Charlie Gracie and his guitar, still "Fabulous" after all these years

An energetic Charlie Gracie, between sets at the Riddle Ale House, said, "I still have the juice!"

Before he played the first of three Friday night sets at the Riddle Ale House in Media, Charlie Gracie worked the crowd, stopping at each table to hug, kiss, and chat up his fans, some of whom have loved him since his 1957 rockabilly hits, "Butterfly" and "Fabulous."

Small, thin, and nimble in a lime blazer over a black T-shirt, silver hair combed straight back, Gracie had turned 80 this month. But through three hours of blistering guitar riffs, his fingers seemed to get only younger.

"Sit back and relax," he told his fans. "We're here till 10 o'clock tonight, like it or not."

Strapping on the Guild X-350 Stratford Sunburst guitar he has played since he did "Butterfly" on the Ed Sullivan Show, he launched into an all-eras marathon of hits - from his own to Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" and a sizzling "Guitar Boogie," from slow dances to "Hava Nagila" and "Roll Out the Barrel," from Chuck Berry to a backwoods medley that somehow mixed "(Give Me That) Old Time Religion" with "The Gambler."

Between sets, an energized Gracie exclaimed, "I still have the juice!"

The fervent guitar picking they heard that night from the Drexel Hill octogenarian had influenced rock immortals.

During one of Gracie's wildly popular British tours in the 1950s, a 14-year-old Paul McCartney was in the crowd. The two finally met face-to-face a few years ago, and, as Gracie recalls, McCartney told him, "You inspired my whole career."

For Gracie's 80th birthday party at the Philadelphia Clef Club, McCartney made a video in which he sang a few bars of "Fabulous." He concluded his greeting, "We love you, Charlie."

He wasn't the only Beatle to come under Gracie's spell. In Billboard Magazine, the late George Harrison described his guitar technique as "brilliant."

Graham Nash (late of Crosby, Stills, & Nash) went to a Gracie concert with his sister in 1957 and was inspired to become a rocker. "Graham told me, 'You threw away a cigarette butt and my sister has that cigarette butt to this day,' " Gracie said.

And the list goes on. In 2000, Irish blues rocker Van Morrison commissioned Gracie to open for him on a West Coast tour.

Even in his teens, when he suddenly went from his South Philly family's Pierce Street rowhouse with an icebox and an outhouse to headlining at the London Palladium and Alan Freed's Brooklyn Paramount, Gracie prided himself on being a musician - not just a pretty boy pompadoured and picking a guitar.

His rock life began in 1946 when he was 10, the first born of three sons, walking down South Street with his dad.

"My father worked at the Stetson Hat Co. and had saved 15 bucks to buy himself a suit with two pairs of pants in case one pair got shiny," Gracie said. "But as we walked past a pawn shop, he said, 'To hell with the suit. Get a guitar. You'll be a one-man band. I don't want you to work like a jackass like I have all my life.' "

After a few years of lessons from Anthony Panto in South Philly, Gracie was playing taprooms, such places as Sabatino's at Eighth and Morris. "Those were the days of nickel beers, hard-boiled eggs, and peanuts," he said. "I'd play, the fellas would chip in, and I'd make a couple bucks here, couple bucks there."

He also serenaded South Philly women. "Your daughter is getting married next week," he recalled. "So the night before, I come under her window, do a song or two - 'I Love You Truly,' songs like that - and you give me 5 or 10 bucks."

He was moving toward his moment in the sun, but didn't know it. "I'm 15," he said. "I'm not a guy that sang and held a guitar like Elvis. I'm a musician. It's a gift from God or, if you don't believe in God, a gift from whoever's in charge of giving gifts out."

He auditioned for Paul Whiteman's TV Teen Club on WFIL and won the talent competition five weeks in a row. "In the fifth week, I won the family's first refrigerator," Gracie said. "It was a Kelvinator."

Bernie Lowe, who conducted the show's orchestra, started a small Philly label, Cameo Records. He signed Gracie and cowrote "Butterfly," which sold more than two million singles, and "Fabulous."

"Everybody was looking for another Elvis," Gracie said. "Compared to Elvis, I looked like the hunchback of Notre Dame. Gimme a break. They fixed his nose. They fixed his lips. I was born with this mug."

No matter, three months after "Butterfly" was released in 1957, Gracie was headlining nationally and in Great Britain, and singing on Ed Sullivan and American Bandstand.

"It was like a dream to me," he said.

But the dream became a nightmare when Gracie sued Lowe and Cameo, accusing them of cheating him out of royalties.

"I told [Lowe] I wanted enough money to buy my parents a home," he said. "We settled for 50 grand. Bernie said, 'Now get the hell out.' I bought my parents a home."

But by 1959, there were no more hit records. To this day, Gracie believes he was blackballed.

"When I decided to sue Bernie Lowe, I didn't realize that Dick Clark was his business partner and that I'd just slit my own throat," he said. "They make one phone call and you're dead in the music business."

Gracie shook his head sadly. "Those were my Death Valley Days," he said, referring to the TV Western from the '50s and '60s. "I went from $1,000 a night to 50 bucks a night. I went from headlining at the Palladium to playing Hoagie Joe's. Talk about swallowing pride."

Yet, he made his peace with Lowe, who died in 1993. "I don't hate the guy," he said. "It's past history. Hundreds of us got screwed back then. It was legal."

Still, he said, "I never gave up on my talent."

Indeed, six-plus decades of high notes and low haven't slowed him. He'll play Maggie O'Neill's Irish Pub & Restaurant in Pilgrim Gardens Shopping Center on June 10 and 24; a Riddle Ale House encore June 17; the North Wildwood Italian American Festival on June 25; Campbell Square Park in Port Richmond on July 13; Rose Tree Park in Media on July 24; Disston Park in Tacony on July 28.

He has no regrets, he said. "I've been married to my wife, Joan, for 58 years. I got a son, 57, and a daughter, 54. I never drank, never took dope. I smoked a lot of cigarettes, breathed in a lot of secondhand smoke. And I'm still here."

geringd@phillynews.com

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