George Frayne, who formed country-rockers Commander Cody in Ann Arbor, dies at 77
George Frayne, better known as country-rock pioneer Commander Cody, died in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on Sunday, September 26, at age 77 as the result of cancer.
Best known for the Ann Arbor-spawned group Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Frayne was also a fine artist who graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor's in design in 1966 and a master's in sculpture and painting in 1968. In between those two years is when he formed Commander Cody and the group became mainstays of the Ann Arbor and Southeast Michigan music scenes, known for their marathon live shows that mixed country, rock, Western swing, and boogie-woogie.
Frayne was born in Idaho but grew up in New York City and Long Island. He came to Michigan to go to college, and because Commander Cody's formative years were in Ann Arbor, many folks in town still associate the band with the city even though the group moved to Berkeley, California, in 1969 and didn't release its first album, Lost in the Ozone, until 1971.
Cody, who was never for a loss of words, was more ambivalent about his place in Ann Arbor's history.
"Ann Arbor's not home," Cody told The Ann Arbor News in a 1979 interview. "I mean, I spent a lot of time here, and I'm beholden to the university. It's not home like it was. When I was a junior in '64 or '65, they threw me out of the SAS and I built a duplex treehouse in the big tree in front that I moved into. It's now cut down."
SAS is a typo; Cody was a member of SAE, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, whose fraternity house burned in 1965. There were rumors at the time that Cody was responsible for the fire, but that was debunked in a 1970 feature in Rolling Stone:
It is not true, in spite of the stories you hear on the street in Ann Arbor, that George “Commander Cody” Frayne burned down his fraternity house. True, the brothers had just thrown him out, but there was always the treehouse next door.
It was quite a treehouse, with several floors which looked down on some of the finest campus scenery at the University of Michigan. “It was really chic to have a beer with me in my treehouse and throw the beer cans down at the sorority house,” the Commander remembers. “It became the social center of campus. That was one nice treehouse. It was my major undergraduate achievement.” But somebody was jealous, and one day George found that the treehouse had been condemned and the tree was coming down. It looked suspiciously like the work of the fraternity, and soon after the demise of the treehouse came the total leveling of the frat house.
Despite Commander Cody's music being influenced more by old-timey rockabilly and country than the day's contemporary sound, the group was heavily into partying just as much as their psychedelic-rock peers. As the Commander Cody song "Lost in the Ozone" by group member Billy C goes, “One drink of wine / Two drinks of gin / And I’m lost in the Ozone again.”
"In Ann Arbor, I have a certain reputation to live up to and I'm sticking up to it," Cody said in a 1979 Ann Arbor News interview, which was conducted because he had just played The Second Chance (now Necto). "I have a real macho reputation in this town. In some ways, it's awesome, you know—I used to go to the Schwaben Inn and down 27 shots of Kessler's Smooth As Silk and walk home from it."
The Schwaben Inn was at 215 S. Ashley Street where the Three Chairs furniture company is now, and it was one of the places George Frayne, who was not yet known as Commander Cody, would play regularly in the mid-1960s as a member of The Fantastic Surfing Beevers. (The 1970 Rolling Stone article mentions the "Beavers" but Cody spelled it "Beevers" in a Facebook post recalling when the group was the Thursday night house band at the Schwaben.)
The countercultural newspaper Ann Arbor Sun interviewed Cody in 1974 about those early years and how His Lost Planet Airmen eventually came together in 1967:
SUN: Most of your fans here know that you are from Ann Arbor, but very few people know the history of the band how the whole thing came together. What about that?
CC: Well, the whole thing was just a cosmic accident, just a whole bunch of accidents. John Tichy, our rhythm guitar player, had this band called The Amblers. He played lead guitar in that band and they decided they wanted to have an organ player so I went out and bought a Wurlitzer and I joined his band and couldn't play for shit.
SUN: Do you know what year that was?
CC: Yes I know what year that was, it was 1963. The fall of '63 when we started doing that shit. We were making a lot of dough - making $125 a week playing two TG's or a Saturday afternoon sorority party and Friday and Saturday frat parties.
SUN: What kind of band was it?
CC: Horrible man, it was just terrible. Steve Davis played I bass for a while. Tichy played lead -we played a couple of I country tunes, and mostly we played "Money" with all the dirty lyrics and all that. We used to have to drink at least a fifth of booze before we could go down and play that horrible shit. I was working my way through college you know, I wasn't selling encyclopedias, I was playing bullshit to people who didn't know shit and they were paying good bread. We had the best TG band on campus for 6 years though- it was one of the first bands in Ann Arbor.
But it became a drag and I went to grad school in sculpture. When I graduated l taught at Oshkosh State University for one year, and it was such a drag that I used to drive 750 miles every weekend and back to come to Ann Arbor just so I could play some music. In other words, I had got the music jones by that time, and I had to come back and play with the band.
SUN: Still the same band?
CC: Oh no, we had started Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen as a last ditch effort by which me and Tichy could get some more bread so we could drink some more beer and put ourselves through school. We needed a new band, a new way to make some dough because we were really short. And then after a while, we started to add- Billy C. had started to jam, Billy C.'s brother was in the band, everybody was in the band. What we're talking about now. This is when I'm in Oshkosh.
SUN: When you were coming back for weekends?
CC: Yeah, Billy C's got his own band sometimes. I'm coming back, Kirchen's split for California. Danny Erlewine was playing with us for a while.
SUN: What about Andy Stein? He's a very charismatic member of the band. How is it that he...?
CC: Andy literally fell into us, we were sitting in front of the fabulous Foxcraft Apartments, me and Steve Davis, the West Virginia Creeper, drinking beer about 8 o'clock at night. digging the action around Campus Corners. The night was really thrilling, we were having a good time. And here comes this real freek walking down the street with this violin case, he's got a trench coat on. I thought "He's gotta be good" so I asked him if he could play it. He goes, "sure, I can play it." So I invited him to come down to gig. He came down to the gig with tuxedo and sandals, eating a roast beef sandwich. He was fiddling and eating a roast beef sandwich at the same time, and stole the show that was at Canterbury House.
Even from the start, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were caked in drama, as recounted in that 1970 Rolling Stone article:
The original Lost Planet Airmen played a lot of “Mustang Sally”-type stuff in order to get gigs, and they featured a lead vocalist who called himself the Marquis de Soul. Also in the band was a soul — oriented drummer named Ralpy Mallory, who did not like country music. One night, at the University of Michigan Dental School Formal Ball, he announced that if the band insisted on doing one more country tune he would pack up his drums and go home. Maybe they didn’t hear him, but the next number they broke into was “Family Bible,” and Mallory, true to his word, packed up his drums and walked out of rock and roll history and into a lucrative rug-shampooing business. From that moment on, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen have devoted themselves body and soul to country music and old-time rock and roll.
Michigan Rock and Roll Legends elected Cody and Co. into its Hall of Fame and wrote this about the band's earliest days in Ann Arbor:
They recruited a group of musicians that Frayne would describe as “neo-radicals who specialized in a form of quasi-social mayhem”. These included Steve Davis on steel guitar, John Copley on drums, John Farlow on stand-up bass, Ann Arbor native Bill Kirchen on lead guitar and lead vocals, Andy Stein on fiddle, Steve Schwartz on rhythm guitar, and Billy C. Farlow on harmonica and lead vocals.
About that time, Frayne also started selling marijuana in Ann Arbor. The group had, by now, expanded into a kind of stoned-out vaudeville troupe of over 30 people. Besides the core band, their show also contained other best-forgotten acts such as the Fabulous Tapdancing Green Sisters, the Galactic Twist Queens, and Pat the Hippy Strippy. Frayne paid everybody in reefer joints, which might explain the large number of people wanting to be part of the show.
During much of the Commander Cody group's existence in Ann Arbor, Frayne was teaching art at Oshkosh State College in Wisconsin and he would return to town on weekends to gig with the band. But once guitarist Bill Kirchen left Michigan for California, the Commander and His Airmen soon followed, and it was from Berkeley that the band really built its national following with seven studio and live albums recorded between 1971 and 1977.
Commander Cody's rise was chronicled in Geoffrey Stokes' 1977 book Star-Making Machinery (variously subtitled as The Odyssey of an Album and Inside the Business of Rock and Roll), which was a widescreen look at the 1970s music industry that used His Lost Planet Airmen as a case study.
But whenever Cody returned to Ann Arbor, whether as a solo artist or with the band, which dissolved in 1977, the local press gave him plenty of ink, whether for him to pontificate in interviews or to review his concerts, such as in the 1971 Ann Arbor News article "Film of Naked Girl Strikes Sour Note at Music Concert."
Frayne was clearly a beloved cult hero that the town claimed as its own, but his various band members adored this creative eccentric, too. The "Titan of the Telecaster," Bill Kirchen, who's had a long and decorated solo career since the end of the Airmen, tweeted this when he learned of Frayne's death:
George Frayne, aka Commander Cody has left the planet. Bigger than life, a force of nature, a pal for 55 years, throwing my lot in with George, and our fellow Airmen, forever changed my life. He had a heart just as big as his bluster, and took me under his wing when I was a pic.twitter.com/1LgmjgwnUi
— Bill Kirchen (@BillKirchen) September 27, 2021
fresh-faced 19 yr old. Luckily he left us a lifetime of top notch music, art and videos to enjoy. All that, plus tales of his legendary shenanigans shall live on! My heart goes out to George's tireless champion his wife Sue, and daughter Sophia.
— Bill Kirchen (@BillKirchen) September 27, 2021
Rest in peace, Commander. Or, if you'd rather, go on, raise a ruckus.
— Bill Kirchen (@BillKirchen) September 27, 2021
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
➥ "AADL Talks to Commander Cody" [audio interview, 2012]
➥ "MRRL Hall of Fame: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen" [Michigan Rock and Roll Legends, October 4, 2011]
➥ "The Commander Leans to a Detroit Rock Style" [Ann Arbor News, August 12, 1979]
➥ "The Star-Making Machine" [Ann Arbor Sun, September 17, 1976]
➥ "Interview With Commander Cody Home Town Boy Makes Good!" [Ann Arbor Sun, May 31, 1974]
➥ "I Play Like I Live" [Ann Arbor Sun, July 7, 1972]
➥ "Film of Naked Girl Strikes Sour Note at Music Concert" [Ann Arbor News, April 19, 1971]
➥ "Interview: Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen | This band wants to do for country music what Butterfield did for the blues" [Rolling Stone, April 16, 1970]
➥ Commander Cody mentions at oldnews.aadl.org