Wednesday, October 5, 2011

From Iowa to Ouray: The Life of C.W. McCall

C.W. McCall and Co. (Click to Enlarge)
From the private collection of Bill Fries Jr.

Bill Fries Jr. will tell you that he is more of an advertising guy who has a knack for writing songs than he is a musician. But his millions of fans might tell you otherwise. His name might not even ring a bell to your ears, but if you got them on, you might recognize his pseudonym, which is C.W. McCall.

C.W. McCall of course is the author of America's trucking anthem, "Convoy."

His story is a shining example of the American Dream. He never set out to be a world famous musician, but through some good fortune and more than just a little bit of luck, he became just that. What he did set out to be was an advertising agent, and because he was so improbably good at being one, he somehow managed to squeeze a music career out of it. You don't hear his name mentioned much these days, but it's not due to fade away syndrome... It's because shortly after hitting the big time he realized that he wasn't meant for a life in the music business, and pulled the plug on his own career.

That being said, Bill says that he gets more fan mail today then he got 10 years ago largely because he believes that kids are breaking out their dad's record collections and giving them a listen. It makes sense... When you listen to what they are serving up on the airwaves these days, you know the kids gotta be reaching for something better. I know that when I was a teen, I was hoarding my parent's Beatles, Kinks and Johnny Cash albums because most of the music that came out in the '80s did very little to impress me, despite my having the impressionable mind of a teenager. I wasn't sure about too many things, but I knew that Huey Lewis and Cyndi Lauper weren't doing it for me.

Not to take anything away from Mr. Fries. He has been quietly making the right moves his entire life. From conversations I've recently had with him, at 82 he is still sharp around the edges. He told me his story with grace and amazing articulation. And, as a good story teller does, he kept me on the edge of my chair, completely engaged until the last word.

He told me that The Bigfoot Diaries is the first blog that he has agreed to do an interview with. "I don't recognize too many of the musicians on your page," he said. I went on to tell him that we don't really cater to the mainstream, but we do like to write about traditional music too, and we do have a place on our blog for proper Americana. That seemed to put him at ease, as he began to tell me his story. It's not one that is well-known, but it's one that should be told. It's long and improbable, and it's nothing short of incredible. It's rare to find somebody who lives their entire life on their own terms, dictating each and every move with perfect precision, as Mr. Fries has. "To tell my story, you can't just talk about 'Convoy,'" he said to me, "You got to set that up."

And so it began...
(Photo courtesy of Bill Fries)
The Iowa Years

"I am a child of the Great Depression." Bill Fries told me. "I was born on November 15th, 1928, and by the time I was a year old the stock market crashed and we found ourselves immersed in the Great Depression... Now, we didn't really know that we were in a great depression. My family was not well to do, but we got through all those years fairly easily. I grew up in a small town named Audubon, Iowa which was surrounded by farms, corn fields and so on."

His first recollection of having anything to do with music came from his mother and father. His dad played violin and his mother, the piano. Together they played Ragtime at country dances. His father also had two brothers who played, one strummed a banjo and the other a guitar. They formed what was called The Fries Brothers Band and played for dances all over the country.

The Fries Brothers Band. Bill Fries's mother seated,
and his father standing directly behind her.
(Photo from Bill Fries's private collection)
His mother, being a pianist, wanted young Bill to learn how to play the piano. At about the age of three his mother took him to the Audubon high school, and together they performed in a talent contest. She played the piano while he sang "I'll Be Coming Around the Mountain."

"That was my first performance ever," he said. "For some reason I could sing. I don't know why."

At about that time his parents discovered that another talent was surfacing. Young Bill Fries had a knack for drawing exact replicas of Walt Disney characters from his memory. There could have been a reason for this. Mickey Mouse was created the day after Bill Fries was born, and synonymously, they grew up together. Bill was immersed with Walt Disney's movies that were shown at the local theater... Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Three Little Pigs, and of course the Mickey Mouse cartoons. Drawing became a hobby of his. It became an integral part of his life, helping him later when he got into advertising.

As a child in the Audubon school system, his favorite teacher was Amy Robertson, his music teacher. She taught him how to play chromatic scales on the clarinet, and instrument he loved, and which became a very big part of his life. "My musical background was pretty much John Philip Sousa." he said to me with a laugh, "doing the chromatic scales that the clarinetist played, and those famous marches." John Philip Sousa, an American composer and conductor of the Romantic Era was known for his military and patriotic marches.

After finishing high school, Bill attended the University of Iowa in Iowa City. There, he became a member of the concert band. It was one of the greatest thrills of his life. "After all," he said, "coming from small town Iowa where our high school band was about thirty members, there I was with a hundred piece symphonic band there at the university. It was a great, great thrill."

He attended the University of Iowa for only a year. It was now 1946 and alot of people were coming home from the war under the GI Bill of Rights. There weren't many place to stay, and the soldiers absorbed most of the jobs in town. Money became extremely tight, and Bill wasn't able to afford his second year of college. However, he did attend the Fine Arts School while he was there. This set the foundation for what would become a productive career in the commercial art and advertising business.

Even though he didn't realize it at the time, he was about to embark on a career using the two hobbies he loved the most, music and art.

A relic from a different age. CW McCall belt buckle
Bill Fries loved to listen to the radio. "Even today," he says, "it is the greatest medium of all. It allows the mind to imagine, with people describing things to you and you let your mind wander, and you can see the words as they are played out on the radio." He especially loved to listen to Woody Guthrie and fell in love with that walking-talking blues style of his. While he didn't realize it at the time, that cadence would prove to be very instrumental to his future.

The Advertising Years

In 1950, Bill took his artistic talents to Omaha, Nebraska, the closest big city near his home town of Audubon. About this time television was becoming more prevelant to households in the Midwest. KMTV of Omaha was looking for a commercial artist for their station. He got the job, and made $35 a week - not a bad salary in 1950. But he soon earned more than that as his work load increased. He enjoyed this job for ten years designing sets, making camera cards, learning about typography, and enjoying the freedom of using his artistic creativity. He also stayed busy doing set designs for the Ballet and the Omaha Civic Opera Society. Once again, though not directly, he was involved in music.

In 1960, executives at Bozell and Jacobs an Omaha advertising agency, saw some work that he had done that had earned him an award from the Omaha Artists and Art Directors Club. They offered  Bill a job as Art Director. As this move would double his KMTV salary overnight, Bill thought, Why not?

About three years into this new career, B&J was trying to get the Union Pacific Railroad account.

Bill wrote a song in hopes that it would lure the railroad to his agency. He didn't know that he could write a song, but he did, entitled We're a Great Big Rollin' Rail Road. As luck would have it (or perhaps "skill" is a better word in this case) the agency got the account based on Bill's song. The B&J staff were amazed that somebody on their team could write songs. Little did they know just how good a songwriter they had...

While working at Bozell and Jacobs, Bill created what was called a Five Screen Slide Show. He used five projectors on five screens horizontally, run by hand. It created a new advertising tool. He and his co-workers took this new technology all over the country as a vehicle to opening new business accounts. It worked magnificently. By 1970 Bill had been promoted to Creative Director of the agency. About the same time, his slide show lured a little known bread plant out of Iowa called the Metz Baking Company. Metz Baking had high hopes of utilizing this great new tool to get some advertising for one of their company's products.

Bill recalls what happened. "I talked to Bill Metz, the president of the company and said, 'What do you wanna do?' He said, 'Well we have this product called Old Home Bread and we want it to be noted, and get an image created for this bread."

Bill Fries thought about it for awhile. Instead of handing it over to an art director or a copywriter, both of  whom were busy at the time, he took matters into his own hands. He came up with an idea of a semi truck with the words Old Home Bread written on the truck in "big black studly letters." The truck would drive south from Sioux City, down I-29 towards Omaha, and then east onto I-80. There would be a truck driver of course. His destination would be a small cafe where he could have breakfast and drop off a rack of the Old Home Bread. There would also be a waitress, and she and the truck driver would have this little romance... You get the idea.

Bill needed a name for the truck driver. He thought about it for awhile, and then looked down at his drawing board, where there was a copy of McCalls magazine. He thought, Hey... McCall. That's a good name. He knew he wanted to write a country and western style song for the commercial so he incorporated the initials of "country and western," getting "C.W". That is how the name C.W. McCall first came to be used - as the driver of the truck, along with his monogrammed shirt.

C.W.'s  "destination" would be the Old Home Fill'er Up and Keep On Trucking Cafe. The cafe's waitress was given the name Mavis Davis. That name came from an actual waitress that Bill Fries remembered as a child "when we would stop into a place called the White Spot Cafe on US 71 in Audubon." He figured it to be about the best name he could think of for a cafe waitress.

In the middle of all this, Bill met Chip Davis (of Mannheim Steamroller fame). Chip Davis had just graduated from the University of Michigan, and was drumming for the road show production of the musical Hair!. Bill saw him perform and was intrigued. He sought Chip out after the show and asked him if he would be interested in writing music for B&J's commercials. A young and eager Chip said yes, and he went on to compose the country porch-style twang for the Old Home Bread commercial.

The actor chosen to play C.W. had the right look, but Bill thought that his voice was too high. He imagined the voice of a truck driver to be much lower. "I went to the studio there in Omaha and recorded what I thought it should sound like with the words I had written for the commercial," Bill said. "The people at the studio said to me, 'Why don't you do the voice,' and I got an idea... I will do the voice and we can have the actor on the screen "mouth" the words. And sometimes even the waitress can mouth the words I was doing, which would be kind of crazy funny."

The commercial came out and it was an immediate and huge success, showing in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and South Dakota. It became so popular that people called the Omaha World Herald and asked them to print a TV schedule for when the commercials aired, which the paper did! That same year, the Old Home Bread commercial went on to win a Clio Award for the best television campaign in the United States. Suddenly Bill Fries was receiving a lot of publicity. Still he was surprised and excited when MGM executives approached him to come to Nashville and make a record. Bill thought it for a moment and again decided, why not?

The Music Years

For MGM Bill and Chip made a 45 RPM recording of the "Old Home Fill'er Up and Keep on Trucking Cafe" song. Amazingly, it shot up to number 10 on the Billboard Country charts. The execs at MGM knew they had a potential star.

Things were starting to steamroll for Bill Fries Jr. and Chip Davis. "They came back to me and they said, 'Ok you have done that. Now why don't you do an album?' I said how would I do that? They said 'well you wrote that, so now why don't you write nine other songs, and put 'em on an album?'"

So, as he generally always did, Bill said why not?

He reflected on his life to date and started writing songs based on people he knew and places he had been... his childhood years in Iowa, his working years in Nebraska, and many more from Colorado -which had become one of his favorite vacation haunts.  He named the album Wolf Creek Pass, an actual place, which came from a trucker's story he had heard while he was in Wiggins, Colorado.

"I took his story and made it into a hair-raising tale about going over Wolf Creek Pass with a load of chickens," said Bill. "And suddenly I had become a story teller. Well, my style of telling the stories hearkened back to Woody Guthrie who spoke a lot of his lyrics, you know... A spoken word kind of thing. To this day I get a lot of people telling me that 'You were the first country rap artist,' and I don't like rap (laughter)... I don't even like to be considered in that same class. But these were merely story telling styles set to music and Chip Davis, who had a classical music background just like me, did all the tracks for everything we did from then on. We wrote  maybe 70 songs together, and recorded 50 of them. We didn't consider ourselves Country and we didn't consider ourselves Pop either. Chip was into this New Age music, he started at the same time with his Fresh Aire series, and he was kind of into this thing he called "18th Century Rock and Roll." Meanwhile I am telling these stories about things that are happening out there in the woods, and the mountains, and the cornfields."

C.W. McCall and Chip Davis working in the studio
Wolf Creek Pass went gold. MGM approached Bill once again, this time asking if Bill wanted to sign C.W. McCall to a five year contract involving four more albums. Bill and Chip got busy and began to write more songs.

The next album out of the box was called Black Bear Road. The title track, a true story that Bill "doctored up to make funny," recounted a wild trip in a rented jeep over a horrendous scary road in the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. He wrote that song and nine others to round out the album. While the album was being created, Congress passed a law limiting the speed on the federal highways to 55 miles per hour.

"Now the interstate highways at that time were at where you could run at 75 on all of them," Bill said. "But now they had declared by edict that it was going to be 55 nationwide! When that happened the truckers got kind of up in arms. I always kind of identified with truckers with the stuff I was doing, and (Chip and I) went out to see what was going on out on the highways... The truckers were forming things called convoys and they were talking to each other on CB radios. They had a wonderful jargon. Chip and I bought ourselves a CB radio and went out to hear them talk. We said 'why don't we write a song about a fictitious convoy that stretches clear across the country, breaks all the rules and exceeds the newly imposed speed limit. I said, 'Chip, it's got to sound kind of militaristic and rebellious in tone.' We completed the project and we put it on the album and sent it off to MGM."

Country DJs played the title track from Black Bear Road first. It enjoyed moderate success on the Country Billboard Charts reaching number 24.

On the B side was a track entitled "Convoy," the song inspired by Chip and Bill's foray into trucker territory. When the DJs eventually got around to playing this B-side, they got the shock of their lives. It was a smash.. The switchboards lit up, and it was an instant phenomenon. By January 1 of 1976 it had reached the Top Spot on the Billboard Country Charts as well as the Pop Charts, where it remained for 6 weeks, generating the sale of two million singles. Due to this unanticipated hit, Black Bear Road went Gold.

"By that time I had given myself the name of McCall because I was the voice on those original commercials way back when. "Convoy" changed my life drastically, and for the next five years (1975-1980) I fulfilled my contract with MGM and Polydor... They became Polydor Records later on, and we did the five albums, and of course the Greatest Hits album. In 1978, a film company wanted to make a film called "Convoy." We had to write new lyrics to the original song to fit the movie script. Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw were in the lead, and it also starred Ernest Borgnine. It actually came out a little late... Smokey and the Bandit came out before that and got all the attention as far as the CB radio thing."

Nonetheless, Convoy the movie was a success. It was released at the height of the CB Radio craze alongside other classics as Smokey and the Bandit, Breaker Breaker! and the television  classic Movin' On. It was filmed almost in it's entirety in New Mexico except for the exploding bridge scene which was filmed in Needles, California. The director, Sam Peckinpah was rumored to be in bad health during most of the shooting due to severe alcohol and cocaine abuse. (His friend, James Coburn  was called in and took the role of second unit director. It is said that Coburn directed much of the movie while Peckinpah remained in his on-location trailer.)

The cult classic
Despite being a victim of bad timing and the director's addictive vices, Convoy garnered 45.5 million dollars at the box office, at a time when it's release wasn't inevitable on VHS or DVD. It went down as Peckinpah's most successful film (at least from a financial standpoint) and set the peak of the '70s CB Radio fad. It also set the peak of C.W. McCall's musical career.

The Ouray, Colorado Years

By 1980 Bill Fries had fulfilled his contract with Polydor Records. By then he had realized the travel and touring lifestyle wasn't  fulfilling the desires in his heart, and he essentially retired. Bill and his wife moved to Ouray, Colorado, a beautiful little town in the San Juan range of the Rocky Mountains. He was 52 years old and had already experienced a lifetime's worth of achievement.

For the most part, he stayed on the down low. He and his wife enjoyed Ouray's hot springs and it's Victorian style homes. He lived a simple lifestyle for several years. Then in 1986, a local friend asked him if he would run for the town's mayor.

In typical Bill Fries style, he said, "Well I haven't got anything else to do... Why not?"

He knew that the historic City Hall of Ouray had burned down in 1950. A beautiful building, it was patterned after Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It was a gift from Thomas Walsh, owner of the famous Camp Bird Mine, who donated it to the city in 1900. His daughter, Evalyn Walsh McLean, was the last private owner of the world famous Hope Diamond, a present from her father.

Bill figured that being the mayor of Ouray would provide a golden opportunity to spearhead a campaign to have the town's City Hall building refurbished.  By the end of his three terms as mayor, he had successfully raised enough capital to have the City Hall restored back to it's original form.

"The reason I did that", he explains, "is because I could. I knew people in newspapers all over the country, and radio station people, and television people... I got them interested in this project of this little town that was trying to restore it's City Hall and they put out the word for me. They knew about me through "Convoy," and all the songs I'd written about Colorado, "Wolf Creek Pass," "Black Bear Road," "Rocky Mountain September," and "Glenwood Canyon." All those songs were about Colorado. Here I was a mayor in the town, and even though I had given up on the music career, alot of people had found out about this, and we got contributions from all over the country and even from Europe."

Being a resort town, Ouray had always been a destination for tourists. But after the City Hall was restored, it became even more of an attraction, and tourism spiked. Another reason for this was the fact that for all the years Bill Fries was a resident of Ouray, he was doing a five-screen multi-media show at the Old Opera House called San Juan Odyssey. He recorded the narration for it in 1979 (before he actually became a resident of Ouray), and his son did all the photography. For 17 years they ran the 15 projector, five-screen slide show.

They purchased the rights to Aaron Copland's music from the London Symphony's "Billy the Kid Ballet Suite", and "Appalachian Spring." "We took excerpts from those two and made the soundtrack. Then I wrote a rather emotional story to go with it..." Said Bill. "I recorded that back in Omaha, and we brought it out here and it became a sensation here in this little town. We had people coming from all over this state, and as far away as other states who came to see it every year."

San Juan Odyssey closed after 17 years of operation - but not before it was shown to over 300,000 people during that time span. Not bad for a small town of 1,000 people! During this time period the world had converted to the digital age, and the system at the Old Opera House was becoming more and more obsolete. When the final screening was shown in 1996, the system became idle, seemingly never to be used again.

Some years later the owner of The Main Street Theater (formerly The Chipeta Theater named after the wife of the great Chief Ouray, for whom the town was named) approached Bill Fries and asked him if he could bring back San Juan Odyssey, the fifteen projector, five-screen slide show to his theater. Bill thought about it for a minute and decided that it just wasn't possible. The equipment had become so outdated and inefficient, that it just didn't make sense to try to fire it up. What he did think was possible however, was to convert the production to a single screen DVD format, and projection. As it stands, this has been available for public viewing inside the theater, and the DVDs have been "selling like hotcakes." It is a just reward as making the DVD was a tedious process.

Bill explains, "We had to go through thousands of slides from the old show, rescan them and bring them to digital form, and digitize everything. Then we went out and shot a lot of new digital photography for it."

The soundtrack is the same one from the multi-projector show, and as a whole, the production is doing very well and being shown to this day at the Main Street Theater in Ouray.

Bill Fries Jr. is finally living the life that his heart desires. While his music career was a great experience, he recognized it for what it was... A stepping stone to the next level of his life. He never meant to become a musician, it just happened. He was an advertising guy who had a knack for writing songs and he understood that. He didn't try to buck the system and cling to a life of fame and fortune. He gave it up for what he felt was right in his heart, and that's a pretty admirable thing to do. There aren't too many people who would have done that... but then again, there aren't too many people like Bill Fries Jr.

His life progression is one of marvel, and he seemed to understand this as he told me his story. "I'm now 82, and I look back on this whole life as a fantastic experience of a combination of music and art and words, and great fortune..." he said to me before we ended our conversation on the phone. "I can't believe it myself sometimes."


john carifidy said...

Oh Hell Yeah!
Was strolling down memory lane, looking up ol' CW, Sloan and Mavis a few weeks ago.
I loves me that Sloan...waitin' and waggin and wishin.

Kate said...

He's a wonderful man, with a wonderful family, and we're lucky to have them here in Ouray!

Pat said...

Just wondering what Bill Fries might think about the mine spill down by Silverton.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if anyone can actually find the house in Audubon where Bill Fries grew up?
Anybody know?


Unknown said...

my brother used C.W. McCall music as background sound on his family videos , and now youtube is muting all sound on his family videos , is there some way to get permision to have the music in the background , he still owns the original vynal records stored in his garage.
i use

Fredie Vinson said...

THANK YOU so much for this interview!
I grew up with Bill (CW) and I've always held the torch for his influence to other musicians of every genre.
He (& Chip) for all intents and purposes were able to combine Country & Western and Progessive Rock! WHO ELSE COULD DO THAT?! I still put those old songs on mix tapes/MP3s when I travel to Colorado.
I like Convoy but I leave it off because Bill's music was about so much more than just Trucks.

I wish him a long and happy life.

Fredie Vinson said...

PS - I'm actually in the FRONT ROW of that photo from Knott's Berry Farm!

96ExXLTinCo said...

I've been a C.W. McCall fan for years and knew he was the Mayor of Ouray at one point. What I DIDN'T know was that he was born and raised in Audobon, Iowa. My Grandfather who is roughly the same age, is from the same town. I can't wait to ask him if he knew Mr. Fries. I've wondered for years if the "Nishnabotne" river from the "CJ-5" song was the same one I remember driving over as a kid to visit my Great Grandparents in Audobon, and an even smaller town where my Grandmother was from called Gray, IA. This would indeed confirm it is the very same "river". Not sure why it's designated as a river because his description is accurate; "yard wide and a foot deep". Many of his songs are dear to me as they are about the beautiful state of Colorado, my home since 1983 and where I plan to stay.

Thank you for the informative blog, I sure hope to have the honor of meeting Mr. Fries someday.

Unknown said...

Great life story rich in history i enjoyed reading the article and listening too his wonderful music he is indeed a great song writer my mom grew up too his music and i took up after her love of music now days music is not the same as way back then C.W. McCall songs have meaning i love all music however i just so happen to love the older ones way better like Hank William Johnny Horton jimmy Dean Buck owns Hoot Gibson too name a few i love it all

Anonymous said...

Excellent song writer, singer and human being. He brought a lot of joy to us.