Charlie Gracie, Early Rocker Known For ‘Butterfly,’ Dies at 86

Charlie Gracie, an early rockabilly singer and guitarist who influenced a generation of 1960s rock stars has died at 86. The news of his passing on Dec. 16 was confirmed by ABKCO Records, which is home to the catalog of Cameo Records, the Philadelphia label that Gracie recorded his biggest hits for; at press time no cause of death was announced.

The South Philadelphia native born Charles Antony Graci on May 14, 1936 who was discovered by Cadillac Records owner Graham Prince after the then 15-year-old singer performed on a local radio show, leading to a series of early singles (“Rockin’ ‘n’ Rollin’,” “Boogie Woogie Blues,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”) and a deal with Cameo, which released his breakthrough 1957 Billboard No. 1 pop chart hit and signature tune, the rockabilly burner “Butterfly.”

The song led to tours with Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley and Eddie Cochran, as well as a starring role in the 1957 musical romance Jamboree as himself. The hits continued apace, with late 1950s charting tracks including “Fabulous,” “Ninety-Nine Ways” and “Cool Baby,” charting in the U.S. and England, where Gracie would take his place as an early influence on a generation of soon-to-be global superstars.

According to the artist’s bio, “Charlie’s star burned even brighter in Great Britain where he became the first solo American artist to bring rock & roll to the English concert stage. Preceded only by Bill Haley and the Comets, Charlie headlined London’s Palladium and Hippodrome — receiving outstanding receptions from the press and public.”

As a testament to his enduring influence, in 2011 ABKCO Records released For the Love of Charlie!, an all-star compilation produced by Al Kooper and featuring such fans as Graham Nash and Herman’s Hermits singer Peter Noone. Paul McCartney covered Gracie’s “Butterfly” follow-up single, “Fabulous,” in 1999 on his Run Devil Run early rock covers album, 30 years after Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page recorded his own version with Zep bassist John Paul Jones and guitarist Albert Lee, among others.

Following his run on Cameo, Gracie cycled through a series of smaller label homes and kept touring for the next 50+ years, including opening a handful of dates for Van Morrison on his 2000 U.S. West coast tour and releasing his last album, Angel on My Shoulder, in 2015. Gracie was also the subject of a PBS documentary, Fabulous!, in 2007.

Listen to 1957’s “Butterfly” below.

Gil Kaufman