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Charlie Gracie was Philadelphia's first rock & roll star, the first successful artist on that city's famed Cameo Records, an early regular on American Bandstand, and a skilled rockabilly-style guitarist. He is best known for the 1957 hit single "Butterfly," which rose to number one on the Billboard charts. His popularity was also significant in the U.K. and his lingering influence there is such that his praises have been sung by the likes of Paul McCartney (who covered "Fabulous," one of Gracie's early recordings), George Harrison, Van Morrison and Graham Nash.
Born May 14, 1936 (the same day as Bobby Darin), with his surname originally spelled "Graci", Charlie Gracie grew up in South Philadelphia, listening to country music and big-band jazz. At age 10, he obtained his first guitar, and by 15 he was a prodigy, performing regularly and winning contests on the simulcast radio and television show of early jazz great Paul Whiteman. Signed first to Cadillac Records, Gracie's first single, "Boogie-Woogie Blues," recorded in 1951, was not a hit, nor were a couple of follow-ups for other labels. Then, in 1956, he was signed to the fledgling Cameo label. Gracie's first recording consisted of two songs written by the label's co-owners, Bernie Lowe and Kal Mann, "Butterfly" and "Ninety-Nine Ways." With repeated appearances on American Bandstand, hosted by Dick Clark, as well as The Ed Sullivan Show and other TV programs of the day, Gracie's popularity soared, and by April 1957, "Butterfly" had reached number one in the States. ("Butterfly" also became a chart-topper for crooner Andy Williams the same year.) Gracie's style was not as raucous as fellow early guitar rockers such as Gene Vincent or Eddie Cochran, but he made up for any loss of grit with an undeniable professionalism and easy likeability. Gracie's guitar style has been described as a mix of rockabilly, jump blues, swing, and country boogie, while his vocals incorporate pop, blues, R&B, and rock & roll influences.
Another Mann-Lowe composition, "Fabulous" followed "Butterfly" in the spring of 1957, reaching number 16 in the U.S. and number eight in the U.K. Gracie subsequently toured the U.K. — the first solo American rock & roller to do so — headlining at the Hippodrome Theater. He scored only one further hit in America, "I Love You So Much It Hurts," written by country singer Floyd Tillman, which only reached number 71 (although it reached number 14 in the U.K.). His biggest hit in England was yet to come, "Wanderin' Eyes," which reached number six there, and he logged his final U.K. hit with "Cool Baby." Gracie continued to record for Cameo into 1958, when he had a falling out with Lowe. Clark no longer booked him on his program after that, and Gracie faded from the charts. He recorded for several other labels into the '60s, including Coral and Roulette, and has continued to perform regularly both near Philadelphia and in Europe, where the rockabilly revival kept his popularity high for decades. Gracie was still going strong into the first decade of the 21st century. His Cameo catalog remained unavailable on CD for many years, until the ABKCO label released a compilation in 2006. In 2007, a documentary film chronicling Gracie's story Fabulous, was aired on PBS stations.