Singer / guitarist / songwriter
Born Charles Anthony Graci, 14 May 1936, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
May 14, 1936 has become an auspicious landmark on the rock 'n' roll calendar, being the birthdate of both Charlie Gracie and Bobby Darin. An Italian-American, Graci (the showbiz 'e' was added later) began to take an interest in music at the age of ten. Initially his interest lay with the trumpet, but this instrument was soon to be pushed aside in favour of a $ 13 guitar. Many lessons and much practice gave young Charlie the confidence to appear on the ABC TV Paul Whiteman Teen Show. After several succesful appearances, he won a number of prizes (including the family's first refrigerator) and began to perform live, both in clubs and on radio shows. Graham Prince, the owner of Cadillac Records in NYC, heard him on the radio, became his manager and released three singles by Gracie in 1951-1952. These recordings, made when Charlie was only 15, represent a hybrid of classic swing, jump blues and proto-rock n roll, several years before Presley, Perkins, Berry and Vincent even entered a studio. The guitar solos already display Charlie's dexterity as a guitarist and his vocals showed a remarkable confidence for someone so young. Alas, the Cadillac singles were commercially stillborn, as were his next recordings, two singles in 1953-54 for Ivin Ballen's 20th Century label (a subsidiary of Gotham). "Wildwood Boogie" was an exciting rocker, one of the first examples of Northern rock n roll, along with the Essex releases of Bill Haley, another Pennsylvanian.
Charlie then signed up with Philadelphia booking agent Bernie Rothbard, who was to remain Charlie's manager and agent until Bernie's death in 1994. Rothbard introduced Gracie to Kal Mann and Bernie Lowe, two song- writers / musicians who had just started their own label, Cameo Records. Charlie recorded his first Cameo single on December 30, 1956. "Butterfly" became the A-side and "Ninety-Nine Ways" the reverse. Both songs were credited to "Anthony September", which was in fact a joint pseudonym for Mann and Lowe. They tamed Gracie into a polite rocker whom even cranky parents could tolerate. When "Butterfly" went to # 1 in April 1957 (a cover by Andy Williams was equally successful), Lowe and Mann decided that tamed down rock and roll was the way to go. It also convinced Kal Mann that the best way to write the next big hit was simply to rewrite somebody else's recent hit. Just as "Butterfly" had been based on "Singing the Blues", Gracie's second Cameo single, "Fabulous", was a rewrite of "Don't Be Cruel". It peaked at # 16 in the US and # 8 in the UK, where Charlie's next single "Wanderin' Eyes"/"I Love You So Much It Hurts" became a double-sided hit (peaking at # 6 and # 14 respectively), following a tour of the British Isles. Gracie was only the second American artist (after Bill Haley) to bring rock 'n' roll to the English concert stage (including performances at the London Palladium and the London Hippodrome) and he got a very favourable reception from both the public and the press. So much even that he had to come back to the UK the next year. But in the USA "I Love You So Much It Hurts" stalled at # 71 and would turn out to be the last US chart entry of Gracie's career. Cameo released three more singles in 1957-58, including "Cool Baby", which Charlie performed in the movie "Jamboree", and what I consider to be his best rocker, "Crazy Girl", but when these failed to sell, Mann and Lowe dropped him. "I was the first one to get screwed [by Cameo]", said Gracie. "I was expendable. I sued for my royalties, settled for $ 40,000 and left."
Charlie has been criticized for being the forerunner of the plastic boy-next- door, the marshmallow imitation of a rocker that became fashionable by 1959. But this is unfair. Gracie was unable to control his own destiny. Despite his ability on the instrument, a guitar solo was rarely allowed to flourish on his Cameo sides. Mann and Lowe were exponents of an older musical generation, who had no understanding of the Big Beat. They only got in the game because their love for money exceeded their dislike for rock and roll. In a broader perspective : by 1957 the old industry establishment began to understand that rock n roll wasn't just a short-lived fad and tried to subject the new music to the traditional production techniques of the industry, at the expense of the spontaneous self-expression of the singer. On stage, away from the restraints of a producer, Charlie was red hot and a real virtuoso on the guitar, as shown by his version of "Guitar Boogie", recorded live at the Stockton Globe (UK) in August 1957.
After Cameo, he recorded for Coral (1959), Roulette (1960-61), Felsted (1961), President (1962), Diamond (1965) and Sock and Soul (1968). Although some of these recordings are quite good, Gracie's days as a big seller were over for good. The second half of the 1970s, the era of the European rockabilly revival, gave his career a new boost and brought him back to the UK with great success. In 1982 he recorded an LP ("Amazing Gracie") in London with Dave Travis and his band. Bernie Rothbard never lost his faith in Charlie and kept him working continuously into the 1990s. Since Rothbard's death he has hardly slowed down and in the 21st century he released three albums with new material, "I'm Allright" (Lanark, 2001), "Just Hangin' Around" (Rhythm Bomb, 2004, recorded in Berlin, Germany) and "For the Love Of Charlie" (Abcko, 2011).
The apex of Gracie's career was reached in 1957 with three international hits, appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, on Alan Freed's rock n roll shows and in the film "Jamboree" plus a successful tour of the UK. In the 55 years (!) since then he has managed to remain a respected musician with a loyal following, not just in his homeland, but in many other countries as well.
More info: http://www.rockabillyhall.com/CharlieGracie.html
Discography : http://www.charliegracie.com/disconography.php
CD recommendations :
Acknowledgements : Bill Millar (sleeve notes for the LP "Cameo-Parkway Sessions", London HAU 8513, 1978), Jim Dawson (book "The Twist", 1995), Charlie Gracie Jr.
Dik, February 2012
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