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Dudley, McCall lead the convoy of trucking songs of the '70's

By Jon Johnson, June 2000

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"Stan Freberg was a tremendous influence," says the well-spoken Fries, now 71, referring to the popular comedian/ad writer, who has mined a similar vein of mixing advertising, music and humor from the '50's to the present day. "I said, 'I'm going to have a little fun with this. I'm going to create a little soap opera kind of thing.'"

The commercials featured Fries himself as the trucker - named C.W. McCall - and also built up a supporting cast of additional characters centered around a local truck stop, including McCall's love interest, Mavis the waitress. The commercials were already popular around the midwest when Fries started adding music to them.

"The spots turned out to be such a huge hit around there that people began to call the television stations and asked to see these commercials played almost like they were records! A year later it won the Clio Award for the best advertising campaign in the whole United States."

"So, we went back to the client and said, 'Well, let's do a record of that and sell it around here locally.' They sold about 30,000 of those in a couple of weeks."

"When you do anything like that, people sit up in Nashville and Los Angeles and take notice."

Notice they did. Approached by the biggest labels of the day, Fries - who was still holding down an advertising job in Omaha - ended up agreeing to record a single for MGM Records. The record - "Old Home Filler-Up an' Keep On-a-Truckin' Cafe" - reached number 19 on the country charts in August 1974, and MGM promptly asked Fries to record a full album.

The resulting album - "Wolf Creek Pass" - also did well for MGM, who immediately signed Fries to a five-year contract, at which point Fries quit the day job.

"The next album we wrote was called "Black Bear Road," which was about a jeep trip over one of those scary mountain roads. On that album was also a thing called 'Convoy.'"

"Convoy" was a monster; far and away the biggest country record of 1975 - actually hitting number one on both the country charts and the pop charts - and was the third-biggest country single of that decade.

There are few words or phrases that sum up an entire decade in one's mind. "Pet rock," mood ring," or "Watergate" all do the trick in the case of the 1970's, and "Convoy" serves just as well.

"Blowin' in the Wind" it wasn't, but peppered with the colorful C.B. radio lingo that was taking the country by storm, it defined a moment in time nonetheless: frustration with high gas prices, anger at the government and authority, and defiance of the new 55-mile-per-hour speed limit.

"We decided to do 'Convoy' because right at that time the big C.B. craze was going on. Truck drivers were striking. The speed limit was 55. There were gas shortages, and all kinds of things were happening around the country."

"Truck drivers made a big splash in the news, using C.B. radios to beat the 55- mile-per-hour limit. We listened to the jargon and fell in love with that because it was such colorful language. We went out and listened to them and took notes."

"We put this all together, and I said, 'Let's put this on an album and do a production number; really jazz it up and get some brass, strings, horns, and backup vocals.' I had always loved the opening drumbeat to the movie 'The Desert Fox.' It was very rebellious sounding. The rest of it was a narrative about taking a truck convoy across the country from 'Shakytown' (Los Angeles) to the Jersey shore."

"We put all this into a four-minute piece of music, and it was quite ambitious. And totally different from anything else that was on the air at the time. I went down to Nashville with this thing and did it at the Grand Ole Opry and a few other places and suddenly the record company said, 'You've got to get out on the road and promote this.'"

"I didn't have to promote it very much because d.j.'s around the country discovered it on the album, and they started playing it. There was a time when you could turn on any radio station in the country and within 30 seconds you'd hear 'Convoy.'"

When asked why 'Convoy' was so popular, Fries says, "I think it was because of the rebellious nature of the thing. It was about beating the system. And the jargon, of course, caught on, too."

Indeed, Fries quickly became a spokesman for Midland's line of citizen's band radios, with "Convoy" being largely responsible for expanding sales of C.B. radios into the general populace; something that had been happening anyway for a couple of years, but "Convoy" was the best advertisement that C.B. radio manufacturers ever could have dreamed of.

"They just started selling radios like hotcakes to people other than truckers," says Fries. "To ordinary car drivers."

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