Charlie Gracie: Philly’s First Rock Star

By Gary:

Well here I go again on the Forgotten Singers.  This person, I remember, because I purchased Butterfly and Ninety-Ways on 78 and almost wore them out in 1957.  Unfortunately his song “Butterfly” was covered by a National Television Artist, Andy Williams and I guess the Adults split the purchasing power and both Andy and Charlie had a #1 song, but it was totally Charlie’s.  It did not matter, Andy Williams was perhaps better known, very commercial, a big company TV Star and had tons of money to promote it [see Bill Lothian comment]; but there was only one version of Butterfly for me (Gary).

Charlie was, and is, an amazing guitar player and used what was considered (in the day) a jazz guitar, The Guild X-350, but Charlie could make it Rock, and he still can!

I have some good friends, Don & Marie Geib, who live in Lancaster County PA, and they are from Philly.  I talked to them, but they said they had never had the privilege of seeing Charlie perform, and they are my age.

Now, this comment comes from an old man, 70, the author of this presentation, but I have always had the nagging feeling that the United States gave up on original Rock and Roll far too early.  It still thrives in other parts of the world, too bad.” (-Gary)

 

 Charlie Gracie

born Charles Anthony Graci, May 14, 1936
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

His Weapon:

Guild X-350

Videos:

 

1995 / England /
.
2008 / I’m Alright /
.
2008 / Medley of Danny & Juniors /
.
2014 / Rhythm Riot /
.
Butterfly /
.
Ninety Nine Ways /
.
2017 / Fabulous /
.
Philly Soundcast Video /
.

Hershey P.A. 2007 (Charlie was 71) – Fantastic!

His Songs:

    1. Butterfly/Cameo 105/ February 1957/ #1 (2) and #1 Juke Box Seller

.

    1. Ninety-Nine Ways/ B Side

.

    1. Fabulous/ Cameo 107/ May 1957/ #16

.

    1. Boogie Woogie Blues/ Cadillac 141/ 1951/ (Now this is either the original or a re-recording; I think it is the original)

.

Charlie’s father encouraged him to play the guitar.  Charlie’s musical career started at the very early age of 14 when he appeared on the Paul Whiteman television show.Gracie performed at weddings, local restaurants, and parties, and on local radio and television. He also won many regional talent contests. The little money and prizes he received were turned over to his mother to help support the family.

The owner of Cadillac Records heard one of Charlie’s early radio performances, contacted the young musician and signed him to a contract. This association yielded the single, Boogie Woogie Blues backed with I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter. The record led to Charlie’s first appearance on Bob Horn’s “American Bandstand” television program. (This was four years before Dick Clark became the host)

After cutting two more singles for Cadillac, Charlie moved on to 20th Century Records, a subsidiary of Gotham, where he put out another four sides, including Wildwood Boogie. The discs he made embraced a wide variety of styles: jump blues, gospel, and country boogie with the influences of Big Joe Turner, B.B. King, Louis Jordan, Roy Acuff, and Hank Williams.

Between 1951-53, Charlie Gracie was experimenting with many types of music, years before many rock heroes had ever set foot inside a recording studio.

By 1956, Philadelphia had given birth to the new Cameo record label. Its founders, in search of a strong talent signed Charlie later that year. With a $600 budget, this new union went into the studio to record a single that would forever change their lives. The record, Butterfly backed with Ninety Nine Ways became a monster hit, reaching the #1 position all across America.

Charlie received a gold disc for the two million plus sales and became the first native Philadelphia rock star to achieve international success. Other substantial hit sellers followed: Fabulous, Wandering Eyes, and Cool Baby. The financial success of these hits bankrolled the Cameo label, which became a dominant force in the recording industry for several years.

Charlie’s personal appearances grew until he performed and headlined some of the biggest venues of that time: Alan Freed’s rock and roll shows at the Brooklyn Paramount, The Ed Sullivan Show, Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” and the 500 Club in Atlantic City. He appeared in the 1957 film Jamboree, and toured with the likes of Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley and his close friend, Eddie Cochran.

Charlie became only the second American, guitar-toting rock and roller to bring this new art form to the British concert stage. His two extensive tours in 1957 and 58 were a whirlwind, topped off by headlining the Palladium and the Hippodrome in London. He played to packed houses and drew rave reviews. In the audiences, among Charlie’s fans and admirers, were future rock greats: Graham Nash, members of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker and Van Morrison. These performers and many other well-known acts have credited Charlie as an influence. George Harrison referred to Charlie’s guitar technique as “brilliant” in a March 1996 interview with Billboard Magazine; Paul McCartney invited Charlie to the premiere party of his 1999 release which paid tribute to the early pioneers of rock music.

Charlie found himself somewhat miscast at Cameo. He moved on to other labels such as Coral, Roulette, Felsted, and Diamond, performing more of the R&B he preferred. Even if success slowed, Charlie continued to perform in clubs, theaters, and resorts, from the 60’s through the 90’s.

He still enjoys a loyal following in Great Britain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, and the Netherlands. Charlie is a devoted family man, has been married for more than 40 years to his first and only wife, Joan. They have two children, a son and a daughter.

Charlie Gracie’s pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

–o–

 

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5 responses to “Charlie Gracie: Philly’s First Rock Star

  1. Andy Williams didn’t have a ton of money to promote his version of Butterfly. It was his first no.1 and he recorded for Cadence which, although a very successful label, was a small independent outfit. He would deliver his discs in person to New York radio stations as a way of plugging it. He wasn’t a big TVname at the time – although he was, perhaps, slightly better known because of his part in the successful Kay Thompson and The Williams Brothers.

    • CHARLIE GRACIE JR. | September 19, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Reply
      Hello All! Nice to read all the blurbs about my dad. Butterfly was indeed a MONSTER record for him in ’57–powered by two best selling discs. What Mr. Lothian [comment #1 above] says is true…BUT, remember that Andy [Williams] was a regular on the Steve Allen Tonight Show—seen Coast to Coast— so Andy, in that sense, was already an established artist compared to my dad, who was known only locally in the Philly area. Given those facts, its a ‘miracle’ that dad hit # 1 with Butterfly as well.
      This was the record that launched the ‘Philly Sound’ and allowed Bernie Lowe (owner of Cameo–later Cameo-Parkway) to build his ‘empire.’ CP records went onto become perhaps, the largest independent label in the United States, until the British Invasion and Motown washed away the ‘teen idol’ sound,” which the label opted for after dad left the company in 1958. Ninety-Nine Ways, the flip of Butterfly reached # 11 on Billboard as well–despite a weak cover version by actor and non-singer, Tab Hunter!
      Dad had issues with Lowe and Cameo by the end of 1957 and had to file suit for back royalty payments. Dick Clark was a ‘silent partner” with Lowe and collected $14,000 on Butterfly (composer’s royalties) for a song he had no hand in writing. When dad sued Cameo (he won a $50,000 settlement) he unknowingly cut his own throat! He suddenly found himself out of favor with the monopolistic powers of the Philly record industry. Airplay was almost impossible after that. He went on to record for Coral, Roulette and others through the 60s.
      Fabulous reached # 16 in the USA and #8 in Britain. I Love You So Much It Hurts (third Cameo release) reached only #71 here, but climbed to #14 in Britain. Wanderin’ Eyes (the flip) was pushed as the A-Side in England and reached #6. He also scored with Cool Baby (4th release on Cameo–and ‘sung’ by dad in the Warner Brothers R&R movie musical Jamboree) as it climbed to #25. Your blog correctly states how Charlie Gracie is a much loved and respected performer the length and breath of the United Kingdom, to this day. He heads back over for another tour in late October. His new CD–PRODUCED by AL KOOPER (long time fan) will be out later this year. Graham Nash, Peter Noone and others sing and play on this new record with him as well.
      BTW, I should mention that dad and Andy Williams are indeed friends! Andy graciously appeared in a made for PBS documentary, CHARLIE GRACIE: FABULOUS! which aired on TV in 2007. Its now available at http://www.oldies.com.
      Dad has had an amazing 60- year full time career as a entertainer and recording artist, despite some challenging years after the law suit. He’s actually writing a book with JOHN A. JACKSON (penned Alan Freed’s Bio: The Big Heat, and others related to music) due out in 2011. He’s played the best and the worst…and influenced some of musics most iconic names. He’s one of the pioneers of r&r–experimenting in the recording studio as early as 1951–long before Presley, Lewis, Holly, Cochran and others had gotten started. Its been an amazing run and he feels blessed to here–doing what he loves best.
      Lastly, with Butterfly, I leave you with a direct quote from JOEL WHITBURN (Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits–8th Edition:
      “Charlie Gracie released his hit version of ‘Butterfly’ just as Andy Williams was releasing his own version. While radio favored Andy’s version, Charlie’s “Butterfly” proved to be more popular on jukeboxes and with record buyers, and quickly flew to the top of the charts!’

  2. Hi Bill,
    Thanks for setting us straight in our assumption that Andy Williams may have had better leverage with “Butterfly” becoming a hit. It could have been that he was better known, and that makes a big difference.
    – Russ

  3. Bill: This is from Gary, the other partner who wrote parts of the posting. I’m sorry I do not know anything about record distrubution in the UK at that time, so I will accept what you say. Charlie recorded for the Cameo label which was South Philly, they where new and did not have much money. With Butterfly they went up against “Archie Blyer” Arthur Godfrey’s music director, well known in the music industry. They already had the Chordettes, Bill Hayes (Davey Crockett), (they would get Johnny Tillotson, the Everley Brothers Link Wray and so on) and Andy Williams has already had a # 3 Hit in the US, # 1 in Canada of Canadian Sunset. He then recorded another top 40 hit in 56 Baby Doll. I am not trying to diminsh Andy Williams, he was much more successful, appealed mainly to my father’s generation (he loved him) and had a TV show that ran from 59 to 71 and produced the Osmonds. I am a Rock and Roller, Andy was not, but Charlie was and that’s why I like and always will enjoy Charlies version better. When Cameo released against Cadence, Andy was a household name in North America and Charlie was unknown.
    Thanks for reading our blog, we actually do put a lot of work and reasearch into it, just because I am an old Rocker and Russ is still a great Sax player, we do enjoy your comments. I am off too South Carolina, for some golf and great Beach and Blues Music, Take Care.
    Gary
    Cadence History: http://www.bsnpubs.com/cadence/cadencestory.html

  4. Hello All! Nice to read all the blurbs about my dad. Butterfly was indeed a MONSTER record for him in ’57–powered by two best selling discs. What Mr. Lothian [comment #1 above] says is true…BUT, remember that Andy [Williams] was a regular on the Steve Allen Tonight Show—seen Coast to Coast— so Andy, in that sense, was already an established artist compared to my dad, who was known only locally in the Philly area. Given those facts, its a ‘miracle’ that dad hit # 1 with Butterfly as well.
    This was the record that launched the ‘Philly Sound’ and allowed Bernie Lowe (owner of Cameo–later Cameo-Parkway) to build his ’empire.’ CP records went onto become perhaps, the largest independent label in the United States, until the British Invasion and Motown washed away the ‘teen idol’ sound,” which the label opted for after dad left the company in 1958. Ninety-Nine Ways, the flip of Butterfly reached # 11 on Billboard as well–despite a weak cover version by actor and non-singer, Tab Hunter!
    Dad had issues with Lowe and Cameo by the end of 1957 and had to file suit for back royalty payments. Dick Clark was a ‘silent partner” with Lowe and collected $14,000 on Butterfly (composer’s royalties) for a song he had no hand in writing. When dad sued Cameo (he won a $50,000 settlement) he unknowingly cut his own throat! He suddenly found himself out of favor with the monopolistic powers of the Philly record industry. Airplay was almost impossible after that. He went on to record for Coral, Roulette and others through the 60s.
    Fabulous reached # 16 in the USA and #8 in Britain. I Love You So Much It Hurts (third Cameo release) reached only #71 here, but climbed to #14 in Britain. Wanderin’ Eyes (the flip) was pushed as the A-Side in England and reached #6. He also scored with Cool Baby (4th release on Cameo–and ‘sung’ by dad in the Warner Brothers R&R movie musical Jamboree) as it climbed to #25. Your blog correctly states how Charlie Gracie is a much loved and respected performer the length and breath of the United Kingdom, to this day. He heads back over for another tour in late October. His new CD–PRODUCED by AL KOOPER (long time fan) will be out later this year. Graham Nash, Peter Noone and others sing and play on this new record with him as well.
    BTW, I should mention that dad and Andy Williams are indeed friends! Andy graciously appeared in a made for PBS documentary, CHARLIE GRACIE: FABULOUS! which aired on TV in 2007. Its now available at http://www.oldies.com.
    Dad has had an amazing 60- year full time career as a entertainer and recording artist, despite some challenging years after the law suit. He’s actually writing a book with JOHN A. JACKSON (penned Alan Freed’s Bio: The Big Heat, and others related to music) due out in 2011. He’s played the best and the worst…and influenced some of musics most iconic names. He’s one of the pioneers of r&r–experimenting in the recording studio as early as 1951–long before Presley, Lewis, Holly, Cochran and others had gotten started. Its been an amazing run and he feels blessed to here–doing what he loves best.
    Lastly, with Butterfly, I leave you with a direct quote from JOEL WHITBURN (Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits–8th Edition:
    “Charlie Gracie released his hit version of ‘Butterfly’ just as Andy Williams was releasing his own version. While radio favored Andy’s version, Charlie’s “Butterfly” proved to be more popular on jukeboxes and with record buyers, and quickly flew to the top of the charts!’

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