Rockabilly Pioneer Charlie Gracie Passes Away

One of the founding pioneers of rockabilly, and the performer given credit for importing American rockabilly music to the UK has passed away at the age of 86. Charles Anthony Graci, known by the stage name Charlie Gracie, died in Philadelphia where he was known and beloved on December 16th.

Known best for his #1 hit in 1957 “Butterfly,” along with the Top 20 followup “Fabulous,” Charlie Gracie is cited in both the United States and a United Kingdom as a major influence on the formation of rockabilly and rock ‘n roll, and later had a major influence in rhythm and blues. Given credit as only the 2nd American rockabilly artist to tour in the UK, his appearances in 1957 and 1958 at places such as the Palladium and Hippodrome were attended by members of The Beatles, with both George Harrison and Paul McCartney citing him as a major influence, along with British musician Graham Nash.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Charlie Gracie was encouraged by his father to learn guitar, and began to perform on local television and radio programs, wedding, parties, and other functions, citing Big Joe Turner, B.B. King, Roy Acuff, and Hank Williams as influences. Melding those influences resulted in Gracie’s version of “country boogie,” which was becoming the rage all across the country at the time.

Charlie Gracie signed with Cadillac Records in the early 50s, and recorded numerous singles. He appeared on the popular TV Program American Bandstand before Dick Clark’s arrival on the show, and eventually signed to the Philadelphia-based Cameo Records, where he would record “Butterfly,” “Fabulous,” and other singles, helping to establish the Cameo label as a major player in popular music.

Gracie went on to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand with Dick Clark, Alan Freed’s programs at the Brooklyn Paramount, as well as in the 1957 film Disc Jockey Jamboree. He also toured with the biggest acts of the era, including Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, and Eddie Cochran. But a dispute over royalties with Cameo records and a proceeding lawsuit resulted in Gracie being blacklisted from the music industry. This is one of the reasons Charlie Gracie never rose to the similar fame as contemporaries since his string of hits ceased in 1957.

Charlie Gracie’s career didn’t stop though. He worked with numerous labels after Cameo, and leaned more into the R&B side of music. He also continued to perform in the United States and Europe where he enjoyed a cult following due to the seeds he sowed early in his career. Gracie also worked with and mentored the 2nd generation of rockabilly performers like the Stray Cats and Robert Gordon. Gordon recently passed away as well.

Gracie never stopped performing, including touring the UK in 2019 before the pandemic. He also had a big presence on radio, including his beloved “Fabulous Hour with Charlie Gracie” radio show on WVLT out of New Jersey, which also covered the Philadelphia market. With his voice and music, Gracie helped put Philly on the musical map and entertained the city for generations. His life story became the subject of a 2007 PBS documentary called Fabulous!.

Charlie Gracie was married for over 60 years to his wife Joan. He is survived by a son and daughter.

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