Bill Fries, ad man who as CW McCall had a 1970s novelty hit with Convoy and inspired a Hollywood movie – obituary
Bill Fries, who has died aged 93, was an advertising executive who created a character called C W McCall, a truck driver, in a series of commercials for a US bread company.
The campaign was such a success that he adopted the name himself, and as C W McCall hit the road as a country music singer. In 1976 he had a major hit with Convoy, a novelty song which topped the US Billboard and country charts and reached No 2 in Britain.
The song’s lyrics, narrated by Fries in a deep, laconic baritone, exploited the then topical theme of truckers using CB radio to rebel against the new Federal speed limit of 55 mph, and were written in the lingo of citizens’ band radio, much of which Fries himself had invented:
“Uh, breaker one-nine, this here’s the Rubber Duck/ You gotta copy on me, Pig Pen, c’mon?/Ah, yeah, 10-4, Pig Pen, fer shure, fer shure/ By golly, it’s clean clear to Flag Town, c’mon/ Yeah, that’s a big 10-4 there, Pig Pen” – and so on.
Convoy sold some two million records and inspired Sam Peckinpah to make a movie of the same name, for which Fries recorded a new version of the song with more risqué lyrics to fit the film script.
Convoy (1978) starred Kris Kristofferson as an alpha-male trucker with the CB moniker “Rubber Duck” who, lured into a speed trap by Ernest Borgnine’s deranged sheriff, musters an army of fellow truckers with CB aliases such as “Pig Pen” and “Spider Mike”, along with a bus full of pot-smoking Jesus freaks (and Ali MacGraw as love interest) for a noisy showdown on America’s interstate highways.
Though variously dismissed by critics as “gung-ho trash”, a “rumbling bore” and “dumber than a stack of burning tyres”, Convoy raked in $45 million and became the biggest commercial hit of Peckinpah’s career.
The son of a factory foreman, Billie Dale Fries was born on November 15 1928 in Audubon, Iowa. Both his parents were musical and while majoring in fine arts at the University of Iowa, he also studied music and played the clarinet.
After graduation he moved to Omaha, Nebraska, to work as a television set designer, before joining, in 1961, the advertising agency Bozell & Jacobs, where he became senior vice-president.
The character of C W McCall was created for 12 60-second TV commercials promoting the Metz Baking Company’s Old Home bread. Fries was the writer, creative director, producer and narrator/vocalist, while Chip Davis wrote the music.
The campaign, which won Fries one of several Clio awards in 1974, featured a truck driver (played by Texan actor Jim Finlayson) delivering baked goods to the Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep on a-Truckin’ Café and each instalment traced the course of his burgeoning romance with a gum-chewing waitress called Mavis (Jean McBride Capps).
The ads became so popular that Fries decided to take on C W McCall’s persona, singing songs (mostly co-written with Davis) that evoked the macho culture of long-haul truckers, and even contributing his own coinages to C B radio jargon (“chicken coop” for weigh station, “suicide jockey” for truck carrying explosives, “swindle sheets” for truckers’ logs and so on).
As well as Convoy, his other hits included Old Home Filler-Up and Keep On-a-Truckin’ Cafe, originally a promotional record for the Metz Baking Company, Wolf Creek Pass and Roses for Mama. He also recorded several albums of which Black Bear Road topped the country music charts.
At the end of the 1970s Fries retired his alter ego C W McCall and moved to Ouray, Colorado, where he became involved in environmental campaigns and served as the town’s mayor from 1986 to 1992.
He recently approved the use of Convoy by the so-called “Freedom Convoy” of truckers who drove across Canada to protest against coronavirus restrictions.
In 1952 he married Rena Bonnema, who survives him with two sons and a daughter.
Bill Fries, born November 15 1928, died April 1 2022