Gary James' Interview With
He was born George Frayne, but the world knows him as Commander Cody. Best known for a Top Ten hit in 1972 called "Hot Rod Lincoln", Commander Cody is still going strong. George Frayne spoke with us about his life in music.
Q - You're living in Saratoga Springs, New York, but you're originally from Brooklyn?
A - Well, what do you mean by "from"?
Q - Born.
A - I was born in Idaho. First recollections I have of being a kid were in Brooklyn with my Dad. He first moved to New York and was gonna be an illustrator. He got a job in New York City and the first place we lived in was Brooklyn. We lived there for maybe three to five years. Then, he ended up getting a little more money and we moved to Queens. We lived there for three or four years. Then we moved to Rockville Center in Nassau County and then moved to Bayshore in Suffolk County, where I graduated in 1962. So, as he went up the ladder of making money, he did the same thing as most people do down there, he moved further out on the island.
Q - When you were of college age, you studied sculpture and painting?
A - Yeah. I got a Masters Degree in painting and sculpture from the University of Michigan.
Q - You worked as a lifeguard and performed in an all lifeguard band?
A - Yeah, I worked at Jones Beach for ten years when I was going to college, plus the summer after that. Then I went and taught for two semesters in Wisconsin, Oshkosh and then in June of 1969, when that second semester was over, I got my van and drove out to San Francisco.
Q - What were you looking to do in San Francisco?
A - To get my band back together, that I had in Michigan. Bill Kirchen, the guitar player had moved to San Francisco and was working with a band. He just saw the situation in music in the Bay Area, especially Berkeley, where Folk and Country, mostly Folk was very, very popular. Bands like Country Joe And The Fish were basically electrical folk bands. In that period of time, after Dylan picked up electrical instruments, other folk-oriented artists did also.
Q - The idea of an all life guard band was a novel idea.
A - It was a horrible band. We couldn't play for shit, but it was a fun idea. We were together for about two months.
Q - You arrived in the Bay Area and did what?
A - I arrived there June 4th, 1969 and started doing auditions at bars. We auditioned for Bill Graham. The Grateful Dead saw us and had us open for them at The Family Dog which was Chet Helms' operation. That was August of 1969.
Q - What a time that was! You must've met all the up and coming San Francisco groups.
A - Yeah, I did pretty much.
Q - You met Janis Joplin?
A - Right.
Q - What was she like?
A - Janis used to have parties at her house regularly, in Larkspur. We used to go out there. I thought she was pretty nice. Everyone was drinking and smoking and what not and having a good time. I met her at the Berkeley Folk Festival and she was a little more subdued. Just kind of a party atmosphere in general back then.
Q - What does it mean in your bio when it says in the early days, you played in the house band for people like Linda Rondstadt and Emmylou Harris?
A - What house band? Where'd you get this bio from?
Q - I believe it was from a site on the Internet.
A - Right. Well, a lot of stuff in on the Internet. There's a lot of mis-information on there. We never played in any house band with anybody like Linda Ronstadt. My band opened up for everybody on earth back then, including Linda Ronstadt, but we never played in the house band.
Q - That's what I like to do. Clear up mis-information.
A - (laughs) Proceed on. Let's clear up. Linda did ask me to marry her in 1967. She found out I was engaged to be married, so...I was opening up for her at a gig in Rochester (New York) when that happened. She was good friends with Nicolette Larson who was singing in my band at the time.
Q - Any regrets about not marrying her?
A - Well, it was just a casual thing. We were talking, hanging out for a couple of hours
Q - So, maybe she was just joking? Is that what you're saying?
A - Yeah, yeah. But, it was cool. She was like Ann Wilson at the time, was quite young and delectable and weighed about 90 pounds.
Q - You once had Joe English from Rochester, New York in your band?
A - Joe English, the drummer from Wings was on the second Arista album on three cuts. He was never in the band. Danny Gatton however was in the band for a month and then quit.
Q - You actually opened for Led Zeppelin in Europe?
A - Yeah, 1980. The first Knebworth concert. 150,000 people.
Q - That must've been some gig.
A - Yeah. I could write a book just about that one gig. It was on one Saturday and then they were going to have a second part the following Saturday and adding artists to the roster.
Q - Two of The Beatles caught your act in London at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1974?
A - Well, one of 'em was allegedly McCartney. I knew Ringo from other things, through Hoyt Axton. But, I had heard that McCartney was in the house at Hamersmith, but I can't verify it, 'cause I didn't meet him. I never met Paul McCartney. I got a gig with John Lennon in Detroit at a benefit, but I didn't meet him either.
Q - And Hunter S. Thompson once threw a bomb into your Florida hotel room?
A - That's correct.
Q - That happened after you interviewed him or he interviewed you?
A - I was interviewing him for Cox Cable and he was talking about why the U.S. should invade Mexico. The interview was going quite well and he decided to shoot a taser at the cameraman, who immediately packed up and went home. The interview is out there some place.
Q - Where did this Commander Cody idea come from?
A - The same place that George Lucas got it. From Republic Pictures. In 1948, 1949, Flash Gordon like operations would run in theatres in between films. Then later, this character Commander Cody made three movies, one of which was "Lost Planet Airmen". I was watching the Lost Planet Airmen movie and I saw the Commander Cody character and I thought it would be a great name for a band. I had no idea anyone was going to have to be Commander Cody. I mean, there's no Lynyrd Skynyrd. There's no Steely Dan. There's no Marshall Tucker. Why did there have to be a Commander Cody? That's a long story in itself.
Q - I recall reading a book about you...
A - Star making Machinery. It was an excellent book. A very, very good book.
Q - The one thing I always remember from that book is that you had an agent who was booking the band gigs 800 miles apart and you were traveling by bus.
A - Right. We would have to leave the gig every night. There was no celebratory hotel trashing or anything like that, that everybody else got into. We were back on the bus, driving every night. He also took all our money and disappeared. His name was Joe Kerr.
Q - What agency was he with?
A - He wasn't with an agency. He was the band's personal manager. The various booking agencies were C.M.A., William Morris, Magna, Variety. But, the personal manager was the guy that ripped us off.
Q - Where is he today?
A - Probably dead. At least I hope he's dead.
Q - I don't know how you put up with that situation as long as you did.
A - Well, it wasn't really apparent to us for more than about the last six months of 1975. It had become apparent. We were doing all these huge gigs, had two secretaries and a bus and a truck and we can't pay salaries. So, it just appeared to me that he was doing something else with our money. Probably sticking it up his nose. That's what usually happens.
Q - Where did you meet up with this fella?
A - He was a friend of mine from college. I was afraid initially, when I went out there, of these show business types, you know being that close to the band. So, I thought I'd take more of my close friends, who was quite intelligent, and showed him what I knew on the thing. He took over and sold us out immediately.
Q - "Hot Rod Lincoln" is not a song you wrote, but actually a remake of a Tex Ritter song?
A - No, no, no, not Tex Ritter. Charlie Ryan from Spokane, Washington.
Q - How'd you find that song?
A - Well, after it became apparent that I had sung a cappella just twice with earlier bands. At that time I couldn't sing a note really, but I could talk fast. When it became apparent that I'd have to become Commander Cody, 'cause all the guys in the band who wanted to be Commander Cody would've been out of the question. So, the band voted me that I would have to be Commander Cody because I could basically talk fast and had a good rap and gave pretty good radio. Then people started saying "Who's the Commander and what's he gonna do?" So, I had to come up and do a number, because I couldn't sing, I found out there's a long history of guys who couldn't sing. I first found it out through Phil Harris and traced it back to Johnny Bond. It's an answer song to a hit from 1949 called "Hot Rod Race".*
Q - After that song became a hit for you, I would imagine the pressure was on to come up with another "Hot Rod Lincoln".
A - Yeah, The band had three singers that actually sang. It was actually the seeds of the beginning of the end of the band. The record company immediately wanted me to do another vocal. The vocalists that were fronting the band, perhaps we'd like to have one of them. And that didn't work. They came up with "Love Potion Number 9" and that didn't work out...the old Coasters' tune. It got on the charts, but didn't go very well. Then we did "Smoke That Cigarette", which was a Country 'n Western hit. That's a Hank Thompson song. Then after that, there was no more hits. There were other hits in Europe.
Q - Is it difficult to be on the road touring?
A - Well, it depends. If you're taking jets and limos everywhere, no. If you have a high class modern bus that drives around and you just sit around a smoke weed all day as you're being cruised through the country...no. If you've got a beat up old '55 Chevy in the form of a Greyhound that's run by a bunch of hippies and you're staying at worse than "Super 8" and driving all night, every night for 300 days...we did 300 dates and got nothing out of it...yeah.
Q - It must be really tough to be a band on tour with no record deal.
A - Just because you have a record deal doesn't mean they're going to support you. Although back then, companies did a lot more to support you, depending on what they thought was going to be your single release. It varied, depending on who you were, how much money you made on your other hits. Nobody supported "Hot Rod Lincoln" before "Hot Rod Lincoln" was a hit. It was a fluke. It just happened to be a hit. Somebody in the garlic capital of the world in California, a disc jockey played it and for some magical reason caught on and people started playing it.
Q - You had a lot of personnel changes in The Airmen didn't you?
A - Not in the early days. Well, to get the band in the shape it needed to be in, we made a couple of changes and the band was pretty solid for awhile. Then when that band broke up, then of course there were huge changes.
Q - So, today as we speak, (2005) you have how many guys in your band?
A - Four.
Q - Do you have a record deal at the present time?
A - No.
Q - So, you must put out your own material and sell it at the shows and online?
A - Yeah. That's pretty much it. We have a DVD that we made in 2004 that we have a distributor for. We get a lot of sales on the Internet. The Internet is essentially what keeps us going. We had a booking agency that booked our gigs. Now, we're booking ourselves. We do about 70 to 80 gigs a year. It's enough to keep it going. It's not enough to support a whole operation, but it's enough to keep four guys going. We're rolling along considerably well, considering what our situation is.
Q - At least you've got "Hot Rod Lincoln" behind you.
A - And I like the song, so it doesn't bother me to do it every night. No problem what-so-ever.
Q - What type of venues are performing in?
A - We still do concerts. We still do theatres. We do outdoor festivals. We did all the big Blues Festivals in Canada last July, as a matter of fact.
© Gary James. All rights reserved.
"Hot Rod Lincoln" reached #9 for Commander Cody in 1972.
It was a #29 hit for Tiny Hill in 1951 as "Hot Rod Race".