Check This Action: So Long, Charlie and Top

Check This Action: So Long, Charlie and Top
Charlie Gracie

I was saddened to hear of the passing of ’50s rocker Charlie Gracie on December 16. The 86-year-old rocker sure led a full life. I interviewed Charlie for VG in 2006 and, at 70, he was one of the most charming, vital artists I ever encountered. He regaled me with stories of an Italian-American upbringing in South Philly – his mother taking him to see Bill Haley & the Saddlemen, recording his “Boogie Woogie Blues” single at 15, and acquiring his big Guild Stratford X-350.

His 1957 hit, “Butterfly,” essentially bankrolled the Cameo/Parkway label. As labelmate Chubby Checker stated, “Charlie was the first person to come out of Philadelphia, other than Mario Lanza.”

While Andy Williams’ cover of the song hit #1, Gracie followed with “Fabulous.” He appeared on “American Bandstand” and in the movie Jamboree with Fats Domino and Carl Perkins.

In ’57, Charlie became the first American rocker to tour England after Bill Haley & His Comets. Seeing him live or on TV were Graham Nash, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Joe Cocker, Albert Lee, and the Kinks.

Equally impressive as his hits was his sped-up version of Arthur Smith’s “Guitar Boogie.” In addition to his lead work, he utilized jazz chords and strong rhythm, explaining, “I put my right hand against anyone in the world – I don’t care who it is.”

He gigged steadily around Philly and New Jersey (“… never had a ‘day’ gig”), and in ’79 started touring Britain and the Continent every year. A humorous story involved another fan: “Van Morrison called and said, ‘I’d like you to come and do a couple of numbers with me at the Spectrum.’ I said, ‘I can’t, I’m working. I can’t afford to lose a night just to come and sing with you.’”

Fabulous, the 2007 documentary about Gracie’s life, featured interviews with McCartney, Nash, Williams, and others, and his autobiography, Rock & Roll’s Hidden Giant: The Story of Rock Pioneer Charlie Gracie, was published in 2015.

Enduring multiple kidney infections plus Covid last year, Charlie played concerts in New York and Pennsylvania just days before he was first hospitalized that April. Upon his death, McCartney wrote, “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. The spirit of the times was captured beautifully by one of his big hits, ‘Fabulous.’”

He is survived by his son and tireless publicist, Charlie, Jr., and his wife of 65 years, Joan.

I don’t know if Top Topham got to see Charlie perform, but he was of the generation of future Brit rockers that did. The original lead guitarist with the Yardbirds, he died January 23.

Born Anthony Topham in 1947, he later converted to Islam and changed his name to Sanderson Rasjid Topham. While attending art school and listening to records of American blues, he had a Harmony Sovereign acoustic and taught schoolmate Chris Dreja, who became the Yardbirds’ rhythm guitarist (and later, bassist). A common misconception is that Topham got sacked so the band could replace him with hotshot Eric Clapton. In fact, Top was only 16 and a talented artist. His parents insisted he pursue art, and he became an esteemed muralist. His tenure with the band was only about five months, and no recordings exist of that original lineup.

In ’89, I saw Top live at the 100 Club in London with Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty and guitarist/singer John Idan, and it was a revelation. Playing a ’66 Tele through a Marshall stack with a delay pedal, he had an impressive vocabulary and feel for the blues, and his tone was very similar to Blues Breakers-era Clapton. He’d found the guitar in two pieces after being run over by a car, repaired it, moved the bridge pickup to the neck position, and installed a P-90 in the rear.

I interviewed him that week, though it wasn’t published until ’95 in Guitar Shop magazine. As boys, he and one-man-band Duster Bennett played records and guitars together, and after Bennett’s death in 1976, he was caretaker of Duster’s ’52 Les Paul goldtop that previously belonged to Clapton and Peter Green. Top played a Harmony Stratotone with the Yardbirds, and he cited Jimmy Reed and Lonnie Johnson as influences. In ’69, he recorded the all-instrumental Ascension Heights, and a year later played on Christine McVie’s Christine Perfect album. He later gigged and recorded with singer/guitarist Dave Peabody and pianist Bob Hall. He rejoined the Yardbirds from 2013 to ’15.

“Top graced a couple of my CDs, and was a truly gifted musician, on both acoustic and electric guitar,” Hall remarked. “His range was considerable, from country to T-Bone Walker blues.”

John Idan, who went on to front the reformed Yardbirds, added, “Top was a marvelous man, who saw something in me and truly helped me realize and fulfill many of my ambitions. His knowledge and prowess in playing American acoustic blues is as deep as the valley and high as the mountain.”

This article originally appeared in VG’s May 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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