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February 6, 2008.
Usually, it's the other way around for Paul McCartney, but in this
instance, it was Sir Paul who had always wanted to meet a certain musician
who had influenced him in his early years.
The year: 2000.
native Charlie Gracie, the influence in question, was scheduled to play a
small gig in London when the call came from McCartney's people.
"I thought he was pulling my chain," Gracie says when his
agent announced that McCartney desired to meet him that very night. Although
Gracie had his own show to do within an hour, with 1500 rabid fans
eagerly awaiting his appearance nearby, he figured he'd be a sweetheart and
grant Paul's wish.
Gracie was whisked away to a CD release party and press conference
for McCartney's newest recording, which included a cover version of Gracie's
own signature hit from 1957, called "Fabulous." The tune was a decent
success in America, but in Europe (and especially Britain), it was monster.
along with a few of Gracie's other fifties' records, including chart-toppers
"Butterfly" and "99 Ways," were huge in America; however, they also
influenced an entire generation of British rockers – men who would
ironically become household names in America, unlike Gracie himself. His
other hits that were top of the pops in Britain include "Wandering Eyes," "I
Love You So Much It Hurts," and "Cool Baby," all songs that pricked the ear
of a very young McCartney.
"All of the sudden, Paul's manager comes out, grabs me by the hand
like a child in kindergarten and pulls me through the crowd," Gracie
recalls. "'He wants to see you now, Charlie, now!' I turned the corner into
his dressing room, and My God, he's standing there as big as life, with two
big security guards next to him, and a couple of his children and
put his arm around me and he says, 'Charlie Gracie, I'll never forget when I
came to see you when I was sixteen-years-old in Liverpool. I'll never forget
"Guitar Boogie," a little ditty that Gracie picked up while
learning to play the guitar in South Philly, made quite an impression across
the pond, on those who were about to rock.
Upon hearing this from McCartney, Gracie recalled, "If I had false
teeth, they would have fallen out of my mouth. I said to him, 'You mean to
tell me that all you've been through in your career, all your fame, all the
money you made, that you remember me playing 'Guitar Boogie?' He says,
'well, you were an inspiration in my career.'"
Gracie concludes the little story with this: "What more could you
ask for in life?"
Evidently, not much. Although Gracie is a major draw along the East
Coast (including 5,000 people at New York's Lincoln Center last summer), and
that he returns to Europe annually for a jam-packed, on-stage lovefest, his
career path was not the straight and narrow it may (or should) have been.
fortune and major fame had eluded him, he still has his legions, from Sir
Paul to Graham Nash (to this day, Nash's sister still has a cigarette butt
Gracie discarded in 1958) to Van Morrison (who asked him to open for his
tour in 2000) to the mom-mom and pop-pop beachgoers in Wildwood, New Jersey.
Even half a century later, fans are still turning out in droves to see his
rock-the-house shows. Why? Talent, for sure, but even more importantly,
Gracie knows how how to relate to his audience.
"I get emails from all over the world," Gracie says. "People are
fascinated with my career. I never knew why. I never was a druggie, I never
was a whoremonger. I'm just a kid from downtown, trying to sing and play his
way to the end, until they shut the lid."
At 72, and more than 57 years in show business, Gracie is far from over. In fact,
some say it's only just begun.
"I never thought of me as anything," he says. "I just sing and I
play the guitar. I think I do it fairly well,
because I never would have
survived 57 years in this business, but I never claimed to be the best or
the greatest at anything. I just go out there and I do what I do; the people
seem to like it, so I raised my family, I bought my home, I live off the
money I make doing that and it's been wonderful. I can't complain."
Other people, with different temperaments, may not have handled the
same fate with Gracie's grace.
It is commonly agreed that Charlie Gracie was Philadelphia's very
first rock-and-roll star. And that's saying something, considering that the
City of Brotherly Love was home to American Bandstand, as well as
Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Fabian and Chubby Checker.
making records when he was a mere fifteen, in the pre-rock era of 1951.
Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly hadn't yet stepped into a recording
studio when Gracie recorded "Boogie Woogie Blues" for Cadillac Records. Even
today, it is widely considered to be one of the first rock-and-roll records,
even though the term had not yet been coined.
won a series of American-Idol-like talent contests on the hugely
popular Paul Whiteman Show (simulast on TV and radio and aired
nationwide from Philadelphia). After winning week to week to the point that
it was becoming ridiculous, he was given a recording contract.
"Between 1951 an 1955, I recorded several discs for the
Cadillac and 20th Century labels with no great success," he recalls, "but
started to build up the ol' popularity. They would get occasional airplay. A
lot of the black disc jockeys would play them because they thought I was
was 1956, and Elvis is starting to become famous. I met Bernie Lowe, who had
$2,000 in his pocket and wanted to start a record company. He was looking
for the tall, sexy Elvis type, but he couldn't find anybody and he wound up
with me. He came to the house that day. I'll never forget it, because he had
a cold. My mom gave him some tissues and some chicken soup. This was a very
heavily Italian-Jewish neighborhood, so chicken soup was a common thing
between the Italians and the Jews."
Lowe's record company, Cameo
(eventually called Cameo-Parkway), was the biggest and most influential
independent label in the United States between 1957 and 1963 (this was
before Motown). Gracie gave the company its first hits, and opened their
door for other major hitmakers, including Dee Dee Sharp, The Orlons, The
Dovells, The Tymes, Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker.
into the studio in December 1956, maybe two days before Christmas ," Gracie
recalls. "We cut two songs. One was 'Butterfly' and one was '99 Ways.' By
March of 1957, we not only had a hit but a #1 hit. I thought my mother was
going to shake me and say, 'wake up, it's time to go to school!' It was like
His fame, as the saying goes, lasted about fifteen minutes, but
what a hell of a quarter-hour it was.
"On the strength of [those hits], I'm doing the Paramount Theater
in New York, The Ed Sullivan Show, Alan Freed, Dick Clark," he recalls. "I
got asked to go to Europe to do the Palladium in London. It was like a
"When I made a few bucks, the first thing I wanted to do was get
the hell out of the ghetto and I bought my mom and dad a nice home in the
suburbs. I remember telling my mom to pick out anything she wanted at
Rubin's Furniture, and I signed a check for $12,500.
"My father said to me, 'what do you want, Charlie?' And for me,
every kid's dream is to have a brand-new Cadillac. So the first thing I
bought was a Cadillac.
"The salesman said to me, 'stop touching the car, kid, you're
getting fingerprints all over it.' I said, 'I like this car. I would like to
buy it.' He said, "Oh, you would, huh?" I said, 'how much is it?' He says,
"$5300." Well, that was a lot of money in 1957. So I say, 'Good, wrap it up.
We're taking it home.'
"We took it home that night. You might think I was Frank Sinatra.
My whole family was so thrilled. My Sicilian grandmother was still alive at
the time. The first thing she told me was, 'don't get a big head.' That's
what grandparents are for."
much of a smash as he had become in the States, he was considered a god in
Britain, where they were starving for American rock and roll.
"[Before my first tour of Britain], I went to Diamond's on South
Street [in Philly] and I bought some beautiful suits," he says. "In those
days, $300 or $350 was a lot of money, so I had a blue one, a gray one. In
Britain, I'm ready to go out on stage and a guy says, 'Charlie, you can't go
out like that. You look like a Teddy Boy.' I said, 'What the hell is a Teddy
Boy?' I found out that they were like the hoodlums of London.
"I only weighed 112 pounds at the time. I was jockey weight. When
the curtains opened up, I didn't even have to sing. The kids looked at me –
I looked like them – and I was a smash. I couldn't even hear myself singing
and playing over the screaming. You might think I was Elvis Presley or
something. But I took it in stride.
"Two shows a day, seven days a week. I was playing to about thirty
or forty thousand people, but in a week's time. Not in one night. I was
making between five and seven thousand dollars a week. My father used to
work two years to make that."
The unraveling came quickly. Gracie may have been merely a kid, but
he was street-smart enough to realize that he was not getting all the
royalty money coming to him from his hit records. The powers-that-be gave
him just enough honey to keep him riding a Cadillac and buying fancy suits.
Nevertheless, Charlie sued his record company. Little did he know
that one of those owners was a considerable power player: Dick Clark, who
was none too pleased. Turns out that Clark was a "silent
partner" at Cameo-Parkway.
"We settled out of court," Gracie says, "but I never got on
Bandstand again. Clark was part of this little conglomeration going. I was
told, 'you will never have another hit as long as you live.' You know what?
They were right.
"They figure, this guy, Gracie, is stirring up the pot. If
everybody does what he does, we'll be in trouble, so we have to get rid of
him. So the playing of my records gets diminished. I never got it all from
'Butterfly.' I got a hunk of it. It sold over three million records, man. I
thought I was being cheated. I had principle. If I owe you ten dollars, I'll
write the check out tonight and you'll have it in two days. I was brought up
"A year or two later, new kids are coming up and everybody forgets
who you are. But
I did have a very strong base in Europe because I had more hits there. And I
was only the second American to bring rock and roll there [Bill Haley and
the Comets arguably being the first, and Gracie being the first solo act to
be invited back], so it left an impression on them."
While the musicians he influenced came over and kicked ass, Gracie
was in redux, and began a humble but steady life on the road, grabbing any gig he could
"So I said, this is it. I'm just going to have to be a working
musician," he says. "I'll work five, six, seven nights a week. Making three
or four hundred dollars a week, whatever it was at the time. I went from
rags to riches to rags. I had to start all over again. I had a wife and two
kids. I can't walk around like Frank Sinatra and act like a big shot when I
didn't have any money.
agent, Bernie Rothbard (who had worked with him for 36 years, on a
handshake), kept him going with consistent gigs in
clubs, resorts and oldies shows.
"He was like a father figure
to me," Gracie says of Rothbard.
His agent's dedication allowed
Gracie to make a surprisingly comfortable living as a full-time musician.
Of course, his rock-solid talent, and his love of performing, kept the
infatuated crowds returning for decades. Although he never again ascended
the superstar heights of the fifties due to industry politics, he had the
love of his family and his growing legions of fans to keep him warm.
came in 1979, when a Canadian record producer named Richard Grows wanted to
reissue Gracie's old recordings. The collection caught on in Britain, and
then all over Europe.
Gracie's phone started ringing.
"It gave me confidence once again in myself and my career," he
The venues were smaller, but the audiences seemed even more
enthusiastic than ever.
survived it all," he says. "If the trends changed, I changed along with the
trends, but I never lost my base sound. People come to hear the fifties
music when they come to hear me. More so in the last ten years than even
before. Everything runs in a cycle in life. You know how it works. That kind
of music is catching on all over again. In Europe, I get younger and younger
people coming to see me all the time. Even here in the States. It's
Through it all, Gracie remains a hometown boy, making Philly his
"Stardom came to me, and when I look back on it now I was still immature.
I'm a better musician now than I was fifty years ago. But I played good
enough and well enough that I could go out there and kick the ass out of an
audience. Sure, I'd like to have four or five million in the bank, but it's
not meant to be."
much has changed around him, much of Gracie's life remains constant. He is a
family man, first and foremost (he will be happily married to his wife for
fifty years this year). He still reveres the memory of his parents and
grandparents, who encouraged him to pursue his love for music despite its
lack of promise for long-term security. And he considers his fans his
family. Talk about close relations!
Gracie's unique story is as unpredictable as
the path of a butterfly. However, one thing you can't do is call his
resurgence a "comeback," since essentially, he never really left.
Nevertheless, Gracie remains grateful for his lifetime mission of making
"God is merciful," he says, "and if you
walk the walk and talk the talk, you got nothing to worry about."
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