George Frayne, who as leader of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen enjoyed a cult following in the 1970s with such party and concert favorites as “Hot Rod Lincoln” and “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” has died.
Frayne died Sunday in Saratoga Springs, New York, according to his wife Sua Casanova, who did not immediately provide further details. He was 77 and had been diagnosed with cancer several years ago. “As I lay my head upon his shoulder/ George’s soul took to flight/ I am heartbroken and weary/ And I know your hearts break too,” Casanova wrote last weekend on her Facebook page.
Formed in 1967, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen drew upon influences ranging from Western swing to jump blues. They became a popular touring and recording act during the first half of the 1970s, getting around the country in a converted Greyhound bus. They specialized in uptempo remakes, notably the top 10 hit “Hot Rod Lincoln”; “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” a novelty song from the 1940s; “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” and “Diggy Liggy Lo.” The sound was country-rock boogie and the mood lighthearted and ready to get wild, as defined by Frayne’s witty talking-blues vocals.
Frayne was a native of Boise, Idaho, who grew up in New York City and Long Island and had an early interest in piano and art and design. He attended the University of Michigan as an undergraduate and graduate student and was still living in Ann Arbor when he helped form Commander Cody along with Billy C. Farlow, Bill Kirchen and others he would call “neo-radicals who specialized in a form of quasi-social mayhem.”
Their name was lifted from old movie serials — including a science fiction adventure from the 1950s featuring space fighter Commander Cody. They resettled in the Bay Area in California in 1969, when a trippy name like Commander Cody and His Lost Plane Airmen fit well with such local groups as the Charlatans, Quicksilver Messenger Service and (more famously), Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. They had success in the early 1970s with “Hot Rod Lincoln” and released six albums from 1971-75, including the acclaimed Live from Deep in the Heart of Texas, while resisting Warner Bros’ efforts to model themselves on the commercial country-rock of the Eagles.
The band broke up in the mid-1970s, but Frayne (still calling himself Commander Cody) continued to tour and record, performing with Jerry Garcia, Elvis Costello and Sammy Hagar among others and releasing such albums as Dopers, Drunks and Everyday Losers and Worst Case Scenario. He also painted, made films, and taught at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. In 2009, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen was voted into Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame.