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Philadelphia’s Charlie Gracie, a rock music pioneer, dies at 86

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South Philadelphia’s Charlie Gracie, the singer, guitarist and early-rock hit-maker, died Dec. 16 in Delaware County, Pa., at age 86.

Mr. Gracie was one of rock music’s pioneers. His early singles included “Rockin’ ‘n’ Rollin’,” “Boogie Woogie Blues” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” His breakthrough hit came in 1957 with the rockabilly-soaked “Butterfly,” which would become his signature tune.

Charlie Gracie in a 1957 publicity photo.

He toured with Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley and Eddie Cochran, scoring hits with songs such as “Fabulous,” “Ninety-Nine Ways” and “Cool Baby.”

Gracie was among the first American artists to bring rock ’n’ roll to England, where he garnered rave reviews in the press. Numerous rock superstars have named Gracie an important influence, including Van Morrison, Graham Nash, George Harrison, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and Paul McCartney, who recorded his own version of Gracie’s hit single “Fabulous” In 1999.

Gracie’s star burned bright but brief. After his early-rock heyday and chart-topping hits, he appeared primarily in small nightclubs and similar venues.

“I’ve never had the fame of Elvis Presley or Paul McCartney,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2012. “But you know what? Being respected and loved by the people who followed you and became famous because of you – a little bit because of you – what more do you want out of life as a performer and artist?”

Charlie Gracie Jr. wrote a tribute to his father for the Italian-American Herald in September 2022.

“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,” he wrote.

He also quoted his father on the subject of his own legacy:

“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.” Funeral services were private. A celebration of Charlie Gracie’s life is planned for May 14.

Al Kemp
Author: Al Kemp

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