Friday, June 20, 2014

The First Rock & Roll Record VII: My Interview with Charlie Gracie

As far as proto-rock & roll songs go, “Boogie Woogie Blues” by the 15-year-old electric-guitarist Charlie Gracie, recorded back in 1951, sounds especially prescient, both in the way he played his instrument and because of how young he was.  However, the histories of rock & roll that I’ve consulted don’t say very much about either the record or its writer-performer.  Because I wanted to learn more about both, I thought that my best option was to talk to the man himself.

Some background: Born in the Italian-American section of Philadelphia in 1936, Charlie Gracie started learning to play the guitar at ten-years old.  By the time he was a teenager, he had been entering and winning local talent competitions.  While appearing on the local television and radio broadcast The Paul Whiteman Show in 1951, a 15-year-old Gracie was heard by Graham Prince, the owner of the nearby independent label Cadillac Records.  Prince signed Gracie to a recording contract, and it was for Cadillac that Gracie recorded his own composition, “Boogie Woogie Blues” in 1951.  Gracie followed that single in 1952 with another self-penned proto-rocker “Rockin’ an’ Rollin’.”

As he got older, Gracie moved from one independent label to another, landing at the Philadelphia-based Cameo Records.  While he was with Cameo, Gracie had his biggest hit, the chart-topping “Butterfly” in 1957.  He became especially popular in Britain and other parts of Europe.

The story goes that Gracie was tricked out of some of his earnings at Cameo, and when he initiated legal action to claim some of his lost money, Cameo, which was owned in part by Philadelphia’s musical king maker Dick Clark, blackballed him from the industry.  Consequently, Gracie never again rose to the heights of popularity that he achieved with “Butterfly.”  However, now approaching the age of 80, he still performs in both the United States and Europe to a devoted following.  Thanks to his son and manager, I was able to set up a telephone interview with Charlie Gracie about the days of “Boogie Woogie Blues.”

 Me: The reason I wanted to talk to you about “Boogie Woogie Blues” is because I’ve been writing a series of articles about the idea of the first rock & roll record.  I just heard about “Boogie Woogie Blues” last year, and it seems like it’s just one step away from being a prime candidate for the title.  I was very surprised that I hadn’t heard of it before.  Do you remember when you wrote the song “Boogie Woogie Blues”?

Charlie Gracie: Yes, I was just about to enter high school that year — this is, like, late 1951, and I think it was finally released early in 1952.  I was just about 15½, 16 years old.

What kind of song were you trying to write?  Who did you think the audience for the song would be?

Appearing in the 1957 film ‘Jamboree!’
Well, at that particular point in my career — I started playing when I was ten-years old, so at this point, I was fairly accomplished as a musician — I wasn’t great, but I knew my instrument.  And I never was much of a songwriter, but at that point, you have a lot of dreams when you’re a kid.  I grew up during the big-band era, you know, the ’3os and ’40s, and my dad was into swing and be-bop, and my mom loved country music.  I listened to all of it.  I also used to put on what they used to call “race records” or [tune into] black [radio] stations or rhythm & blues stations, in those days, and listen to whatever I could to get a mixture of music. 

So, I sat down one day, and I put this tune together.  It was no masterpiece, but for a kid that age, I thought it was pretty good.  So, when I first got my recording contract from Cadillac Records, [label owner Graham Prince] said to me, “Have you written anything, Charlie?”  I said, “Well, I wrote this little song,” and I played it for him.  And he said, “Oh, that’s terrific; that’s good.  Let’s go with that.”  And the other side of the record was an old Fats Waller tune called “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.”  That was my first record released on Cadillac Records.

So, you thought of “Boogie Woogie Blues” as a combination of swing, country, and rhythm & blues.

Yes.  You know, at that age, you’re very susceptible to what you’re surrounded by.  And, of course, there was no rock & roll at that time.  At least the phrase wasn’t coined, “rock & roll.”  But I used to listen to, I guess, house-rocking music.  That’s what they called it in those days.

Did you see rhythm & blues being a prime influence?

I would say yes.  I would say it was a prime influence along with the old big-band, swing arrangements in my head.  And when you put the two together, it came out like that.  For a kid at that particular point in my life, I think I did pretty good with it.  It was no masterpiece, but it gave me a start. 

“Boogie Woogie Blues’s” flip side, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” is done in a more identifiably swing style.  It’s something you can imagine Frank Sinatra singing to.  Did you feel obliged to put something more conventional on the other side to balance out how unconventional “Boogie Woogie Blues” sounded?

Well, yes, we needed another side.  When I was a kid, I won $100 worth of records on a television show called The Paul Whiteman Show, and in that batch of records were some Fats Waller tunes.  Fats Waller was a very famous singer-pianist of his time, and I believe that was one of his first hits in 1936, a song called “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.”  So, I picked that, and we worked with those two sides.

I tried to adapt my own feel to [“I’m Gonna Sit Right Down”].  The fellow who recorded me at the time, his name was Graham Prince, who owned the company, who found me as a recording artist.  He said, “How would you like to do this, Charlie?” I said, “I’ll just do it on the guitar.”  [And I played it for him.]  He said, “That’s pretty good.  Let’s go with that type of arrangement.”  So, he put it all together, and when we finished with it, I thought it was — well, it was a great tune to begin with, so you couldn’t kill it.  And then, we had a nice version of it.  Don’t forget I’m only a kid at this point.  I was just about to enter high school, my three last years of schooling.

When you were learning to play the guitar, who were your role models?  Who were the people that inspired you?

Well, I’ll tell you, there weren’t too many guitar players around then that I knew of as a kid.  Of course, the guitar was not that popular in 1946, when I began playing, when I was ten-years old.  I used to hear guys like George Barnes and Barney Kessel, but they were more like jazz guitarists.  But there was one guy who played with the Bill Haley group; his name was Danny Cedrone, who played that very famous lick on “Rock Around the Clock.”  I used to try to listen to his guitar playing as much as possible.  I think he influenced me more than anybody else.

The recordings of Danny Cedrone that I’ve heard have been mostly to jazz arrangements, fairly conventional stuff.  Were you aware of him playing less conventional stuff?

Well, I thought his stuff was very unique.  Don’t forget, we’re on the verge of rock & roll at this point — when they called it “rock & roll” — so everybody’s playing a combination of musical styles.  I used to listen to people like Louis Jordan, Louis Prima; they were precursors to rock & roll; they were right there.  The tempo was there.  The lyrics had that southern New Orleans sound.  Louis Armstrong influenced me, too.

I just think that your guitar solo in “Boogie Woogie Blues” is unusual in that it has more of a strumming attack than a usual single-string guitar solo.

Well, if you listen closely, it was both.  I was playing the rhythm guitar — I played guitar on all my records, even up till today — and whenever they wanted to give me a solo, I would go into the single string and share it perhaps with Sax Thomas or the pianist.  And it was just a style that I developed by myself.

I notice that your follow-up to “Boogie Woogie Blues” was called “Rockin’ an’ Rollin’.”  That phrase at the time was usually used to describe a kind of dancing or religious rapture.  In your song, you simply mean it as “traveling.”  What inspired you to call the song “Rockin’ an’ Rollin’” and to use that phrase?

Well, you gotta remember once again I’m just a teenager, and when I wrote this song — once again, it was no masterpiece, but the arrangement, it was put together by Mr. Prince — it was pretty good, you know?  And then, we weren’t far away from the phrase “rock & roll” at that point.  So, you never know what’s coming in this business [laughs]. 

I know that “Boogie Woogie Blues” and “Rockin’ an’ Rollin’” weren’t huge sellers, but after “Rock Around the Clock” and after rock & roll became a big phenomenon, did any rock stars say you influenced them back in the early ’50s?

Now that you mention it, over the years — of course, at that point, I didn’t really have many contacts with the outside world because I was just a kid — but as time went by and the years went by, I’ve had guys come up to me and say when they bought that record, it influenced them to play guitar and even copy my style of playing.  So, I was very astonished about that.  I didn’t think anybody thought that I was special in any particular way, but I think I did [influence people] to a point.  Not that everybody emulated me, but you gotta remember, at that particular point, we didn’t even have reverb units on the guitar; it was just a flat-sounding guitar. 

Well, it’s good to learn more about “Boogie Woogie Blues.”

Good.  Listen, you can always get more information on my website.  My son has a Facebook [page].  I don’t get involved in that because I’m a dinosaur [laughs].  When I was a kid, I didn’t even have a telephone in the house; I had to go to the drug store.  But [my son] has everything under control.  Anything you need like that, just contact him, and I’m sure he’ll be very happy to take care of you in any possible way he can.  

Charlie Gracie today

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