Damn. RIP Charlie Gracie. Charlie was a Philadelphia force of nature. You wouldn’t know it by his best-known songs (“Butterfly” and “Fabulous,” which were pop hits), but Charlie was one of the true originators of the style that became rock ’n’ roll music. In the early 1950s, way before Elvis and Little Richard, Charlie saw Bill Haley and the Saddlemen performing around Philly, and another band that performed in Wildwood, New Jersey, called The Treniers, and by 1951 and 1952 was cutting records like “Wildwood Boogie” and “Boogie Woogie Blues” that were dangerously close to rock ’n’ roll music, years before it was called by that name.
In 1957, flush with success of his pop-rock hit “Butterfly,” Charlie bought a pair of Guild X-350 archtop guitars, a blonde one and a sunburst one, and remained associated with the instruments for the rest of his career. He was completely underrated as a monster guitar player! Despite his hit records being pop vocal recordings, he would always play a frighteningly fast “Guitar Boogie” at his shows, demonstrating (well into his eighties) that he could fly around the fretboard with the best of them. That was part of his shtick in later years—oh, we have a backup band of all these young musicians? He’d play “Guitar Boogie” so fast that none of us could keep up with him. This eighty-something year old guy could SHRED.
I had the pleasure of backing Charlie up a couple of times, and beyond that, being at the same festival with him a few other times. Charlie was a short guy, but tough as nails (if you’ve never been to South Philly, Charlie WAS South Philly, through and through—I had no doubt that he could have kicked ANYBODY’s ass, including mine, should he have been motivated to do so). Charlie also had a warm, inviting, fun personality, and that magic celebrity “X” factor. Every time I saw Charlie, in whatever room he occupied, he was always the center of attention, holding court and telling great stories about the past. He was genuine. He was 100% genuine. I never once caught the guy being phony or putting on airs. That’s why people loved him—especially the British. Charlie did tour after tour after tour in England, simply because the British people just loved the guy. I loved him too. He was a sweetheart—a tough guy with a warm heart.
My favorite story about backing Charlie comes from the Ponderosa Stomp festival, probably ten or twelve years ago. In addition to backing him for his festival slot, I was supposed to play with Charlie for a lecture/talk/symposium appearance during the day. It was to be just Charlie and me. I was an unnecessary part of the deal; Charlie could entertain any audience with just himself, his stories, and his guitar playing. Nevertheless, I went into the daytime talk thinking I could at least be Charlie’s wing man and offer some rhythm guitar behind him, if needed.
Charlie was cracking jokes with the lecture audience, and at one point I offered an Ed McMahon kind of follow-up, I don’t even remember what it was now, but something along the lines of “at least you knocked ’em alive instead of knocking ’em dead!” A throwaway line for cheap laughs.
Charlie looked back at me and gave me the greatest two-second stare-down of my life. It wasn’t rude, it wasn’t angry, but it was something you might see in The Godfather or The Sopranos. An unspoken moment of clarity, establishing whose name was on the marquee. He gave me a stern look, staring directly into my eyes, that simply said: SHUT THE F**K UP, KID. It was the greatest South Philly shutdown I ever received. I got the message! I didn’t say a word the rest of his talk. Afterward, Charlie and I got along great. He was the boss, and you didn’t f**k with him. I respected that.
I will miss the boss of South Philly rock ’n’ roll. He was a joy to be around. Like so many of these great personalities and characters from the 1950s that I have known, his personality and vigor for life seemed so strong, I didn’t think Charlie Gracie would ever die. But time eventually catches up to us all. My condolences go to his wife, Joan, and the rest of his family. RIP Charlie, catch you at the Hammersmith Odeon in the sky one of these days.