Pioneering rock 'n' roll guitarist Charlie Gracie dies aged 86

Charlie Gracie
(Image credit: Charles Paul Harris/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Charlie Gracie, rock ‘n’ roll pioneer and collaborator with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and The Everly Brothers, has died aged 86.

News of the guitarist’s passing has been confirmed by his family via ABKCO Records – owner of Cameo Records, the Philadelphia label through which Gracie recorded and released some of his biggest hits.

Born Charles Anthony Graci in Philadelphia in 1936, the guitarist recorded his first single, Boogie Woogie Blues, at the age of 15 through Cadillac Records. He continued to perform the track throughout his career, including during his last-ever show in April of this year. 

Shortly after, Gracie appeared on the Paul Whiteman TV show at the age of 16 in 1952, two years before he graduated from South Philadelphia High School. In his early years, Gracie performed at social functions while trying to kickstart a recording career. His signing to Cadillac Records led to an appearance on American Bandstand, then hosted by broadcaster Bob Horn.

But Gracie’s career really took off in 1956, when he dropped Butterfly via Cameo at just 20 years old. The single sold two million copies, and landed the guitarist the Number One spot on Billboard’s pop chart in 1957.

The commercial performance of the track ultimately paved the way for Gracie’s continued success, as he went on to tour with Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley and Eddie Cochran, and star in the 1957 film, Jamboree.

Despite his US roots, Gracie found an early audience in the UK, where he toured twice, and enjoyed a string of chart successes with hits like Fabulous, I Love You So Much It Hurts, Wanderin’ Eyes, Cool Baby and Butterfly.

His exploits caught the attention of a host of prominent figures in the British rock community, including George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Peter Noone, Jeff Beck, Graham Nash, Van Morrison, Cliff Richard and Paul McCartney. 

Richard and McCartney even recorded versions of Fabulous in tribute, while Morrison picked Gracie as a support act for his West Coast Tour in 2000.

Following the conclusion of his tenure with Cameo Records, Gracie recorded for labels including Coral, Roulette, Felsted and Diamond, continuing to perform in the US, UK and throughout Europe.

In more recent years, ABKCO released For the Love of Charlie, a new studio album produced by Al Kooper and Quentin Jones with guest appearances from Peter Noone, Graham Nash and Jimmy Vivino.

The same year, on his 75th birthday, Gracie recorded Baby Doll, his first single in over 50 years to receive UK airplay on the BBC.

Gracie is quoted as saying in recent times: “When all is said and done, I’m still little Charlie Gracie from South Philly who sings and plays the guitar. If you ever came to see me perform – and you found yourself entertained – and I made you happy for a few hours, then I’ve fulfilled my mission in this life. I’m eternally grateful to God for that opportunity!”

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Sam Roche

Sam is a Staff Writer at Guitar World, also creating content for Total Guitar, Guitarist and Guitar Player. He has well over 15 years of guitar playing under his belt, as well as a degree in Music Technology (Mixing and Mastering). He's a metalhead through and through, but has a thorough appreciation for all genres of music. In his spare time, Sam creates point-of-view guitar lesson videos on YouTube under the name Sightline Guitar (opens in new tab).