Alt-Country pioneer George Frayne, aka Commander Cody, dies at 77

George Frayne, who as frontman of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen fused western swing, jump blues, rockabilly and boogie-woogie with a 1960s philosophy to pave the way for generations of roots-rock, Americana and alternative country. musicians, died Sunday at his home in Saratoga Springs, NY. He was 77 years old.

John Tichy, one of the original members of the group, who is now an engineering professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said the cause was esophageal cancer.

Although the group only lasted a decade and had only one Top 10 hit, Mr. Frayne’s charisma and rowdy stage presence – as well as the uncommon Airmen sound – made it a cult favorite in 1970s music hotspots like the San Francisco and Austin area. , Texas.

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen weren’t the only rock band exploring country music in the early 1970s. The Eagles, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Poco and others tapped a similar vein and made had more commercial success. But fans, and especially other musicians, appreciated the aviators’ raw authenticity, craftsmanship, and exuberant love for the music they made – or, in many cases, remake.

“He said, ‘We’re going to come back and get that good old music and give it a’ 60s and ’70s spirit,” “Ray Benson, frontman of Asleep at the Wheel, one of the many bands inspired by Mr. Frayne, said in a telephone interview. “He saw the craftsmanship and the beauty of the things America left behind. “

Mr. Frayne and his band were more comfortable on stage than in the recording studio. They often gave 200 or more shows a year, and they were widely regarded as one of America’s best live bands; their 1974 album “Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas”, recorded at Armadillo’s world headquarters in Austin, was previously ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 best albums of all time.

“He was a comic book character that came to life,” Mr. Benson said of Mr. Frayne. “He looked like the wild man, chewing a cigar and banging on a piano. But he was also an artist, who used the group as a way to express a much bigger picture. “

George William Frayne IV was born July 19, 1944 in Boise, Idaho, where his father, George III, was stationed as a pilot during World War II. Soon after, the family moved to Brooklyn, where her father and mother, Katherine (Jones) Frayne, were both artists. The family then moved to Bay Shore on Long Island, near Jones Beach, where George worked the summers as a lifeguard.

Mr. Frayne’s first marriage, to Sara Rice, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Sue Casanova, and his stepdaughter, Sophia Casanova.

Having learned to play the boogie-woogie piano at the University of Michigan, Mr. Frayne used his musical talent to earn money in beer, joining a series of bands hired to play fraternal nights. He soon teamed up with a group of musicians, including Dr Tichy, who played guitar, and who introduced Mr. Frayne to classical country, especially Bob Wills’ western swing and Buck’s Bakersfield sound. Owens.

Both Mr. Frayne and Dr. Tichy stayed in Michigan for their graduate studies and continued to play at clubs around Ann Arbor. Although they gave a country comeback to students otherwise passionate about protest songs, they were a success. They just needed a name.

Mr. Frayne was a big fan of old westerns, especially weird westerns like the 1935 series “The Phantom Empire,” in which Gene Autry discovers an underground civilization. Something about sci-fi and retro country clicked for him. He took the stage name Commando Cody, after Commando Cody, the hero of two series from the 1950s, and named his group after the 1951 film “Lost Planet Airmen”.

He received his master’s degree in sculpture and painting in 1968 and that fall began teaching at Wisconsin State College-Oshkosh, now the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. But he was restless; he returned to Ann Arbor on weekends for concerts, and when Bill Kirchen, the lead guitarist of The Lost Planet Airmen, moved to Berkeley and encouraged others to follow, Mr. Frayne left academia and s’ is directed to the west.

The San Francisco scene was still under the sway of acid rock, but the East Bay was more eclectic. Soon the group was opening act for acts like the Grateful Dead and later Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper.

The Lost Planet aviators have grown to eight core members, several of whom share the duties of lead singer; there were often 20 or more on stage, dancing, playing kazoo, and even, in some adult-only shows, stripping. Their music was lively and rhythmic, centered on Mr. Frayne, who was seated – or just as often standing – at his piano, long hair and shirtless, beating beers and keys.

A Profile of 1970 in Rolling Stone, a year before the band released their debut album, titled Commander Cody and His Lost Airmen “one of the best unknown rock ‘n’ roll bands in America today.”

At first, the Lost Airmens ‘country rockin’ really didn’t belong anywhere – neither in the post-hippie Bay area nor in Nashville, where they were booed from the stage at a 1973 concert, the crowd. shouting “Get yourself a haircut!” “

“We didn’t think about bringing in anyone,” Mr. Frayne told Rolling Stone. “We were just having a good time, pick and play and earn a few extra bucks.”

In 1971, the band released their first album, “Lost in the Ozone”. It spawned a surprise single, a cover of Charlie Ryan’s 1955 rockabilly song, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” with Mr. Frayne speaking at lightning speed through the lyrics:

They arrested me and they put me in jail
And I called my pappy to put down my deposit.
And he said, “Son, you’re gonna take me to drink
If you don’t stop driving this hot… rod… Lincoln!

It was this song, and the band’s frequent trips to Austin, that allowed them to find their place, snuggling up among the seekers and weirdos who crammed into the city and built its music scene.

“They were plowing new turf, even though they were doing it with heirloom seeds,” Austin reporter Joe Nick Patoski said in an interview.

But the success of “Hot Rod Lincoln” haunted them, especially when they tried to go too far beyond their fan base.

“Their success categorized them as a new bunch, and so the record label’s costumes were on the hunt for the next ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’,” Mr. Patoski said.

In 1974, they signed with Warner Bros. Records, but relentless pressure to produce new music and the band’s poor album sales eventually pulled them apart – a story documented in the 1976 book “Starmaking Machinery: The Odyssey of an Album”, by Geoffrey Stokes.

“The only thing worse than selling yourself,” Mr. Frayne told Mr. Stokes, “is to sell and not to be bought.”

After the group split up in 1977, Mr. Frayne continued to perform with various reinforcement groups, still as Commander Cody. In 2009, he reformed the Lost Planet Airmen, mostly with new members, and released an album, “Dopers, Drunks and Everyday Losers”.

He also returned to art, make Pop Art portraits musicians like Jerry Garcia and Sarah Vaughan – collected in a 2009 book, “Art, Music and Life” – and experimenting with video production.

As a musician he had another minor hit, “Two Triple Cheese, Side Order of Fries”, in 1980. But it was the video for the song, directed by John Dea, that really stood out: A fast paced, low-tech (by today’s standards) blend of 1950s lunch counter culture and hot rod misdeeds, it won an Emmy and is now part of the permanent collection of the Museum of ‘modern Art.

Corina C. Butler

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