The Number Ones

The Number Ones: C.W. McCall’s “Convoy”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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C.W. McCall – “Convoy”

HIT #1: January 10, 1976

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

I’m sure someone, somewhere, is getting rich from Waze, but the app is also a beautiful example of socialism in action. Out in the world, drivers notice accidents or traffic jams or speed traps. They use their phones to type that info in, and the app then lets any other drivers on the road know what’s happening, rerouting them accordingly. God knows how much money Waze has saved people in speeding tickets over its few years of existence. But Waze, like every other app, is not especially romantic. Waze has not, to the best of my knowledge, developed its own culture. Nobody is writing songs about Waze. It’s not the CB radio.

Citizens band radios went on the market in 1945. Thanks to advances in technology, they became smaller and cheaper, to the point where truck drivers could afford to keep them in their vehicles. Then, in October of 1973, OPEC declared an oil embargo. The embargo only lasted a few months, and it didn’t affect America’s stance on Arab/Israeli issues, which was what it was intended to do. But thanks to the embargo, oil prices went up dramatically. American lawmakers, struggling to keep up with the resulting gasoline shortage, imposed a national maximum speed limit of 55 miles per hour. And suddenly, for people who drove the highways for a living, the CB radio became a crucial tool.

Truckers used CB radios to warn each other of speed traps on the highway. They used CB radios to organize demonstrations, blockading roads to protest against gas prices and regulations. They also organized convoys — vast teams of trucks, all speeding together, with the understanding that police couldn’t stop them if they were together. They developed their own codes and lingos, and they spun sometimes-fantastical stories for the home hobbyists listening in. And in post-hippie America, where any collective anti-authoritarian action seemed romantic, those truckers became folk heroes.

The CB radio fad of the ’70s was a fascinating thing. In movies — like the megahit Smokey And The Bandit, one of the highest-grossing films of 1977 — truckers briefly replaced cowboys in the popular imagination. Celebrities like Betty Ford and Mel Blanc became prominent CB users. (Blanc would use his Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck voices.) And at least for a week, an 47-year-old Omaha ad man used a fictional character he’d invented to top the pop charts.

C.W. McCall, whose weird little country-novelty crossover “Convoy” beat all possible odds and got to #1, was not a real person. The real person was Bill Fries, a native of Iowa. Fries had played in the band at the University Of Iowa, and he’d always been a fan of country music, but he’d never been a professional musician. Instead, after college, he became a set designer at a local TV station, then found work doing art for the Omaha ad agency Bozell & Jacobs. In 1973, Fries had risen through the ranks and become the agency’s creative director, and he came up with a campaign for Old Home Bread, a product from a local bakery. The character was C.W. McCall, a trucker who loved bread. (The C.W. stood for “Country and Western.”) Fries voiced the character in ads, and the Bozell & Jacobs jingle writer Chip Davis did the music. An actor played the character.

Those ads were a hit locally, and they won Fries a Clio Award. Fries and Chip Davis had the idea to release the music from one of the ads as a single. They had the means. Chip Davis had just started up a new music project: The classical-rock fusion act Mannheim Steamroller, who would go on to sell millions of albums, mostly of Christmas music. And in 1974, Davis founded American Gramophone, an Omaha-based indie label. American Gramophone put out a C.W. McCall single, and it sold 30,000 copies regionally in a few weeks. MGM Records noticed, and the label signed up to give these C.W. McCall records national distribution. And then Fries wrote “Convoy.”

“Convoy” is a deeply strange record. It’s country, more or less, but it’s not the Nashville version of country. Fries doesn’t sing on the song. He never really sang on any song. Instead, Fries speaks in a rumbling, half-rhythmic delivery — like rap, I guess, or like the “speaking in key” delivery style that Rex Harrison used in musicals. On the chorus, unreasonably sweetened session singers, sounding nothing like truckers, coo about a “truckin’ convoy.” (They sound like ad-jingle singers, which is what they are.) There are banjos and fiddles and pianos and martial drums, but they’re all cheap and canned. They’re never the focus. Instead, if you’re listening to the song, you’re paying attention to this C.W. McCall character and the story that he’s telling.

On “Convoy,” Fries lays out a grand narrative of a coast-to-coast trucking run. It starts out small, just a couple of trucks trying to avoid the “bears.” (State troopers wore hats that made them look like Smokey The Bear. Thus: “bears” or “smokeys.”) But more and more truckers join, and McCall — speaking under his call sign, “Rubber Duck” — realizes that he’s leading some kind of trucker revolution. By the time McCall reaches Chicago, he’s at the front of “a thousand screaming trucks and 11 longhaired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse microbus.” (Whatever was left of the hippie movement was apparently on board.) The whole time, he jokes about the other truck that started off the convoy with him, one that’s hauling hogs. It smells bad, so he doesn’t want it to drive too close. (“Them hogs is starting to close up my sinuses. Mercy sakes, you’d better back up another ten.”)

It’s not really a stretch to say that “Convoy” is a protest song, but its goals aren’t especially lofty. It tells of a working-class uprising based on material needs. McCall and his fellow truckers don’t want to fill out “swindle sheets,” the logbooks that trucking companies used to make sure the truckers were spending enough time sleeping, so they rip them up. They blow past weigh stations. They’d rather ram through roadblocks than pay tolls. And the truckers win. They make it from California to the Jersey Shore, never letting police stop them: “I says, ‘Pig Pen this here’s the Rubber Duck / We just ain’t gonna pay no toll’ / So we crashed the gate doing 98 / I says, ‘Let them truckers roll.'”

“Convoy” isn’t much of a song, but it’s good storytelling. Fries delivers it in CB lingo, his voice distorted and his slang dense and impenetrable. Like plenty of rap music in the decades to come, “Convoy” is all about breaking laws, and it tells these stories using the vernacular of the people who’d be telling the story. If you’re not part of that world, you have to listen closely and figure things out for yourself. In that folksy baritone drawl, C.W. McCall seems amazed at the outlaw crew he’s put together. Bill Fries even stays in character on the song credits. The song is listed as being written by Bill Fries, Chip Davis, and C.W. McCall, even though C.W. McCall is, again, a fictional character.

Naturally, Convoy became a movie. The 1978 car-chase marathon Convoy is one of the brutalist master Sam Peckinpah’s final efforts. Kris Kristofferson plays Rubber Duck, the rebel trucker who gets the convoy going. Burt Young — Pauly from the Rocky movies — is Pig Pen. Ernest Borgnine is the bear who wants to shut the convoy down. Ali MacGraw is the bear’s wife, who naturally leaves him for Rubber Duck. Convoy made a pile of money. It has a reputation as a bad movie, one not up to Peckinpah’s standards. But after writing all this, I really want to see it.

Bill Fries recorded a new version of “Convoy” for the movie, but by 1978, he was mostly done with music. Fries was 47 when “Convoy” hit #1, and he never got close to the top 10 again, though he did have a country hit with 1977’s “Roses For Mama.” Later in life, Fries mostly dedicated himself to environmental activism. In 1986, he was elected mayor of Ouray, Colorado, and he served six years in office. He continued to dabble in music from time to time, and he got back together with Chip Davis to record a 2003 album called American Spirit — a collection of patriotic songs, credited to C.W. McCall and Mannheim Steamroller. (And yes, they re-recorded “Convoy” for it again.) Fries is 90 now. He’s still around. The bears haven’t stopped him yet.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Homer singing “Convoy” on a 1992 episode of The Simpsons:

Tags: CW McCall