Another notable musician left the stage last week, without doing an encore.
George Frayne IV left the planet Sept. 26 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. That name not ringing any bells? That’s because he was best known as Commander Cody, co-founder of the band the Lost Planet Airmen.
Those names further might not penetrate too far beyond the collective musical consciousness, because CCLPA was not a huge hit-making machine. But they were an interesting offshoot of The Music, and produced several memorable songs. Actually, more of them than I remembered.
Their founder, Frayne, was born in 1944 in, of all places, Boise, Idaho. I say that because he was, if not an actual Renaissance man, for sure somewhat of a polymath: a visual artist who held advanced degrees in design, sculpture and painting, who also taught at the university level in Michigan and Wisconsin. So, how did he become the front man for a band best known for a song about a Model A Ford with a 1950s V-8 engine?
LPA came together in that memorable musical year, 1967, in Ann Arbor, Mich. The band took its name, as did Frayne, from 1950s science fiction serials and movies. (Sort of — the character that inspired Frayne’s stage name was actually called Commando Cody.)
After playing in area bars for a couple years, they decamped for Berkeley, California, where their fusion of country, jump blues, rock, rockabilly and Western swing caught on. (They perhaps helped another Western swing-influenced group come to prominence, inviting Asleep at the Wheel to also relocate to the San Francisco Bay area.) They soon landed a record contract, and in 1971 released their first album, Lost in the Ozone.
That LP included their biggest hit, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” a No. 9 in early 1972. That song has some classic lines, like “The brakes are good, tires fair.” And that one particular verse: “Now the boys all thought I'd lost my sense/And telephone poles looked like a picket fence./They said, "Slow down! I see spots!/The lines on the road just look like dots."
Neither Frayne nor the Airmen could take credit for those words, because their recording was a cover of a 1955 single by Charlie Ryan and the Livingston Bros. Ryan, who wrote the song — and actually raced a Lincoln-engined hot rod — reworked it in 1959, and got it into the Billboard Top 40.
Perhaps the band’s other best-known song, “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” was also a cover, of a 1947 No. 1 written by country greats Merle Travis and Tex Williams. “Lost in the Ozone Again,” a single off their first studio LP which got some FM airplay, was penned by Frayne’s co-lead vocalist Billy Farlow.
But the number of songs written by Farlow, Frayne and other band members generally declined with each album, until their other 1975 LP, Tales from the Ozone, only had two. The other cuts on that and the self-titled album were covers of country, Western swing and jazz standards.
CCLPA didn’t enjoy much chart success after “Lincoln,” the best-selling of their three subsequent charting singles reaching No. 56. Their best charting album was the self-titled 1975 LP, which got to No. 58.
Perhaps for that reason, even though the band continued to get good reviews from the rock critics, and built a reputation for great live concerts, Frayne disbanded CCLPA in 1977. He continued to perform and record as Commander Cody with other musicians, under a variety of names — including for a time, again, as the Lost Planet Airmen — but none did much commercially.
He had cut five albums since 2000, all but one of them live recordings; the most recent came out two years ago. A live set that predated their first studio album, “Bear’s Sonic Journals: Found in the Ozone,” was released last year.
Frayne and his bands didn’t exactly light things up commercially, or compile a body of work comparable to many of the other 1960’s and ’70s groups. But they created music that was distinctively American, the kind of fusion that makes rock and roll interesting and fun. Rest in peace, Commander.