George “Commander Cody” Frayne, 1944-2021

Jeff Tamarkin on September 27, 2021
George “Commander Cody” Frayne, 1944-2021

Photo by Les Kippel

When they sang, on their first live album, “I ain’t never had too much fun,” Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen weren’t joking. Boy, were they ever fun! And like the song said, there was never too much of it. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were a freakin’ blast!

Here was a band—eight players strong—that did it all: rockabilly, Western swing, jump blues, boogie-woogie, honky-tonk country, vintage R&B, straight-up rock ’n’ roll, sometimes all rolled up into one irresistible conglomeration. If it was real, it was in their mix, the very definition of Americana long before there was a kind of music called Americana. And they made it all sound like a great big party.

On September 26, 2021, the “Ol’ Commander” himself—pianist, vocalist, de facto bandleader and all-around good-natured guy—George Frayne, lost his battle against an unspecified illness (rumored to be cancer). He was 77 when he died in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., his longtime home. In a post on his Facebook page, Frayne’s wife, Sue Casanova, wrote:

“Early this morning
As I lay my head upon his shoulder
George’s soul took to flight
I am heartbroken and weary
And I know you are too
Thank you so much for all the love you gave
And the stories you shared.”

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen had formed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, coming together from all over the U.S.A. George Frayne IV was born in Boise, Idaho, on July 19, 1944. The others in the band—vocalist Billy C. Farlow, guitarists/vocalists Bill Kirchen (lead) and John Tichy (rhythm), bassist “Buffalo” Bruce Barlow, fiddler and saxophonist Andy Stein, drummer Lance Dickerson and pedal steel guitarist Steve Davis had arrived from such far-flung locales as Alabama, California, Connecticut, Michigan, West Virginia and New York. The band’s name was derived from combining a 1950s serial character named Commando Cody with the title of a sci-fi film, Lost Planet Airmen.

In 1969, the octet relocated to Berkeley, California, where they quickly built a following at local clubs while also putting on frequent free outdoor concerts and opening for all manner of bands. Although CC & His LPA were the antithesis of the jam-based psychedelic bands still holding forth at the Fillmore and the Avalon ballrooms—and avoided the stuffy, studious approach that made so much of the budding country-rock of the era seem just a bit too precious—they were embraced by the same audiences that enjoyed those other approaches. The Cody outfit sang songs of truck drivers and the women who missed them covered obscure country and rockabilly singles threw in some gospel, preached unabashedly about the joys of intoxication, and made it all work.

At the helm of all of this was Frayne, a skilled pianist with a gravelly voice, a lascivious, rebellious streak and a wicked sense of humor. They would have been a great band with any competent piano player sitting there, but their namesake gave them definition. Even with eight guys on the stage, fans couldn’t take their eyes off the piano player.

Signed to the independent Paramount Records, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen released their debut album, Lost in the Ozone, in late 1971. While every track was a gem, a few were highlights: The title track, written by Farlow, was a celebration of being out there, and “Seeds and Stems (Again)” piled on the metaphors and sob stories to tell a tale of loss and loneliness (“Well, my dog died yesterday, and left me all alone”). Cover tunes, among them Buddy Holly’s “Midnight Shift” and “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar,” a scorching boogie-woogie once recorded by the pop Andrews Sisters, gave FM rock radio DJs plenty to choose from.

But it was “Hot Rod Lincoln” that everyone loved. Originally recorded by country artist Charlie Ryan in 1955, the speedy rockabilly-esque saga began with the declaration, “My pappy said, ‘Son, you’re gonna drive me to drinkin’ if you don’t stop drivin’ that hot rod Lincoln,’” and got wilder with each successive sung-spoken line, guitar lick and sound effect. The single reached number 9 on the Billboard chart in 1972, their only real hit, and boosted the band’s national profile considerably beyond the New York and Bay Area bases where they were already filling up theaters and college gyms.

For the follow-up album, 1972’s Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers Favorites, Bobby “Blue” Black came in on pedal steel guitar. The album, which mixed a few new originals with more covers (including a pair of Little Richard nuggets), was somewhat slicker in production than its predecessor and was followed by Country Casanova in 1973. Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas, recorded at Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas, in November 1973, was next, giving listeners who had not yet experienced the raucous jubilation of a Cody show their first official taste.

None of these albums were big sellers. The next one, simply titled Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen—their first release for the major Warner Bros. Records—reached number 58, the highest position they would ever attain. But it didn’t matter—what the band lacked in LP sales they more than made up for with concert tickets, as word continued to expand about their thoroughly exhausting, impeccably played gigs.

The making of that album, however, would later be the subject of a book, Star-Making Machinery, by Geoffrey Stokes, that detailed the overall nastiness of the labyrinthine music business while doubling as a chronicle of the slow, steady disintegration of the Lost Planet Airmen. There would be a couple more albums—1975’s Tales From the Ozone; and another in-concert set, 1976’s We’ve Got a Live One Here!—before it all fell apart, the musicians going their separate ways.

Post-LPA, guitarist-singer-songwriter Kirchen became a highly regarded figure in the Americana genre, while Stein became successful as a session violinist. Some of the others stayed in music, some did not. Frayne himself soldiered on, forming several new groups with names like the Commander Cody Band and Commander Cody and His Modern Day Airmen. He continued to perform live well into the 2000s and to release new albums on a succession of labels. Beyond that, Frayne continued to pursue his other great love, art. Having earned a college degree in sculpture and painting from the University of Michigan while the Lost Planet Airmen were still in their infancy, he created artworks that were used with various Commander Cody projects (his brother, Chris, also painted, providing album covers for several of the band’s releases). Among Frayne’s most oft-praised works were portraits of automobiles, reflecting another lifelong interest of his. Frayne published a book, Art, Music and Life, in 2009.

Frayne also worked in the video and film media—a video he made for his solo track “Two Triple Cheese Side Order of Fries” is held in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent video archive.