Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late C.W. McCall with a rearview mirror glance at his lone Hot 100-topper, the unstoppable country novelty hit “Convoy.”
If you didn’t recognize the name Bill Fries as it popped up in obituary headlines over the past weekend, after Fries’ death at age 93 following a cancer diagnosis, you might have had more luck with the name that followed: C.W. McCall. That was the identity assumed by the performer-songwriter Fries back when he was still an ad executive for the Bozell and Jacobs agency in Omaha, Nebraska in 1973. With commercial truckers then in the news more than usual, thanks to a fuel shortage and nationally imposed 55-MPH speed limit that made their struggles (and communal attempts to navigate those struggles, particularly with the use of CB radio) a public concern, Fries created the McCall character as a musical narrator for trucker-centered advertisements, winning a Clio in the process. A few years later, McCall would earn Fries an even more prestigious distinction: a Hot 100 No. 1 single, with the CB radio anthem “Convoy.”
McCall is often remembered as a one-hit wonder, but in fact, “Convoy” wasn’t his only hit, or even his first hit. He first cracked the Hot 100 in 1974 with the No. 54-peaking “Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep On-a-Truckin’ Cafe,” a rest-stop ode that in fact had originally been used by Fries to anchor a series of commercials for Old Home Bread, before being partially combined and recorded as a standalone single under the McCall name. He bettered that with his next release, “Wolf Creek Pass,” another road mini-odyssey that just cracked the Hot 100’s top 40 — and which also titled the first C.W. McCall album, a No. 4 hit on Billboard‘s Country Albums chart. Third single “Classified” just missed the Hot 100 but made for the performer-songwriter’s third straight top 20 hit on the Country Songs listing, all co-written by eventual Mannheim Steamroller founder Chip Davis.
Referring to McCall as a “performer-songwriter” is something of a necessity, because he didn’t technically do much singing on any of these singles. As Johnny Cash and Charlie Daniels had done on Nixon-era hits of their own, McCall tells his stories in straight-faced, spoken-word narration, with a sonorous baritone that motors as fast and steady as the truckers he’s talking about. But where those country greats were certainly capable of singing on their songs’ choruses — and had other hits where they were primarily serving as crooners — McCall mostly stuck to his rat-a-tatting on the verses, and let his backing singers take the lead when it came time for the more melodic chorus hooks. The same was true for “Convoy” when it arrived in 1975, also co-penned by Davis, as the second single from McCall’s sophomore album Black Bear Road.
While “Convoy” today is inextricably associated with memories of the CB radio fad — which by ’75 had expanded in popularity from trucker necessity to national craze, with prognosticators quoted in Forbes even predicting CB to be a billion-dollar industry by the next decade, according to Fred Bronson’s The Billboard Book of No. 1 hits — its quick rise up the charts is also linked to two other major pop trends of the mid-’70s: crossover country and story songs. Though country No. 1s on the Hot 100 are a rarity in the 21st century, and were scarcely seen in the ’60s and early ’70s, they were essentially commonplace around ’75, with stars like John Denver and Glen Campbell reaching the chart’s apex multiple times with pop-friendly twangers. And both inside and outside of country, the decade had been littered with hit story songs: FM radio-ready narratives that told a relatively full and coherent story within the confines of a (sometimes lengthier than average) pop song, making for one-off chart-toppers from Vicki Lawrence and Paper Lace and further No. 1 hits for more regular hitmakers like Helen Reddy and Cher.
But it was of course the CB radio usage that propelled “Convoy” to the next level, as the song’s tale of a rebel trucker cavalcade electrified audiences, along with its fictional CB names of “Sodbuster,” “Pig Pen” and “Rubber Duck” (the latter McCall’s own handle), use of “10-4” and “10-9” call signs, and deployment of deep trucker lingo (“bear in the air” for police helicopter, “swindle sheets” for falsified trucker logs). With the martial beat, tensely plodding piano and over-enunciated narration of its verses, “Convoy” generates a decent amount of suspense, especially with the added drama of faux-CB transmissions being interspersed throughout — all of it making the single perhaps feel more like the intro credits to a TV serial than a top 40 fixture.
The chorus, however, is where everything comes together for “Convoy” as a pop song — as the beat lightens up, the melody shifts, the piano softens, sweet strings fly in from overhead, and McCall’s terse spoken word is replaced with his backing vocalists gently exclaiming, “‘Coz we got a great big convoy, rockin’ through the night/ We got a great big convoy, ain’t she a beautiful sight?” It’s an easily understood and joined-in singalong moment, punctuated by one final, suddenly minor punch of the title phrase — “CON-VOYYYYY!!” — that sends the song hurtling back to its verses. It’s a chorus of cleverly designed contrast, one that interrupts the verses just in time to keep them from being unbearably anxious and foreboding, but which gets back out of the way before undoing all the momentum they’d been building. And it’s also just instantly memorable, the kind of chorus that can still be used for a mostly random Simpsons gag two decades later and still translate on some level.
The timely lyrical novelty of “Convoy,” combined with it fitting snugly at the cross-section of a couple other major waves of ’70s pop music, resulted in it speeding to the top of the charts — debuting at No. 82 on the Hot 100 on the chart dated Dec. 6, 1975, and replacing the Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night” at No. 1 on the Jan. 10, 1976 chart just five weeks later, an incredible trajectory for a mid-’70s hit by a relatively unproven artist. The song lasted just the one week on top — part of a run of six straight single-week No. 1s at the turn of the calendar year — before giving way to Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs.” ultimately spending 16 total weeks on the chart and ending up as the No. 57 song on Billboard‘s year-end Hot 100 for 1976. (The single also marked the final Hot 100 No. 1 for the once-mighty MGM Records, home to chart-toppers like Connie Francis and Herman’s Hermits in the ’60s, who were fully absorbed into Polydor records in ’76 and mostly left as a label for soundtracks and reissues until operations ceased in the early ’80s.)
The CB radio trend didn’t continue growing as Forbes‘ sources had predicted, instead mostly becoming a relic of the “Me” Decade by the start of the ’80s. McCall’s pop career didn’t fare much better, as he reached the Hot 100 just one more time — with the No. 73-peaking and exceedingly ’70s-titled “There Won’t Be No Country Music (There Won’t Be No Rock ‘n’ Roll)” in 1976 — though he did manage one more major country single with the No. 2-peaking Country Songs hit “Roses For Mama.” (He also tried a sequel song, “Round the World With the Rubber Duck,” shorly after “Convoy,” with limited success.) Fries ultimately left C.W. McCall behind altogether, getting out of music and into politics, serving two terms as mayor of his adopted town of Ouray, Colorado, beginning in 1986. (“Well I haven’t got anything else to do… why not?” he recalled a quarter-century later about being asked to run for the office.)
But “Convoy” endured, for better and worse. The song inspired a Sam Peckinpah-directed 1978 movie of the same name, in the vein of prior ’70s road chase movies like Smokey and the Bandit and White Line Fever, receiving mixed reviews but decent box office returns. It’s also continued to be parodied and covered well into the 21st century, including a 2004 rendition from Canadian country hitmaker Paul Brandt — a top 10 country hit in his homeland — and a 2010 remake from conservative singer-songwriter Colt Ford. And just this year, “Convoy” was used as a rallying cry for the groan-worthy Freedom Convoy, a series of anti-vaccination mandate protests in Canada, an unfortunate use of the song that nonetheless showed its unlikely rallying powers (and Fries’ spokesperson prowess) to be just as potent nearly a half-century later.