moved to Jersey City, NJ, where he became a featured soloist with the Central Baptist Church Choir. At Lincoln High School he concentrated his efforts on the arts. Roy was talented enough to place his paintings with several New York galleries. He also took up the sport of boxing, with a professional record as a Golden Gloves boxer of seven wins against only one loss.
In 1948 he joined the Searchlight Gospel Singers. He also studied light opera, but it was toward popular music that his heart was leaning. Hamilton began working the small clubs around Newark, where he was discovered by disc jockey Bill Cook, who became his manager and brought him to the attention of Columbia Records. Roy was signed to Columbiaís subsidiary Epic in December 1953.
His first release was "Youíll Never Walk Alone", a semi-operatic song by Rodgers and Hammerstein from the musical "Carousel" (1945). It proved to be an instant hit and topped the R&B charts for eight weeks in April-May 1954 (also # 21 pop). Later, the song would develop into a sporting anthem in Europe. The reverse of "Youíll Never Walk Alone" was "Iím Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry", which was covered by Elvis Presley, who idolized Hamilton.
The follow-up, "If I Loved You", also came from "Carousel" and went to # 4 R&B, # 26 pop. Next came "Ebb Tide" (# 5 R&B, # 30 pop) and the original version of "Hurt" (# 8 R&B), which would go on to be a hit for Timi Yuro (# 4, 1961), Elvis Presley (# 28, 1976) and several others. A cover of "I Believe" was Royís first non-charting single, but this was more than compensated by the success of "Unchained Melody" in the spring of 1955. Royís version was one of three pop Top 10 versions (# 6) and it was his second R&B number one (for three weeks).
Then, unexpectedly in April 1956, Hamilton was diagnosed as having tubercular pneumonia. On June 2, 1956, his press agent announced Royís retirement, due to his illness and exhaustion. But in June 1957 later he would return to the recording studio and one month later to live performing. At first he still recorded in his usual ballad style ("The Aisle", which lost to a competing version by the Five Satins under the title "To the Aisle"), but then he decided to jump on the rock and roll bandwagon. His first single in the new style was "Iím Gonna Lock You In My Heart", which failed to chart, but then came "Donít Let Go". This Jesse Stone composition became one of his biggest hits, peaking at # 2 R&B and # 13 pop. The song is now considered a rock standard ; Jerry Lee Lewis even recorded it twice, for Smash in 1965 and for Elektra in 1979.
In January 1958, Columbia Pictures released the film "Letís Rock", in which Roy sang "Here Comes Love" (see YouTube link below). A few more uptempo releases followed, but Roy soon returned to ballads, like "Pledging My Love" (# 45 pop, 1958), until 1961. In that year he had his second biggest pop hit with the gospel- influenced "You Can Have Her" (# 12 pop, # 6 R&B). Like "Donít Let Go", this song has been covered by many artists over the decades.
Hamiltonís stage act must have been quite something. Jerry Lee Lewis told his biographer Rick Bragg that there was only one artist he didnít want to follow on stage and that was Roy Hamilton. "Thatís an impossibility, to follow him onstage" ("Jerry Lee Lewis : His Own Story", 2014, page 233).
Altogether, Epic released 42 singles and 16 albums by Hamilton during the 1954- 1962 period. Switching to MGM (1963-1965) and RCA (1965-1967), Roy was unable to match his previous success, in spite of trying to adjust to the new soul music. He made his last recordings for the AGP label in 1969. In that year he suffered a stroke in New Rochelle, New York. Despite surgery, he passed away soon after on July 20th 1969, three months after his 40th birthday.
Hamiltonís semi-operatic style has been an inspiration for other performers like Jackie Wilson in the 1950s and the Righteous Brothers (who had big hits with "Unchained Melody" and "Ebb Tide") in the 1960s. But his style owed more to the 1940s than the 1950s and by the time soul music came along, his career faded fast.
More info :
Discography : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/rhamilton.htm
CD : Quite a few compilations are available, but the best buy is probably "The Definitive '50s Singles Collection" (Jasmine JASCD 558, UK, 2010). 51 Epic tracks on 2 CDís .
Acknowledgements : David Hogenson & Dave Moore, Lee Cotten, J.C. Marion.
Dik, April 2015
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