Charlie Gracie - interview

 

Charlie Gracie, born in Philadelphia on May 14, 1936, is one of the great rock and roll hit makers from the 1950s. Click for his official website, which includes a discography, and info on how to order his CDs and his autobiography.

The interview took place October 2013, in New Orleans. That night, he performed at the Ponderosa Stomp festival. Backed by Deke Dickerson and his band, Charlie Gracie at 77 years old was in fine form, both vocally and on guitar. This is what he played :

>Just Lookin’ – the flip side of Fabulous
>Rock-a Beatin’ Boogie – a cover of Bill Haley and the Comets
>I’m Alright (Tribute to Eddie Cochran) – Gracie and Cochran had been friends
>Butterfly – his #1 hit from 1957
>Ninety-Nine Ways – the flip side of Butterfly
>Just a Gigolo – made famous by Louis Prima (and later by David Lee Roth)
>Cool Baby – written by Otis Blackwell, Gracie did it in the film Jamboree in 1957
>Fabulous – a big hit for him in 1957
>Guitar Boogie – a version of the Arthur Smith classic instrumental from 1945
>Heart Like a Rock - flip side of Cool Baby, and a hit in the UK
>encore : What’d I Say – by Ray Charles

Craig Morrison : What was music like in your home ?

Charlie Gracie : The house was always full of music. Of course, radio was king when I was a boy ; there was no television. My father was into the big bands : Harry James, Louis Prima, Louis Jordan. Great stuff - swing and rhythm and blues, and my mother was into country music, so I got the best of both worlds. I started playing guitar at 10, and when I got into 12, 13, 14, I was listening to a lot of the black music, the black stations, the rhythm and blues, Joe Turner, people like that. And Louis Armstrong : he played the type of jazz that you could understand and appreciate, good jazz from New Orleans. So I had a great mixture of music growing up.

I was the first born of three sons. I lived with my grandparents, my mother and father and I, in a little row-house in south Philadelphia. Tough years. Depression years. We had no heat in the house. We had no hot water in the house. We had no toilet in the house, no bathroom in the house. We had an out house. But many, many other people lived the same way. That’s the way it was.

CM : So it wasn’t so unusual for you then ?

CG : No, some of the other people in the street had toilets, some didn’t. You had to go outside to go to the bathroom, which really makes more sense than having that inside the house, but in the winter it wasn’t fun. I didn’t know what toilet paper was. We used to use fruit-wrappers when I was a kid. When toilet paper came into its own I think it was three cents a roll then, now it’s like a buck. Things have changed. We never went to bed hungry, always had plenty of food to eat, clean bed to sleep in, but we never had a lot of money to muck about. I grew up in that home with plenty of love. I had a great mother and father. My father’s name was Sam, my mother’s name was Mary, my grandparents were Colagero Charles. My name was Colagero on my birth certificate. That’s the patron saint of Sicily - San Colagero. I speak fluent Sicilian, by the way. My grandparents didn’t speak hardly any English at all. When I went to school, I was bilingual. It was a great asset to me because in our dialect there’s French, Spanish, Greek, and Arabic. When I heard different music I could pick things out.

My father worked at John B. Stetson Hat Company, one of the most famous hat companies in the world. Steam and hot water, a horrible place to make a living, making 50 bucks a week, 1946, right after the war. I remember it vividly. Stetson employed 10,000 men at one time. They used to have three shifts in that factory, every day, making hats until the ’60s when hats went out and the place closed. [President] Franklin Roosevelt [often seen wearing hats including Stetsons] was a saint in our house for god’s sake. When he died [1945] we cried for weeks. He was like a father figure. Of course, looking back, he made a lot of mistakes socially too but he helped the people the best he could at the time.

CM : How were you attracted to the guitar ?

CG : Well, I wasn’t attracted to the guitar at all. One day when I was 10, my father said. “Let’s take a walk down to South Street,” which later became famous in song by the Orlons. [“South Street” by the Orlons of Philadelphia, was a top 10 hit in 1963.] When I was a kid it was a millinery, haberdashery, shoe shop, pawn shop [area]. He had 15 dollars in his pocket, and [with that] in those days, 1946, people making 50 dollars a week, you could get a brand new suit with two pair of pants. Every time we’d pass a pawn shop, he’d hesitate. Finally he said “you know what Charlie, to heck with the suit. Pick an instrument out. I’d like you to make something of yourself in your life and not to work like a jackass in the factory like I’ve been all my life.” He loved show business but his parents said : “You gotta work, we need the money.” Immigrants - my grandparent, both maternal and paternal, were immigrants from Sicily. I said, “how about a nice trumpet like Harry James ?” He was famous : little thin moustache, [married to actress] Betty Grable. “Nah,” he says, “you don’t want that damn thing, you’ll blow your brains out. Get a guitar, you’ll be a one man band.” What choice I had ? I was 10 years old. The guitar was like a bow and arrow, 15 bucks, a Harmony. He knew a couple of little chords, ’cause he played the harmonica a little bit, tap danced a little bit. Never made a dime out of it, but he loved it. The three or four chords he taught me came easy. He says “I got a buddy of mine that plays guitar, I’ll bring him over.” I played with him for three, four, five weeks and picked more up. It was a gift from God, it came easy to me. He said, “If you wanna be a musician, you learn the right way. I’ll get you a teacher.” I got a teacher. His name was Anthony Panto, who was related to the great Joe Venuti, the great jazz violinist. Wow, what a teacher. I studied four, five years, read music, I played things like Rachmaninoff’s Prelude [sings the theme]. I was playing that ! At 12, 13 years old I was playing better than I do now, ’cause I was playing all the longhair [classical] stuff !

CM : That’s pick-style right ?

CG : Yeah, yeah, plectrum study, not the Chet Atkins [fingerpicking] thing. Pick.

CM : Good technique, playing classical guitar with a pick.

CG : Yeah, that’s a tough way to play. Of course when you play with the fingers, you get a lot more notes out. Well anyway, without giving myself accolades, I was pretty good at that point, and finally, I would do little things like serenades. People usually when they got married, you go out [by] the window the day before and you sing “I love you truly.” They’d throw you five or ten bucks. Then I’d do some of the amateur shows in the theatres. You’d go to the movies and before or after the movie they had a contest. All the kids would come up and we’d see who could dance and who could sing and who could play, and I’d win ten dollars. Ten dollars !

CM : Did you have a particular piece that was your showpiece ?

CG : No, no. It was whatever was popular at the time, or whatever I felt like singing I’d sing, and I would win each week ! Ten dollars was a lot of money in the ’40’s. “Flat-Foot Floogie (With a Floy Floy)” - things that I heard on the radio. “Hey, Good Lookin’,” ‘cause my mom used to be all into that. Finally I got on a show called The Paul Whiteman Show. Paul Whiteman was a very famous orchestra leader in the ’30’s and ’40’s, big rotund man, violin. What the heck was his big hit ? “Rhapsody in Blue.” Ah, what a great orchestra. Now he’s up in age, he’s waning, and he’s got this little show coming out of an ABC affiliate in Philadelphia called WFIL, and each week he’d bring the kids on, semi-pros, they’d work a job or something but they were kids ! So I went on the show and I won five times running and I won the family’s first refrigerator. We had an icebox before that ! A guy would come in [and] with a 10 cent piece you’d [buy a chunk of ice to] keep the food cold.

This led to some guy driving in from New York who had a record company called Cadillac Records, right on Broadway. I didn’t have a telephone, so he sent a telegram the next day : “My name is Graham Prince, I own Cadillac Records, and I hear something unique in your talent and I’d like to offer you a recording contract.” He came over to the house within the next week or so. We sat down and we signed a paper, a penny a record or something like two cents a record, which is immaterial. And I went into New York and I cut my first two sides, late 1951. By early 1952 it was released. I was just about to enter high school : ’52, ’53, ’54, the three years of high school. I cut maybe six sides for him. He’s the guy that changed my last name and put an ’e’ on it. It was G-r-a-c-i, which was still pronounced “Gracie” or “Grotchy” or “Gratsi,” so it made it easier to pronounce. It made me from Sicilian into Scotch-Irish ! Like Gracie Mansion in New York [for the use of the city’s mayor], or Gracie Fields [the English entertainer].

I start building [my career] and now I’m working night clubs. My dad’s making 75 bucks a week now, and I’m making 150 and taking the envelope home like this to my mother, “here you are, Ma.” At this point I got a younger brother, another younger brother on the way. We were really gonna have to move soon. There’s no room in the house. I wanted to help the family. We were family oriented. I’m sure other nationalities are also, but the Sicilian people especially are a very tight knit family, and we all pulled together. Everything was going fairly nice. I made these few records and I did the original Bandstand with Bob Horn, before Dick Clark. He was a very famous radio DJ in Philly, a powerful man, but he didn’t have the looks that [Dick Clark had]. He looked sinister, like a Richard Nixon type : “you wanna buy a used car ?” but he was a nice guy ! He was good to me. I would do the show.

CM : He looked better on radio.

CGL Yeah ! He had a face for radio. I’m working the night club circuit and time goes by and I wore my thing out with Graham [Prince], who gave me my start. Then I recorded four or five songs for this company called Twentieth Century – a Philadelphia-based company – once again, nothing big happened, but I’m working the night clubs circuit and I’m making a living, 17-18 years old. I’m playing Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Akron, Detroit’s Gay Haven Supper Club, all over the place. Then this fellow called me up, he used to play piano for Paul Whiteman. His name was Bernie Lowe. Great piano player, very hip, knowledge of music.

CM : Didn’t he write some songs ?

CG : Oh yeah, him and Kal Mann made a fortune. [They wrote “Teddy Bear” for Elvis Presley, and other hits.] And he was looking for a tall, sexy Elvis guy. He had 2,000 dollars to invest in a company called Cameo Records. Parkway came later when he stretched out. He said : “Charlie, I think you’ve got a lot of talent. We’re going to make a lot of money.” Fine with me, man ! He had a cold that day. My mother gave him tissues or some soup. I went into the studio December of ’56, a week or two before Christmas, Rec-O-Art [studio], 12th and Market, Philadelphia. Cut two songs : “Butterfly,” “Ninety-Nine Ways.” By March of 1957, not only did we have a hit, had a number one hit. Knocked Elvis out of the box for two weeks ! Charlie Gracie, top of the world, Ma ! Number one, my God, changed my whole life [laughs]. Changed my whole life. Things were going good. I had a double-sided hit that year. I cut “Fabulous,” was another top 20 hit. Everything’s going good till I started asking for my money.

CM : Ha ha, that will get them every time !

CG : Ha ha ha, sure ! So I said to myself : “you son-of-a-gun, you came to my house...” I’m gonna say this, “snot running down your nose.”

CM : And my mother fed you.

CG : Which is fine, I would feed a complete stranger. “But now you forgot ?” I’m not saying I was completely responsible for the success of this record, but a part of it. You’re a part of it. The engineers are a part of it, the A&R [artist and repertoire division]. It’s a family thing to get a hit. It’s not easy to get a hit record. Although 55 years ago, it was, because there were more top 40 stations. Now you can’t get your record played anywhere ! Except on the internet. Who in the hell listens to that ? I don’t. The kids do I guess, you know ? And then we had a problem. At the time I didn’t realize that Dick Clark was a partner in the company, as he was in many companies at the time, before Congress investigated him. They told him he had to divest. They didn’t lock him up because it wasn’t against the law then. Now it’s supposed to be against the law, but you know what ? It still goes on : payola. It goes on in Washington, it goes on in the record business, in the Vatican. That’s the way life is. Take it or leave it.

Charlie Gracie (left) with Ray Davies of the Kinks, 2009 photo source

Then I got an opportunity to go play in Europe. I was only the second American to perform and bring rock and roll to the European continent. Bill Haley preceded me with his band. I went there as a solo act ! Tough. I played a variety theatre with a pit orchestra, all over that country, alone on stage with a Danelectro [guitar]. I had to bring my own amplifier. No reverb unit. No monitors, nothing ! I had to wait for my voice to come out from the back of the theatre. Spit blood many a [time], I did it ! But you gotta remember now, I’m out there at 20 years old, 21 years old, and in my audience are all the next superstars to come out of Britain : the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Van Morrison. Holy smokes ! Cliff Richard, on and on, unbeknownst to me. What the hell do I know ? I know I’m making $5,000 dollars a week – I’m a millionaire at this point – not knowing that the government would take 63 cents on every dollar. Plus the lawyers, plus the agent. I made enough money to buy my mother and father a new home and a couple of cars and some furniture, which I was happy to do - get them out of the ghetto, understand ? At least God gave me that opportunity.

see the youtube clip of Paul McCartney wishing Charlie a happy 80th birthday, 2016

Then life goes on. I had a following tour, the following year my wife and I married, spent our honeymoon there. I did all the big shows : Six Five Special, Sunday Night at the London Palladium. A girl by the name of Shirley Bassey was my supporting act. Petula Clark - I was on television with her. I met Tommy Steele for the first time there. On and on. Frankie Vaughan covered me, Tommy Steele covered me, Alma Colgan covered me, Andy Williams covered me. What a nice tribute to have people cover you ! Of course it dipped into some of my royalties, but I didn’t get paid right anyway, so what the hell’s the difference ?

I went from company to company to company after that. My popularity dwindled because I couldn’t get my records played anymore. These people were so powerful that they had a chain throughout the country. I made a movie called Jamboree with Jerry Lee [Lewis], Fats Domino. But you know what ? Bernie Rothbard, my agent then who booked me most of the time, said, “Charlie, you got talent, you’ll always work.” He was right. I went from 5,000 a week back down to three or 350, sometimes two. And six, seven nights a week, five sets a night ! Just me and the guitar and my mouth. My calluses had calluses. I went out there and I sawed wood man, for years. You hear what I’m telling you ? For years.

CM : I saw you at an afternoon show in 1992 in Wildwood, New Jersey, on an outdoor stage near the beach, and you were doing “Quando Quando,” “Kaw-Liga,” “Please Mr. Custer,” “Wildwood Days,” and a doo wop ballad, in a trio with bass and drums.

CG : I can go on and on Craig, and talk about myself, and I’m not talking about myself in a position of ego, I’m just trying to give you the facts about what show business is like for young people that are coming up and wanna hear what I got to say. The thing is this : if it’s a passion you have in your heart and you love it, you have to give it a shot. It’s very difficult today to become famous with the way things are structured. It’s a big clique - the Hollywood clique, the New York clique, the movie clique - it’s always the same guys that stay on top. But that’s the way it is, that’s life, and you have to get used to it. You have to persevere. I consider myself a great success, not because of how many hits I had, but I survived for 61 years doing what I loved to do and I never had to get up in the morning to go to work. Thanks to my peers. So what could I tell you ?

CM : Do you know my friend in England, Dave Travis ? [Travis is a British musician who had a long and successful career as a bandleader and also backed many of the rock and roll legends when they appeared overseas. He now runs Stomper Time Records, reissuing rare early rock and roll.]

CG : Yeah, I love Dave ! I cut an album with Dave ! He played [rhythm guitar] for me. He’s a sweetheart, a wonderful person, an honest guy, and I just love the guy to death. I see him every year when I go there. He put out an album of mine years ago there, because the record company, they didn’t - there were some different laws there. And it’s like a 28 or 30 cuts for like 15 bucks, you can’t beat that. Everything I ever made up until recently. We sold a lot of those records, and I got paid for every one of them. More so than I did when I was with Cameo. Don’t forget I went with Cameo, I went with Roulette, with Coral, with Sock and Soul. I went wherever people still wanted to record me. I’m in the studio now making a new album. Till they shut the lid, I’m going to do it. When people don’t want to see me no more, then it’s time to stop.

photo courtesy of Charlie Gracie

At this point in my life, when I get up every morning I’m happy. I let God handle all the bullshit. When people say to me, "What do you do for a living, Charlie ?” I say, "I sing and play the guitar, a little bit of banjo, a little bit of bass." That’s what I do. You put me in whatever category you want, but I’ll say one thing : I’ve always been an entertainer. You give me an audience, you give me a microphone and an amplifier : if there’s 30 people, 500 people, 2,000 people, I’ll entertain them. Ain’t too many guys who can do that left anymore.


comments or questions ? email me

I have also posted several other interviews with veteran and legendary musicians. To go to the index page, click here.

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006