Charlie Gracie: He Beat Elvis to The Punch

charlie gracie

Who made the first rockabilly record? Let’s get one thing straight from the outset: there’s rock ‘n’ roll and there’s the subset of rockabilly. While all rockabilly is rock ‘n’ roll, the reverse does not hold true. The more generalized origin of rock ‘n’ roll is an ultra-slippery slope, but it undeniably began when Black musicians started souping the blues up into R&B. Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88,” recorded in March 1951 and released a month later, is usually cited as the first rock ‘n’ roll record, but you could make the case for any number of tunes going back to the ‘40s.

The party line on rockabilly’s origin story is a predictable one. It starts with a 19-year-old Memphis trucker strolling into Memphis’s Sun Studio in 1954 and recording a jacked-up version of bluesman Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” alchemically melding country, blues, and R&B into a potent new paradigm. The making of Elvis Presley’s first 45 is an undeniably epochal event, but it’s not even close to where and when rockabilly began.

If you really want to uncover the origins of rockabilly on record, you’ve got to go about it rather counterintuitively, by abandoning the South altogether and looking to the unlikely environs of greater Philadelphia. A lot of folks consider Bill Haley’s April 1952 single “Rock the Joint”—previously recorded by R&B singer Jimmy Preston—to be the first rockabilly 45. (Some hair-splitters claim that Haley’s June 14, 1951 recording of Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” was actually the first rockabilly session, but Haley’s arrangement is more on the country boogie/Western swing side of the fence.) There’s a case to be made for “Rock the Joint,” but the closer you look, the more questionable it becomes.

Charlie Gracie, who left us on December 16, 2022, was a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer who beat Elvis (and arguably Haley) to the punch at an insanely early age. Gracie recorded his self-penned “Boogie Woogie Blues” (mislabeled “Boogie Boogie Blues” on the initial release) in 1951 when he was just 15 years old. Astonishingly, it’s a fully formed rockabilly record, and both his singing and guitar playing sound like the work of someone well beyond Gracie’s age at the time.

If it had come out shortly after its recording, as was the custom at the time, “Boogie Woogie Blues” would’ve had a clear claim as the first rockabilly record. But for some reason, it wasn’t released until 1953. The recording date of Haley’s 1952 “Rock the Joint” is unavailable and theoretically could have preceded that of Gracie’s tune. It’s unlikely, but we may never know.

But in short, it’s highly likely that 15-year-old Charlie Gracie had the distinction of recording the first rockabilly song. And it’s probably not coincidental that Gracie hailed from South Philadelphia, just about 15 miles upriver from Haley’s HQ in Chester, PA. Either there was something in that Delaware River water or there was enough country and R&B flowing through the area at the time to give a couple of open musical minds some big ideas.

The world wouldn’t really be ready for rockabilly until Elvis appeared in ’54, but Gracie would go on to have a No. 1 hit with “Butterfly” in 1957. In the ‘50s he toured with just about all the rock ‘n’ roll icons of the day, including Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and plenty more. Gracie did it all—performing on American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show, appearing in Alan Freed’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Revue, and being featured alongside the likes of Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis in the 1957 rocksploitation film Jamboree.

Gracie toured England and racked up hits there, becoming an influence on most of the major U.K. rockers of the boomer generation. Graham Nash, Paul McCartney, and many more have sung his praises. In 1999, McCartney recorded Gracie’s ‘57 hit “Fabulous” with something of a British rock supergroup including Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour and Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice. Cliff Richard cut the tune as the semi-title track for his 2013 album The Fabulous Rock ‘n’ Roll Songbook.

Like most of his ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll peers, Gracie stopped scoring hits by the ‘60s, but he never quit plying his trade, taking his sound on the road for the rest of his life. He was never forgotten—in 2006 ABKCO Records documented Gracie’s ‘50s classics with The Best of Charlie Gracie: Cameo-Parkway 1956-1958. Co-producer Teri Landi cherishes “that charming Italian swagger that he brought to his brand of rockabilly that only a boy from South Philadelphia could. The other thing that struck me about Charlie,” she says, “is how he could entertain you for hours on end with just his guitar and no band. He said he was one of the last of the saloon singers. I got a great example of this at an outdoor show at Lincoln Center in August 2007. He was scheduled to play the evening in Damrosch Park at the yearly Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll show, but he was also booked in the afternoon in the South Plaza to do a solo show. He sang everything from his own hits and deep catalog to rock ‘n’ roll covers to Italian ballads to pop and old-timey standards. And he told jokes and stories to boot. I’m really going to miss seeing him perform.”

Veteran New York singer/songwriter Wes Houston recalls, “Back in 1957-’58 my mom, brother, and I went to all the Alan Freed Rock ‘n’ Roll shows that were held in either the New York or Brooklyn Paramount theaters. Charlie Gracie was a rockabilly/pop star—did his own excellent guitar work and had a very energized style. The great thing about these shows was the wide diversity of the acts. After Charlie, you might have Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or the Harptones or Johnny Ray. Charlie always held his own amongst the crowd—terrific shows.”

ABKCO even released an album of new Gracie material in 2011, For the Love of Charlie, co-produced by Al Kooper and featuring guest spots from Graham Nash and Herman’s Hermits frontman Peter Noone. Gracie didn’t have to receive his honors posthumously either—he’s in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and has a plaque on his hometown’s Walk of Fame. His story was told in the PBS documentary Fabulous. And the cover of his 2015 autobiography, Rock & Roll’s Hidden Giant: The Story of Rock Pioneer Charlie Gracie, is adorned by the following statement from McCartney: “When we were starting out with The Beatles, the music coming over from America was magical to us—and one of the artists who epitomized this magic was Charlie Gracie.”

-Jim Allen

Photo: Charlie Gracie (from the Fleer Spins and Needles Trading Card series, courtesy of Wes Houston)

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14 comments on “Charlie Gracie: He Beat Elvis to The Punch

  1. Jim Burrows

    Many people beat Elvis to the punch, but ince they were all in the big leagues, it was a different matter. To begin with, both the voice and the look of this guy, even at 15, is prelude of things to come. He could have played the Palladium, and still not make it as anything other than a one hit wonder, which he was, NOT because of his guitar playing, which is fantastic, but because of the voice and his presence. He was such an unimposing figure that when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, on March 10, 1957, his “Butterfly” getting near to the top of the charts while Andy Williams’s cover topping it, 19 million homes watched it, the equivalent of 46,000,000 viewers, a high for the week, yes, with a 50.1 rating and a 50%share, but miles below the ratings reached by Presley at the same show , including a massive 57.1 rating with an 82.6% share on September 9, 1956, or 60,710,000 viewers. . Presley and Gracie just do not fit in the same sentence because he was not the only one who beat Presley to the puch as far as rockabilly. But. by 1957, Elvis had moved on to rock and roll, anyways. .


    • Very well put and I agree idk who Charlie Gracie was, and I wasn’t even born in Elvis’ era but I sure do know who he is…. It’s ELVIS all the way

  2. Julia Larkin


  3. George Paciullo

    Elvis was Elvis and that’s it.

    • Yup George I agree with you 100% ELVIS was and still is ELVIS the king of Rock and Roll❤️👑🎸👑❤️

  4. Des Marshall

    I first Remember Charlie Gracie with his song FABULOUS never forgot it..Most people never heard of him today, very frustrating he also came to the UK if I remember. Brilliant songster..Stay Cool, Daddy’O

    • Hey Eric Blair, Charlie is singing Boogie WOOGIE, and also Boogie Boogie in the song, I only have hearing in one side of my head,man ♂️ I even hear BOOGIE WOOGIE BLUES, are you related to a Bill Blair out of Ohio????!!!!!, God bless , Carl and a host, hostess of many other firsts across the world beat E out and in, later PEOPLE!!!!!!!!

  5. Brook Parsons

    Charlie was & is Ahead of his time
    Rock On Daddy O

  6. Brook Parsons

    Guitar Charlie was & is Ahead of his time
    Rock On Daddy O

  7. Eric Blair

    Enjoyed your article, but what makes you say that “Boogie Boogie Blues” was mislabeled? Clearly, he is singing “boogie boogie.”

  8. Roger Churm

    His best record was ‘Fabulous’
    But a really good singer

  9. Listen to what Carl Perkins was doing in 1952, two years ahead of Elvis (Bear Family BAF 14007). And have a look at Chapter 1 in my book “Ducktails, Drive-Ins & Broken Hearts: An Unsweetened Look at 50s Music” – Hank Davis

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