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Italians in America – Our Immigrant Stories: The Graci Family & My Dad


Charles Anthony Bernard Graci, better known to the world as ‘CHARLIE GRACIE,’ was born on May 14th, 1936 in South Philadelphia to Santo (‘Sam’) and Mary Graci (nee Cappizzi), both first generation Sicilian-Americans.

Young Charlie with his first guitar

Charlie has been making music for 71 years. He was the first Rock n’ roll Star to arise from South Philadelphia.

In 1946 at the age of 10, his father bought him a guitar instead of a new suit and gave him these words of advice: “Pick an instrument out. Make something of yourself! I don’t want you to work like a jackass as I have all my life.”Charlie’s dad labored in grueling conditions at the Stetson hat factory.

Initially young Charlie considered selecting a trumpet, but his father admonished him:“Nah, you’ll blow your brains out with that thing, get a guitar, that way you’ll be a one man band.”

Calogero Graci

Gracie got a break in 1951 when he appeared on a simulcast television and radio talent show hosted by the legendary band leader, Paul Whiteman.

“I was a five-time winner on that show and won our family’s first refrigerator. We had an ice box before that! Between 1951 through 1955 Charlie began making records, experimenting with a wide variety of styles; Swing, Boogie-Boogie, Country and Rhythm and Blues. His showmanship and prowess on the guitar earned him a good reputation and a strong regional following in nightclubs throughout the Philadelphia region.

In late 1956 Bernie Lowe who played piano and arranged for Paul Whiteman, founded the Cameo record label. Artists like Bill Haley, Joe Turner and Elvis Presley were dominating the pop music charts with a new style of music: “Rock ‘n Roll.” Lowe, in search of a young and talented artist to compete in this genre remembered Charlie Gracie and signed him to his fledgling new label.

By March of 1957, Gracie’s first single, “Butterfly” shot to the number one spot on the U.S. pop chart eventually selling over 2-million records world-wide garnering him a gold disc award. Other hits such as “Ninety-Nine Ways,” “Fabulous,” “Wandering’ Eyes,” “I Love You So Much It Hurts” and “Cool Baby” followed, both here and overseas.

Before the decade was out, Charlie made national television appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, and was featured in the Warner Brothers motion picture “Jamboree!” He made two massively successful concert tours of the United Kingdom and was the first solo American Rock ‘n Roll star to do so. He continues to perform in Europe today.

Unknowingly, Gracie’s virtuosity on the guitar inspired the next generation of pop stars who were just aspiring teens attending his concerts—they included George Harrison and Paul McCartney of the Beatles, Graham Nash, Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits, Van Morrison, and Cliff Richard. While all have publicly credited him, some have even performed and recorded with him.

“It’s been a long and varied journey. 71 years is a long time in this business, and it hasn’t always been easy. I am grateful to God for what He has given me—including the challenges we all must face. I’ve been gifted with a lifetime of doing what I love—making music and entertaining people.”

Gracie’s life remains a constant. He is a family man, first and foremost, happily married to his wife Joan for 64-years. He still reveres the memory of his parents and grandparents who encouraged him to pursue his love for music. And he considers his fans as family.

“I came from a working-class family. All my grandparents came from the island of Sicily, Agrigento, the southern province. You could almost row a boat to Africa from there. I was named after my paternal grandfather, Calogero. He never spoke much about the old country, but I do remember him saying the entire family worked for a local landowner 14 hours a day and treated like serfs giving them a small shack to live in. A time came when my grandfather said to his father, “I am going to save my pennies and go to America because there is no future here!”

Calogero Graci met his future wife Angelina Olivieri in New York City. They married in 1906 and moved to Tampa, Florida as migrant workers.“Like most immigrants, life was rough in those days. They were uneducated, unskilled, and unable to speak English. But they were good, decent, hardworking people and I miss them to this day.“

Angelina Olivieri Graci

While in Tampa, Charlie’s grandmother contracted malaria and doctors advised his grandfather to move north to a cooler climate. They had family in South Philly and settled in a rental at 515 Carpenter Street known as Southwark, with three other families, home of the oldest and largest population of Italians in the city.

“My grandfather, who rolled tobacco for the Regal cigar factory soon saved enough money for a down payment on a tiny two-bedroom row home located at 731 Pierce Street where I was born for $600. That same property today is $300,000! Imagine, it didn’t have a bathroom, there was an outhouse in the backyard!” Charlie and his parents lived with his grandparents until he was 10. Despite their mid-to lower class existence, life was considered good. “My two brothers and I were loved and cared for, had clean beds to sleep in and never went to bed hungry. Everyone looked out for one another. It was a simpler time where family life was the center of existence. Today we seemingly have everything and nothing at the same time!” Charlie recalled one special memory that still echoes in his mind: excited and floating on a cloud after arriving back from his Ed Sullivan Show appearance, his grandmother was the first one he encountered.
“Grandmom, did you see the show?” She retorted in Italian: “Si, e stateo molto bello ma non lasciarlo andare alla tua testa e sii troppo orgoglioso!” This translates to: Yes, it was very nice, but please don’t allow yourself to get too big head!” Of course it was meant with love.

“When all is said and done, I am just little Charlie Gracie from South Philadelphia who sings and plays the guitar. If you ever came to see me perform and found yourself entertained—and I made you happy for a few hours, then I’ve fulfilled my mission in this life. I am eternally grateful to God for that opportunity.”

One of rock & roll’s pioneers, Charlie Gracie passed December 16, 2022, shortly after graciously sharing this article with us. Charlie entertained millions of people around the world and brought joy to many. Mission accomplished, Charlie. You will be sorely missed.


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