Bill Fries, an advertising executive better known by his stage name, C.W. McCall, who had hit country records in the 1970s about long-haul truck driving during the height of the citizens band radio craze and whose song “Convoy” inspired an action film directed by Sam Peckinpah, died April 1 at his home in Ouray, Colo. He was 93.
The death was confirmed by his son Bill Fries III. Mr. Fries announced in February that he was in hospice care for cancer.
After creating the character of C.W. McCall, a truck driver in a series of commercials for a Midwestern bread company, Mr. Fries (pronounced “freeze”) adopted the name as his alter ego and recorded several humorous, freewheeling songs about renegade long-haul truckers.
He had top 20 country hits with “Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep On-a-Truckin’ Cafe” and “Wolf Creek Pass,” about two truckers hauling a load of chickens down a mountain:
I says, Earl, “I’m not the type to complainBut the time has come for me to explainThat if you don’t apply some brake real soonThey’re gonna have to pick us upWith a stick and a spoon”
His best-known song was “Convoy,” which became a No. 1 country and pop hit, pushing aside the Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night” at the top of the Billboard chart in January 1976.
Mr. Fries wrote the words of “Convoy” and delivered them in a deep, fast-talking twang. The song helped popularize the lingo that truck drivers used over their citizens band, or CB, radios and is almost incomprehensible without a glossary of CB terms.
The name, or “handle,” of the song’s central character is Rubber Duck, and he chats with another driver, Pig Pen, hauling a load of foul-smelling hogs, which becomes a running joke throughout the song. They join up with a driver in a “cab-over Pete with a reefer on” — a refrigerated Peterbilt truck with the cab above the engine — headed east out of Shaky Town, or Los Angeles, and “Mercy sakes alive, looks like we got us a convoy.”
“I’m about to put the hammer down,” Rubber Duck says, meaning he’s going to drive as fast as he can, while keeping an eye out for “smokies,” or highway patrol officers in flat-brimmed hats like the ones worn by Smokey Bear. As more trucks follow along, McCall chants, “We gonna roll this truckin’ convoy ’cross the USA.”
By the time they get to Tulsa, there are 85 speeding trucks, and “them smokies is thick as bugs on a bumper. They even had a bear in the air” — a police helicopter. As they move east through Chi-town (Chicago), the trucks go faster and the tales grow taller, as the convoy plows past the “reinforcements from the Illi-noise National Guard”: “Well, we shot the line and we went for broke with a thousand screamin’ trucks … we crashed the gate doing 98, I says, ‘Let them truckers roll.’ ”
It was not the first song about evading the police on the open road. Chuck Berry had recorded “Maybellene” in 1955, and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen had a hit in the early 1970s with a remake of the old rockabilly tune “Hot Rod Lincoln.” But “Convoy” came along when truckers faced rising fuel costs and a nationwide 55 mph speed limit, and the use of CB radios was becoming widespread.
“It was timely,” Mr. Fries told the Associated Press in 1990. “Back in 1975-76, that craze was sweeping the country. The jargon was colorful, and the American public liked that, too. It was laced with humor, but it had a rebellious feeling about it and people responded to it.”
“Convoy” sold an estimated 7 million copies and became an unexpected phenomenon, spawning Peckinpah’s 1978 film of the same name, starring Kris Kristoffersen. During the same period, Burt Reynolds’s “Smokey and the Bandit” movies were box-office hits, and the “outlaw” country music of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson was gaining popularity.
“We always took ourselves seriously, but we never thought it would get as big as it has,” Mr. Fries said in 1975. “I’m flabbergasted by the success of ‘Convoy.’ It spread like a grass fire.”
Performing as McCall, Mr. Fries had five other top 20 country hits, including the sentimental 1977 ballad “Roses for Mama.” He sold about 20 million records before largely abandoning his performing career in the late 1970s.
Wearing jeans, a vest and a battered cowboy hat, Mr. Fries performed as McCall on network television programs, including Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” and headlined national concert tours.
“People came out to see me but didn’t know what I looked like. They just knew my voice,” he told the Associated Press. “So I had to learn to be a face. This meant a lot of rehearsing and learning the business of stage shows: how C.W. McCall was supposed to act and look. It was an identity crisis.”
Billie Dale Fries was born Nov. 15, 1928, in Audubon, Iowa. His father was a foreman at a company that manufactured farm buildings. Both of his parents played musical instruments, and Mr. Fries had early aspirations of being a classical musician.
Mr. Fries — who later legally changed his name to William Dale Fries Jr. — played the clarinet in bands at the University of Iowa and later studied art and film production.
He moved in the early 1950s to Omaha, where he was an artist and set designer at a television station before joining the Bozell & Jacobs advertising agency in 1961. He eventually became creative director and vice president.
In the early 1970s, Mr. Fries was asked to devise an advertising campaign for Old Home bread, which was sold in several Midwestern states. He created the characters of C.W. McCall and a gum-chewing waitress named Mavis at the Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep On-a-Truckin’ Cafe.
“Tell me, truck man, what’s your name?” Mavis says — mouthing the words spoken by Mr. Fries — in the first of 12 Old Home commercials in the series.
“C.W. McCall, and I haul for Old Home. You can call me C.W.”
The commercials became so popular that viewers called TV stations asking when the spots would air, and they won a national Clio Award for advertising in 1974 for the best U.S. television campaign.
Mr. Fries’s musical partner was Chip Davis, a Bozell & Jacobs jingle composer who wrote the music for most of the C.W. McCall songs. Davis became the creative force behind Mannheim Steamroller, a Grammy-winning group that blends classical and New Age musical elements.
Mr. Fries left Bozell & Jacobs in the mid-1970s and stopped performing as C.W. McCall by 1980. He recorded a few other songs over the years while living in retirement in Ouray, Colo., which he called “a mining town with mountains all around and a population of 680 when we are all here.” He served as mayor from 1986 to 1992.
Survivors include his wife of 70 years, Rena Bonnema Fries; and three children, Bill Fries III, Mark Fries and Nancy Fries; a sister; four grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and a great-great-grandson.
“Well, mercy sakes, good buddy, we gonna back on outta here,” C.W. McCall says at the end of “Convoy,” with a slight alteration of a trucker’s farewell: “Keep the bugs off your glass and the bears off your … tail.”