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Interview: Rock Pioneer Commander Cody

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During the period of rock creativity that was the early ‘70s, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen different than most bands. While there were many country-influenced groups, the Airmen had a more idiosyncratic soundaccessing Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and boogie-woogie piano (serving as a predecessor to groups like Asleep at the Wheel). Band members also seemed to take themselves a bit less seriously than some of their contemporaries.

Like all groups, the Airmen eventually disbanded and they all went their separate ways, but the Commander (keyboardist George Frayne, who supplied the fast-talking vocals to “Hot Rod Lincoln”) has continued in the music business. His current group, Commander Cody and His Modern Day Airmen, has come out with a new CD, Live from the Island, that reworks many of the old songs.

The Commander talked with me by phone about the Lost Planet Airmen, his current band, and other topics. He has a rapid speaking style more identified with New York, where he was raised, than Texas.

How did you become interested in Texas swing and country music?

In the ‘60s, I was in a frat band [in Ann Arbor, Michigan], and in the frat band there’s no such thing as rehearsal … We had a record player and we put on the record player and played the song. So, we were looking for new material and around 1964, we discovered at the Farmer’s Market two albums. The first one was The Best of Buck Owens, which had just come out. It had “I Got a Tiger By the Tail” and “Act Naturally”. We picked up both of those songs—we later found out The Beatles did [“Act Naturally”] too.

We started just playing those right away. In 1966, I came across the Bob Wills album with the Paul Davis album cover, which is beautiful, and I felt this is going to be goodlet me check this out. At least, I like the album cover. We heard him go “Aha,” for the first time. and we figured out, “Wow, this is like cowboys’ attempt to play jazz.”

Now, around about that time, I was sitting around and this crazy-looking guy with a fiddle wanders byAndy Stein. We turned him onto the Bob Wills album. We said “Wow, this is great. We could do this.” At that time, our drummer had quit. We didn’t have a full drum kit. We didn’t have an electric bass player. We got a kid to play snare drum with brushes and we had an upright bass, so we start playing outside of frat houses. Nobody wanted this kind of music in frat houses.

Eventually, the whole thing broke upeveryone went off in different directions. [Lead guitarist] Bill Kirchen went off to San Francisco. I took a teaching job in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and we just let it go. I would go back to Ann Arbor from Wisconsin and we can just play on various things in these little clubs but it wasn’t very serious until 1969 when Kirchen called me from San Francisco to tell me, “Listen, man, Jerry Garcia is learning how to play steel guitar. If we’ve got a steel player and drive out here, I can get gigs for the summertime playing that kind of music because it’s really catching on here in the Bay Area, especially in Berkeley.” So, we went out in the summer, just to see what was happening, and by August 18th, we were opening for the Grateful Dead. So, that was that and we were on a new career.

Between 1969 and 1976 [Texas swing] was the emphasis of the band. We had the world’s best steel guitar player [Bobby Black]. We had a classical fiddle player [Stein] who had studied Bob Wills extensively, so, we started collecting the records and listening to it and we’re really interested in that.

Can you discuss the dynamics of the band? You guys seemed to come across as being less pretentious than some other groups at the time.

That wasn’t any kind of intention or anything like that. It was more of an eight-piece band and the way a Western Swing band is run. The lead singer is singing something and then somebody else is filling behind him. Everyone else is playing out a very good solo, and then everything was very structured. Of course, you can play what you wanted during your lead but it was very structured and all the solos were very short and it required a lot of attention and concentration. So that’s what we’re up to, really paying attention to what we were doing and trying to be the best we could be at that time.

About Phillip Barnett

Phillip Barnett is a software geek with multiple, conflicting musical fantasies. He has played jazz piano, folk guitar and klezmer clarinet (not all at the same time - that would look ridiculous and would probably hurt his back).