George Frayne, aka Commander Cody, alt-country pioneer, dies at 77

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George Frayne, aka Commander Cody, alt-country pioneer, dies at 77
With his band the Lost Planet Airmen, he infused older genres like Western swing and boogie-woogie with a freewheeling 1960s spirit and attracted a devoted following.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK, NY.- George Frayne, who as frontman for the band Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen melded Western swing, jump blues, rockabilly and boogie-woogie with a freewheeling 1960s ethos to pave the way for generations of roots-rock, Americana and alt-country musicians, died Sunday at his home in Saratoga Springs, New York. He was 77.

John Tichy, one of the band’s original members, who is now a professor of engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said the cause was esophageal cancer.

Although the band lasted only a decade and had just one Top 10 hit, Frayne’s charisma and raucous onstage presence — as well as the Airmen’s genre-busting sound — made them a cult favorite in 1970s music meccas such as the San Francisco area and Austin, Texas.

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen was not the only rock band exploring country music in the early 1970s. The Eagles, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Poco and others mined a similar vein, and were more commercially successful. But fans, and especially other musicians, took to the Airmen’s raw authenticity, their craftsmanship and their exuberant love for the music they were making — or, in many cases, remaking.

“He said, ‘We’re gonna reach back and get this great old music and infuse it with a ’60s and ’70s spirit,’” Ray Benson, frontman for Asleep at the Wheel, one of the many bands inspired by Frayne, said in an interview. “He saw the craft and beauty of things America had left behind.”

Frayne and his band were more comfortable onstage than in the recording studio. They often performed 200 or more shows a year, and they were widely considered one of the best live bands in America; their album “Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas” (1974), recorded at Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, was once ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the top 100 albums of all time.

“He was a comic-book character come to life,” Benson said of Frayne. “He looked the part of the wild man, chomping on a cigar and banging on a piano. But he was also an artist, who happened to use the band 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 afterward the family moved to the New York City borough of Brooklyn, where his father and his mother, Katherine (Jones) Frayne, were both artists. The family later moved to Bay Shore on Long Island, near Jones Beach, where George worked summers as a lifeguard.

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 boogie-woogie piano while at the University of Michigan, Frayne used his musical talent to make beer money, joining a series of bands hired to play frat-house parties. He soon fell in with a group of musicians, including Dr. Tichy, who played guitar and who introduced Frayne to classic country, especially the Western swing of Bob Wills and the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens.

Both Frayne and Tichy stayed at Michigan for graduate school and continued to play in clubs around Ann Arbor. Although they offered throwback country to students otherwise keen on protest songs, they were a hit. They just needed a name.

Frayne was a big fan of old Westerns, especially weird ones such as the 1935 serial “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 Commander Cody, after Commando Cody, the hero of two 1950s serials, and named his band after the 1951 movie “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, today the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. But he was restless; he flew back to Ann Arbor on weekends for gigs, and when Bill Kirchen, lead guitarist for the Lost Planet Airmen, moved to Berkeley and encouraged the rest to follow, Frayne quit academia and headed West.

The San Francisco scene was still in the thrall of acid rock, but the East Bay was more eclectic. Soon the band was opening for acts such as the Grateful Dead and, later, Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper.

The Lost Planet Airmen grew to eight core members, several of them sharing lead-singer duties; there would often be 20 or more others onstage, dancing, playing kazoo and even, at certain adults-only shows, stripping. Their music was bright and up-tempo, centered on Frayne, who sat — or just as often stood — at his piano, longhaired and shirtless, pounding beers and keys.

A 1970 profile in Rolling Stone, a year before the band released its first album, called Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen “one of the very best unknown rock 'n' roll bands in America today.”

At first, the Lost Planet Airmen’s rockin’ country didn’t really fit in anywhere — neither in the post-hippie Bay Area nor in Nashville, Tennessee, where they were booed off the stage at a 1973 concert, the crowd yelling, “Get a haircut!”

“We didn’t think of appealing to anybody,” Frayne told Rolling Stone. “We were just having a good time, picking and playing and making a few dollars on the side.”

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

They arrested me and they put me in jailAnd called my pappy to throw my bail.And he said, “Son, you’re gonna drive me to drinkin’If you don’t stop drivin’ that hot … rod … Lincoln!

It was that song and the band’s frequent trips to Austin that allowed them room to find their place, nestling in among the seekers and weirdos piling into the city and building its music scene.

“They were plowing new turf, even if they were doing it with heritage seeds,” Austin journalist Joe Nick Patoski said in an interview.

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

“Their success got them pigeonholed as a novelty band, and so the suits at the record company were looking for the next ‘Hot Rod Lincoln,’” Patoski said.

In 1974, they signed with Warner Bros. Records, but the relentless pressure to produce new music, and the band’s lackluster album sales, eventually broke 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 out,” Frayne told Stokes, “is selling out and not getting bought.”

After the band broke up in 1977, Frayne continued to perform with a variety of backup bands, always as Commander Cody. In 2009, he re-formed the Lost Planet Airmen, mostly with new members, and released an album, “Dopers, Drunks and Everyday Losers.”

He also returned to art, making pop art portraits of musicians such as Jerry Garcia and Sarah Vaughan — collected in a 2009 book, “Art, Music and Life” — and experimenting with video production.

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

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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