An evening with George Frayne (AKA Commander Cody) at Threadgill’s in Austin, Texas
Recently I wrote a piece on the Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen classic recording, From Deep in the Heart of Texas., recorded live at the Armadillo World Headquarters back in November of 1973. The article caught the eye of the folks at Blind Pig Records (www.blindpigrecords.com), who the ‘Ol Commander signed back on with after a twenty-three year separation. Debra Regur with Blind Pig asked if I’d like to review his new record, drunks, dopers, and everyday LOSERS. My reply was simple. I explained to her that asking me if I’d like to interview George Frayne, The ‘Ol Commander himself, was the equivalent of asking some small town southern preacher if he would like to interview God. “Of course”, I said, and immediately started sweating. What was someone like me going to ask George Frayne, who I had been listening to for forty years. How was I going to not ask him something he hadn’t already been asked a million times? Then it hit me. I wasn’t. Stop worrying about it and just go have a conversation with the man. Therefore, that is what I did. He was playing at Threadgill’s on Riverside Drive in Austin at their smallish outdoor amphitheater. It was a brisk night with a cool breeze blowing in from the north. The fire pit was raging and there was a circle of loyal fans gathered around waiting for The Commander Cody Band to hit the stage. They eventually came on stage at about ten after a great set played by a swamp-boogie band from North Texas called Shooting Doubles. There will be more about them another time. I predict we will hear a lot more from Shooting Doubles in the near future. I’ll review their CD as soon as I can get my hands on a copy. If there was anything disappointing about the evening it would be the fact there was no merchant selling CD’s or T-shirts for either band. I had money in hand ready to buy something, but there was nothing to buy. I thought this was America! The crowd was as diverse as anything you could imagine. I’d say the age range was anywhere from 5 or 6 years old (someone brought their family) to folks like me, who are in their mid to late 50’s and 60’s. One thing we all had in common, we were all very much into the show. You could tell the younger ones. They were the ones up on their feet dancing the night away. The older audience members stayed seated, since our hip and knee replacements keep us confined there most of the time anyway, but all of us doing the “butt groove” dance in our chairs. At one point, I was sure my wife was going to “Rock That Boogie” right out of her chair, and she didn’t even know who Commander Cody was until a week or so ago! The Commander Cody Band performed all of the most famous tunes, “Don’t Let Go”, “Down To Seeds and Stems Again Blues”, “Wine Do Your Stuff”, “Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar”, “Hot Rod Lincoln”, “Riot in Cell Block # 9”, etc., but they also performed many from Commander Cody’s latest record, dopers, drunks, and everyday LOSERS (Blind Pig Records). .From that record they did, “Roll Yer Own”, Lone Ranger”, “They Kicked Me Out of the Band” and most of the others (my review of CC’s latest coming soon). It is really a very good album. The band consisted of Charlie Owens on Bass, Steve Barbuto on Drums, Commander Cody on keyboards, and Ron Maroney on guitar. He also had the Pedal Steel player, and the fiddle player from Shooting Doubles come up and perform on several songs. Their performance was top-shelf indeed. The Commander is, without a question, the leader of the band. He has a commanding stage presence and the rest of the band is watching his every move. Members of the band were there to play a solo, or whatever else he asked them to do, at a simple “come on” motion of his hand. The Commander, after all these years, hasn’t lost a thing. He’s a bit on the frail side at first glance. Hell, he uses a cane most of the time thanks to a horrific accident back in the late 80’s, but once on stage, any of those frailties soon disappear. He is “The Commander”. As he stated in the discussion I had with him earlier in the evening, “I use different guys. I’ve got guys all over that help out. Mark doesn’t like to go to Italy so we’ll take Ron there. Mark Emerick’s dog died so we brought Ron Maroney to play guitar here too”.
Fats Domino had a huge influence on a young George Frayne I then asked George Frayne, who is greatest influences were. I should have known there would be no simple answer to this question. He stated, “You have to remember I spent most of my time as a kid listening to Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis. On a Fats Domino tune, it’s a da-da-da-ta-da-ta-da-ta-da, and makes a clunker sound, and I heard that and thought the guy made a mistake. Then I realized the chicks liked that, and I could do that.” He continued, “My mom had me take piano lessons, and I couldn’t do the left hand thing. I wasn’t good at doing the left hand. But then I started listening to boogie-woogie. I just got turned on to it and I said, What the hell is this? Then my ninth grade teacher, Mr. O’Leary was his name, at Oceanside Junior High School. He would shut up the class by going to play the piano sitting in the corner, and playing the “RE’ boogies. That’s what he called ‘em. So I heard that and I put that together with boogie-woogie and sort of made a style I had never heard before. I started playing and chicks sure weren’t looking at me back then but when I started playing in music class they started coming around.” Mr. Frayne goes on to say, “My mom was a beatnik and she was a college teacher and she used to hang out in the Village and found an Eddie Condon piano player. His name was Bob Nivey. He had a studio in Massapequa. I went in there and he showed me some very essential stuff like what blues progression is, and how to make chords, how to play boogie-woogie left handed and how not to worry about making it with the left hand. I learned all this stuff from him.” “And about 3 or 4 years later I’m in Michigan washing pots at the fraternity and I met a guy in the kitchen crew who played guitar, John Tichy. He was in a band and they had a piano but no piano player. We started playing together and started doing frat houses, doing songs like ‘Louie Louie’, and other songs like that.”
Bob Wills was a strong influence and was discovered by George Frayne at about the same time he discovered marijuana “I went on to graduate school, and in about 1966 I found a Bob Wills album and marijuana. I’m pretty sure those guys were stoned most of the time. I started listening to Jerry Lee Lewis’s album that had Crazy Arms, and Buck Owens’s greatest hits. We did “Tiger By the Tail” regularly. What country music afforded for us was there was no rehearsal, we listened to the record, we drank a bunch of whiskey and coke and played. Country music is easy to do if someone knows the lyrics and the song you can follow along relatively easily.” “In the late 60’s we changed our name to Commander Cody. The frat guys didn’t like us much by this time so we stopped doing frat houses and started playing at the coffee houses where they’d let us play this kind of stuff. Bill Kirchen left the band and went out to San Francisco.”
Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen (around 1967) George Frayne soon followed and the rest was history. I asked him if he still communicates with any of the original Lost Planet Airmen. He said, “I see John Tichy a couple times a year. He lives up in Troy, which is about a half hour from me. He just retired from the head of the physics department at the university he’s been with”. “I saw Kirchen a couple months ago and sat in with him on Hot Rod Lincoln when he opened for The New Riders.” “Billy C. I don’t see. He stole The Commander’s stash, so he’s probably in Alabama with his mother.” “The drummer doesn’t exist anymore and Bobby Black (one of the greatest pedal steel guitarists to ever play the instrument) is mostly retired at 78. He doesn’t do much anymore. Bruce (Barlow) is ill.” We talked about his latest record, dopers, drunks and everyday LOSERS (Blind Pig Records). He said, “We play it different now. We’ve rockified everything. The way we used to play, if you listen, it was fast paced reefer smokin’ music. You couldn’t dance to it. We’ve slowed it down a bit.”
The Commander Cody Band’s latest record released earlier this year He said, “You take three songs out of my set and I’m a blues man”. The Commander continued, “I use mostly a 4 piece band and if I can afford it I may bring a fifth guy. The various clubs around the country that afford you longevity are blues clubs so I work with blues crews from different places.” He sort of jokingly added, “30 years ago the money that used to get you a truck, eight guys (musicians), 4 roadies, 2 secretaries, and a lawyer, now will get you 4 guys and a minivan.” If you want to see George Frayne’s eyes light up though, ask him about his artwork (www.commandercody.com). He does some beautiful work. My personal favorite was his portrait of Howlin’ Wolf. It turns out that was his favorite too. When I asked about who influenced his artwork, without hesitation he said, “My Mom and Dad. They were both graphic artists”.
George Frayne’s portrait of Howlin’ Wolf He also mentioned he is writing a book that will be out soon that will contain much of his artwork with a little blurb of his experiences with the subject. For instance, next to the print he did of Louis Armstrong, he would tell about smoking a joint with Satchmo or something. It certainly sounded like something I would read. He’s hoping to have that on the bookshelves by this coming December. The interview, the incredible show after the interview, everything. It all came together to create a fantastic evening of entertainment I could never have imagined. I can’t wait to go see The ‘Ol Commander and Band the next time they come through here.