The man who made Philly rock ‘n roll, Charlie Gracie, known for his 1957 #1 on Billboard hit, “Butterfly” has passed away.
Before there was Chubby Checker’s “Twist” and the Orlons’ “Bristol Stomp”, a young Charlie Gracie was jamming good on his guitar, enough so that, in 1956, not even out of his teens, the Philly kid joined the fledgling Cameo label in 1956 and hit big with “Butterfly”. The rough-hewn single leaped to #1 on Billboard’s pop chart in 1957, he went on tour with Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, and Eddie Cochran, and starred in the 1957 film Jamboree.
“A million seller like that — first time out of the box — doesn’t come along every time,” Gracie once told me, puffing on a Camel, smiling a wry smile.
A one-in-a-million player like Charlie Gracie doesn’t come along often. Which makes the pain of his passing even sadder. Rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Charlie Gracie died this past Friday, December 16. The news of his passing came from his family via ABKCO Records, home to the catalog of Cameo Records, the Philadelphia label for which he recorded and released his biggest hits.
After “Butterfly”, Charlie continued his neo-rockabilly reign on the pop charts with “Fabulous”, “I Love You So Much It Hurts”, “Wanderin’ Eyes”, and “Cool Baby”. The Beatles sang his praises (especially George Harrison and Paul McCartney, the latter of whom recorded his own take on “Fabulous”) as did Van Morrison who, as late as the 21st century welcomed Gracie as his U.S. tour opener.
It is no secret or surprise that Gracie, an industry vet since age 10 when his father bought him a guitar rather than a suit from a South Street pawnshop (“It was warped, but I mastered it as if it were a gift from God”) and got screwed out of money by the early rock and R&B labels, Cameo included. However, Gracie was one of the first to ever do something about it – suing his label, getting branded a troublemaker, and barely floundering from Decca to Roulette and zilch after leaving Cameo in 1958.
“I cut my throat by suing Cameo,” said Gracie. “I never wound up on Bandstand again. Who knew Dick Clark had a piece of the label?”
Still, Charlie Gracie remained a giant on the touring circuit – especially in Great Britain, Europe, and Japan where vintage rock n’ roll and rockabilly were hailed – released new music on his 75th birthday and was always positive about his place within music’s rare history.
A nice man and a great talent.