Bill Fries passed away last Friday. The former mayor of Ouray, Colorado lived to the ripe old age of 93. Prior to his political career, he worked in advertising, and had a successful campaign for a Nebraska-based bread.
I knew him, however, as C.W. McCall. And most people knew C.W. McCall as the person behind the talking blues record that captured the citizens’ band radio fad quite succinctly …
You know. This song.
It’s okay. I speak CB lingo. I’ll translate.
The story involves a fleet of trucks – a Kenworth lumber truck, a refrigerated Peterbilt and a GMC with pork products – traveling in a “convoy” from Los Angeles to New Jersey. In order to beat the national 55-mph highway speed limit, the convoy uses CB radio to keep an eye out for highway patrols and police who might stop the convoy from speeding. As the convoy continues its journey eastbound, it picks up more trucks and vehicles on its journey. When they finally reach New Jersey, they burst through an organized police blockade to reach their destination – only to discover that their convoy has grown long enough to stretch from New Jersey all the way back to Nebraska.
And it hit #1 on the pop and country music charts, and spawned a series of “CB Radio” novelty songs in its wake. McCall later recorded some more country music songs – some involving trucking, some involving slices of life; one involving the story of Alferd Packer (“Coming Back for More”) that gets played once in a while on the Dr. Demento show.
In 2002, I had the extreme pleasure of interviewing CW McCall for my first-ever article for RoadKing magazine. At the time, I was freelancing for Goldmine, the record collectors’ biweekly, and had pitched the idea of interviewing CW McCall to my assistant editor. She thought the pitch was foolish. Undeterred, I pitched the idea to RoadKing, only discovering the magazine at – where else – a TravelCenters of America truck stop. Hmm. Trucking magazine … this could work.
I sent an email off to a possible contact, someone who claimed he knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who could put me in touch with McCall. Well, it was worth a try.
Two days later, I received an email and a phone number. From Bill Fries – um, CW McCall – himself.
I’m posting the article below. It was my first article for RoadKing magazine, and it even earned several awards from the Truck Writers of North America organization.
In 1975, “Smokey Bear” taught fire safety, a “rocking chair” was where Grandpa sat, and “Ten-four” was the score of last night’s baseball game. “Convoy,” a song where truck drivers join an ever-growing parade of Peterbilts and Kenworths and use “handles” to avoid the police – all told in CB jargon and lingo – changed all that. It became a worldwide hit, topping the pop and country charts in 1976, and helping to sell millions of CB radios.
It also became the biggest hit for C.W. McCall, a fictional truck driver/road poet created by advertising executive Bill Fries, who provided the voice and lyrics, and musician Louis “Chip” Davis, who created the orchestrations.
Nearly three decades after their biggest hit, Fries and Davis have brought back C.W. McCall with Mannheim Steamroller in a new CD called American Spirit. Among the new and classic tracks on the CD is a freshly-recorded version of “Convoy.”
“We’ve discovered there’s been a rebirth, a whole new generation is suddenly discovering this C.W. McCall stuff,” says Fries.
The character of C.W. McCall grew from a series of popular commercials Fries created for Old Home Bread, while he and Davis were working at an Omaha, Neb., ad agency. “We had to have a truck driver in the commercials,” said Fries, “and I needed to have a name for that truck driver. I looked down at my desk, and there’s a copy of McCall’s magazine, and McCall sounded like a good name for a truck driver. The truck drivers for Old Home Bread had initials on their shirts, so he became C.W. McCall – C.W. for Country and Western.”
A 45 rpm record based on the commercials “Old Home Filler-Up An’ Keep-On-A-Trucking’ Café,” was released under the name C.W. McCall. Fries and Davis sold 30,000 homemade copies, and later signed with MGM Records in 1974. While C.W. McCall had a series of minor country hits in 1974 and 1975, it wasn’t until November 1975 when “Convoy,” a little-known album track from McCall’s second album Black Bear Road, became a monster hit.
“There was the energy crisis, long lines at gas stations, 55 mph speed limits, and the truckers couldn’t get their loads to the marketplace,” recalled Fries. “They would create convoys on the road and try to beat the state patrol. We bought a CB and listened to them, and got a great collection of the jargon, their handles and all the things that they would say. Davis created a patriotic, militaristic sound on the record, with snare drums and a marching band beat. And I talked over the microphone, like I was on a CB radio. We knew the song was a hit when had to go out to Los Angeles, and when we got off the airplane and rode downtown in our rented car, we turned on the radio, and there it was. And no matter what station we turned to, within 30 seconds ‘Convoy’ would be on.”
In January 1976, “Convoy” topped the country and pop charts, introducing an entire nation to CB lingo. Sales of citizens’ band radios exploded, so much so that in 1977 the FCC increased the number of available CB channels from 23 to 40 to handle the additional users. Fries appeared on TV as C.W. McCall on “American Bandstand” and “Hee Haw,” and even licensed the McCall character to Midland International Radios, encouraging consumers to “join the Midland Convoy.”
The song spurred dozens of similar CB radio songs, as well as popular truck driving movies (including a movie adaptation of “Convoy,” starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw). But by 1979, the C.W. McCall phenomenon had run its course. Davis would later form the successful recording group Mannheim Steamroller, while Fries “went fishing” at a new home in Ouray, Colo. In 1986, he was elected mayor of Ouray, a post he held for six years.
Through it all, Fries maintains respect and love for the truck drivers who inspired his greatest hit. “I like truckers. They’re the modern cowboys of the road. They’d do anything for you. I still have a CB radio in my motor home – but we hardly ever use it, because we have cell phones now.”
Two years after that #1 hit, the song “Convoy” became a major-budget motion picture.
In life, sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you make your own luck.
CW McCall made his own luck. And for that, we’re thankful. Not just for Convoy, but for all his other works. He and his longtime friend Chip Davis were involved in the audiophonic collaboration Mannheim Steamroller, and even recorded a new version of Convoy under that imprint.
Much thanks, Bill Fries, for a life well spent and a life well lived. Breaker, breaker, no more takers. Wall to wall, tree top tall, that is all.