Charlie Gracie, 75, is back with a new rock and roll record

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It's fitting that Charlie Gracie's new album is called For the Love of Charlie.

That's because the singer and guitarist didn't just leave his mark with late-1950s hits like the No. 1 smash "Butterfly," which made him the first rock-and-roll star to come out of Philadelphia. He also influenced many of the younger musicians who became the first generation of United Kingdom rock superstars - artists who still revere him.

Van Morrison asked Gracie to open for him on a tour; Paul McCartney covered his hit "Fabulous"; Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits sings on the new album, as does Graham Nash, who also contributed liner notes.

Gracie has been working as a musician and putting out records since before he graduated from South Philadelphia High in 1954. What's different is that, for the first time in a long time, he has both a new album and a separate single, "Baby Doll," that is getting airplay on radio stations around the country, including Philadelphia's WXPN-FM (88.5), and on Britain's BBC2.

The record climbed to No. 52 nationally on the Billboard singles chart, and in early January Soundscan had it rated as the No. 1 CD single in the Philadelphia area. (Those ratings are for physical copies only, which pale in comparison to digital sales.)

Nonetheless, at 75, after more than a 50-year "hiatus," as he jokingly puts it, Gracie is getting more recognition than he has in years.

"It's funny how destiny works," the white-haired Gracie said in the dining room of his home in Drexel Hill. "This might not bring me back to No. 1 again universally, but whatever noise it's doing, I'm grateful for. My God, I never thought I'd get this much attention again."

"Baby Doll" is no little throwback piece, and it might even offend some of Gracie's purist fans. It's a catchy, locomotive rocker that sounds thoroughly contemporary, with blistering lead guitar by hard-rock/pop-metal ax-slinger Richie Scarlet. (Gracie plays rhythm.)

"Everybody that's heard it thinks it's great," said Gracie, who in typical fashion is not really tooting his own horn. "Not because I'm on it. If you were singing it, it would still be a great song and a great recording."

For the Love of Charlie also showcases Gracie's continuing vitality, as well as his versatility. It touches on rock and roll, rockabilly, blues, country, pop, and even a little bit of gospel. In case you don't know where Gracie comes from, it includes the rocker "Back to Philadelphia" and "On the Way to Cape May."

The album was coproduced by Al Kooper, the rock luminary with a long and varied resumé that includes playing organ on Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." And he worked free.

"He's a strong part of my learning about music," Kooper wrote in the liner notes. (Gracie paid him back by opening for Kooper, at Kooper's request, at a New York show last year.)

Nash wrote in the liner notes of going with his sister, Elaine, to see Gracie in Manchester during Gracie's first tour of England in the late '50s: "It was a great night of this 'new music' and it was enjoyed by all who were there and it raised and strengthened my spirits to know that I was not wrong when I sought out, strived for and finally loved this feeling . . . this desire to make music. . . . Charlie's flame was burning bright that night."

Gracie is a phenomenal guitarist - George Harrison called him "brilliant," and you can see his show-stopping take on "Guitar Boogie" on YouTube - but he doesn't take many star turns for himself on the album.

"Let the guests shine; they're doing it for me," Gracie said. "I'm playing rhythm on all this stuff, and there's a couple of licks I play, too. But if you've got Jimmy Vivino in there, I want him to play. He's a great guitar player. Or Al Kooper on the organ."

Gracie still plays the two handmade Guild X-350 guitars he bought for $750 each in 1957 in South Philly - big guitars that look even bigger against his 5-foot, 4-inch frame. He grew up listening to the big bands his father favored, the country music his mother liked, and R&B giants like Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner that he heard on the radio. Though he picked up things from Philadelphia's Danny Cedrone, who played lead guitar on Bill Haley and the Comets' immortal "Rock Around the Clock," and jazzers like Barney Kessel, he said he developed his own style - which allows him to play both lead and rhythm - out of a necessity to play clubs solo early in his career.

"It would sound like two parts, and people would say, 'What've you got, a duo or a trio in there?' And the guy would say, 'No, it's just a guy by himself singing and playing the guitar.' "

Although Gracie's in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the British rock hall, his performing ethos comes from an earlier era. There are no rock-and-roll airs or pretensions about him. He's still a regular South Philly guy. He never succumbed to drinking or drugs, preferring to be a family man devoted to his wife, Joan, and two children.

In a word, he's a trouper.

"I came to a point in my career as a musician as a kid where I had to make a left or a right," he said. "Do you want to be a great musician, or do you want to be an entertainer and work? I made a right. I became an entertainer."

Well, he actually became both. His point is that "my mission in life is to bring joy to people."

"You want music, whether it's a funeral, whether it's a bar mitzvah, whether it's a nightclub, I'll play it," he said. "You pay me and I'll come and I'll play. I don't even need a band."

Gracie said he never gets tired when he's on stage. He certainly displayed plenty of energy on Dec. 30 at World Cafe Live. Backed by a three-piece band, he wowed a packed house with hits old and new, a jazz medley, and of course, "Guitar Boogie" - as well as several jokes about his age.

Although his early hits established Philadelphia's Cameo-Parkway as a major early force in rock, Gracie eventually sued the label over royalties. He went on to record for several other record companies but without success.

He insists he's not bitter about any of it and is following McCartney's advice to "Keep rocking, Charlie." He'll play Feb. 18 at J. C. Dobbs on South Street, and on Feb. 25 will do an in-store performance at Main Street Music in Manayunk. You can also catch him playing to the Friday-night supper crowd at Club Jimmy D's Restaurant/Cafe in Folcroft. His next scheduled appearance is Feb. 10. (Check www.charliegracie.com for the schedule.)

"The only thing I never did was get rich because I never got paid for the records that I was supposed to. But that's history," Gracie said.

"I don't hate anybody. . . . I made some mistakes along the way. It's all Monday-morning quarterbacking. You do what you have to do to survive. And I survived. I've done it all.

"I've never had the fame of Elvis Presley or Paul McCartney. 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?"

 


To see Charlie Gracie performing his hit song "Butterfly," go to www.philly.com/gracie.


Contact staff writer Nick Cristiano at 215-854-4641, ncristiano@phillynews.com, or @nickcristiano on Twitter.