George Frayne keeping Commander Cody alive
March 27, 2012
George Frayne, famous as the keyboardist/singer of the ’70s group Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airman, who will play the Egyptian Theatre on March 30 and 31, said his musical training began when his mother made him take piano lessons, while growing up in New York City.
"I learned the JohnThompson piano method with the red book and it was just horrible for me, but then again, I was in fifth and sixth grade," Frayne said during a phone interview from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "Later on, in eighth grade, I took a music class in the last period when I lived in Long Island. Since it was the last class of the day, it was raucous, because everyone was getting ready to go do things after school."
The teacher used the piano to settle the students down.
"He played a song he called ‘The Army Boogie,’ which was a generic boogie-woogie tune, but everyone listened to it and appeared to like it," Frayne said. "I noticed that the girls liked it, so, and I went home and asked my mom what boogie-woogie was about."
Frayne’s mother, a former Beatnik who used to hang out in Greenwich Village, decided to hire another piano teacher for her son.
"She found a guy who played in Eddie Condon’s Orchestra and he taught me how to play boogie-woogie piano when I was in ninth grade," Frayne said. "The guy didn’t like me very much because he didn’t think I was very good, and I wasn’t very good, because when he tried to teach me other stuff, I would only play the boogie-woogie."
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The short-term lessons ended, but Frayne still dabbled in music on his own.
"If I was at a party and there was a piano, I would go play," he said with a laugh. "I only knew like three songs, and I’d try to impress the chicks.
"That was the reason why everybody I knew started a band," he said. "They wanted to impress the girls, or getting out of calling them up for a date, because when you’re in a band, you just hope women show up. And when they did, you hope you can meet one of them. That’s something that’s been going on in society since the invention of electricity."
Frayne attended the University of Michigan and played some frat parties. During one of those shows, he met a guitarist named John Tichy.
The two would form Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airman.
"John heard me playing piano and asked me join his frat band and they bought me a Wurlitzer electric piano," Frayne said. "The piano kept blowing up because it was impossible to get giant drunken frat boys to not spill their drinks on the piano. It got pretty serious because the piano tubes were 25 bucks each, man. But we played as much as we could."
In the mid 1960s, the band relocated to the Bay Area, and that’s when Frayne discovered the Hawaiian shirt.
"When we moved to Berkeley, the old blues guys would take us down to Salvation Army and they would have 15-cent Hawaiian shirts and 50-cent jackets," he said. "I take complete responsibility for making the shirt a band uniform."
The band hit the big time with the 1972 remake of Charlie Ryan and the Livingston Brothers’ 1955 hit "Hot Rod Lincoln." Frayne’s song hit No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100.
"I was one of the many people who did a version of the song and my version was the one that sold a couple of million copies," he said.
Even today, people are familiar with the Commander Cody version.
"There is something about the song that lives on," Frayne said. "In fact, two months ago, Red Bull just hired me to use that song for the Red Bull Soap Box Derby in Chicago and St. Louis, Missouri, and back in 2007, NASCAR had fans write down the Top 10 car songs of all time and ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’ was No. 7."
Frayne said he thinks people like the song because anyone can perform it.
"All you have to do is memorize the words, because it’s just talking fast," he said. "That’s one of the reasons why I did it in the first place. I couldn’t sing a note when we started as a band, but I could talk fast."
Frayne said the Commander Cody band, which was named after one of those 1940s serial cliffhangers that were seen in movie theatres on Saturday morning, is not unlike other bands with monikers of people who aren’t part of the line up.
"There is no Commander Cody, like there is no Marshall Tucker and there is no Lynyrd Skynyrd," Frayne said. "But the band decided that someone had to stand up and represent Commander Cody in the public, and that person had to be me. They asked me to do it because I was the least talented and a fast talker and everyone else hated doing interviews.
"If you’re in a band, there’s nothing worse than what they call a ‘band’ interview, where there is more than one person from the band there and, even worse, when there is more than one person doing the interviews," he said with a laugh. "All the band members are just sitting around. It’s embarrassing. It’s a waste of time. So I said I’d do it."
These days, Frayne is happy keeping the band’s blend of boogie-woogie and roots rock alive.
"The secret is we’ve been doing the same set for 40 years," he said. "It’s like ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ without the gay attire and dancing.
"Everybody knows what’s going to happen, even if it’s a little different than the last time we played."
The Egyptian Theatre will present the Commander Cody Band on Friday, March 30, and Saturday, March 31. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Ticktes range from $30 to $50 and available by visiting http://www.parkcityshows.com.