The use of pop songs to sell everything from airlines to chewing gum has become commonplace, but converting a character from a TV commercial into a chart-topping star is a different story. This was the feat accomplished by Bill Fries Jr, who has died aged 93 of cancer.
Fries created the character of CW McCall for the Bozell & Jacobs advertising agency in Omaha, Nebraska, to promote the Metz Baking Company’s Old Home Bread. McCall’s particular achievement was his chart-topping single Convoy (1975), a tall tale about an armada of trucks romping across the US in defiance of swarms of cops and the National Guard.
In the TV commercials, which won Fries a Clio award in 1974, the Texan actor Jim Finlayson played a truck driver named CW McCall, who was frequently to be found in the Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep On-a-Truckin’ Cafe. He announced himself as “CW McCall, and I haul for Old Home. You can call me CW.” For the accompanying musical jingles, Fries (pronounced “freeze”) wrote the lyrics and Chip Davis composed the music. Davis also founded the group Mannheim Steamroller, celebrated for its Christmas albums mixing classical, new age and rock idioms.
The ads became so popular that viewers began calling TV stations to ask when they would be on the air, prompting Fries to launch McCall as an artist in his own right, stepping into the role himself. His first single was, aptly enough, Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep On-a-Truckin’ Cafe, which reached No 19 on the US country chart and 54 on the mainstream chart. Wolf Creek Pass, a comical account of a nightmare truck journey through the Colorado mountains, reached 12 (country) and 40 (mainstream), followed by Classified and Black Bear Road.
It was clear that Fries had a gift for waspishly witty and shrewdly observed lyrics, which he narrated in a gravelly, laid-back baritone. The slickly arranged musical accompaniments mixed bluegrass banjo, strings and jogging country rhythms with a chorus of female backing singers to add a touch of commercial fairy-dust. The McCall phenomenon reached its apogee with Convoy, an international hit that topped the US country and mainstream charts and reached No 2 in the UK.
Framed as a conversation between two truck drivers called Pig Pen and Rubber Duck, its CB radio jargon like “bear in the air” (a police helicopter), Shaky Town (Los Angeles) and “10-4” (meaning “affirmative”) vividly evoked the highway-driving life of American truckers. It struck a resonant chord at a time when a Middle East oil crisis meant higher fuel costs and an unpopular 55mph speed limit. “It was laced with humour, but it had a rebellious feeling about it and people responded to it,” Fries commented in 1990.
The song’s parent album, Black Bear Road, topped the country chart and was a Top 20 hit on the album chart. Recently, Fries was delighted to approve the use of Convoy by the so-called “Freedom Convoy” of truckers who drove across Canada to protest against Covid-19 vaccine requirements.
Convoy caught the public imagination powerfully enough to sell 7m copies, and was the inspiration for Sam Peckinpah’s 1978 film of the same name, which starred Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw. “We had to write new lyrics to the original song to fit the movie script,” said Fries, but added ruefully that “Smokey and the Bandit came out before that [in 1977, starring Burt Reynolds and Sally Field] and got all the attention as far as the CB radio thing.”
He did not scale such commercial heights again, but achieved further chart success with the albums Wilderness, Rubber Duck and Roses for Mama. His 1976 single There Won’t Be No Country Music (There Won’t Be No Rock’n’Roll) was a premonition of environmental disaster, with imagery of strip-mining and landfill garbage dumps and the warning that “when they take away our country / They’ll take away our soul”. McCall’s single Roses for Mama (1977) found him turning his hand to syrupy, sentimental balladry, but he did it well enough to score a No 2 hit on the US country chart.
He was born Billie Dale Fries in Audubon, Iowa, though later changed his name to William Dale Fries Jr. He inherited an enthusiasm for music from both his parents, Margaret and Billie, a foreman at a factory making farm buildings, and at one stage aimed to become a classical musician. He studied music at the University of Iowa and played the clarinet in the concert band, but majored in fine arts, leaving after his first year. Then he moved to Omaha and worked as a designer at a TV station, before joining Bozell & Jacobs in 1961. He would go on to become the agency’s vice-president and creative director.
At the end of the 1970s he discarded his McCall persona and moved to the small town of Ouray, Colorado, where he became involved in environmental causes. The town was located amid steep slopes at 7,700 ft, earning it the sobriquet “the Switzerland of America”. Fries served as the town’s mayor from 1986 to 1992.
In 1952 he married Rena Bonnema, and she survives him, along with their children Bill, Mark and Nancy.
• CW McCall (William Dale Fries Jr), singer and songwriter, born 15 November 1928; died 1 April 2022