Still Having "Too Much Fun."
by Michael Buffalo Smith
The former lead vocalist of Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen is still rocking and singing the blues with heart and soul. His latest cd, Southern Moon (on Zane Records) made our Gritz "Best Releases of 2002" list. We spoke with Billy C. by phone from Alabama.
I want to go back and get you to tell me where you were born and raised?
Decatur, Alabama. North Alabama mostly, and I lived a great part of my youth in Indiana and Texas.
Oh, so you probably knew lots of those guys from Alabama that were at the Christmas charity event, guys like John Wyker and folks from The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section- were you around any of that? The heyday of the Muscle Shoals studios?
Actually, we left when I was in my teens and my family moved us up to Detroit, I knew Johnny Wyker when we were kids because he used to date my cousin. His family had a hardware store in Decatur and my Mom's family had a little restaurant down by the railroad tracks. Those two families had known each other for a few generations in fact. As far as the music scene though, I kind of left before any of that stuff happened and moved up into the Detroit and Chicago blues scenes in the mid-sixties I would say.
When did you first become interested in singing and playing music?
Well, I got my first guitar at about 11-12 years old and it seemed like I had always wanted to be a musician. I was copying Elvis and Hank Williams at an early age and my first public performance was at a Church of God camp meeting in 1963, where I did some gospel songs and that same year I got into a rock and roll band. It was a little band that was local and we just played around at parties and did not really amount to much. I started I guess from a gospel type angle and got into the Elvis stuff from there, and then it was not long until I was doing blues like Lightnin'Hopkins and Sonny Terry.
Are you a founding member of the Commander Cody Band and when did all that come about? I did not know the whole story.
After my family moved up to Detroit when I was a teen, I was playing in bands and blowin' some harmonica and doing the blues thing and various other things. When I was about 18 years old I was playing with Sam Lay and the Mojo Workers. Sam Lay, among other things, had played on early Howlin'Wolf stuff and was also on on the first Paul Butterfield album. I knew him from the James Cotton band and then he quit Cotton and started his own band. I had played with him for awhile and around the same time over in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that's not far from Detroit and a big college town. I would play over there from time to time and I met George Frayne, who later became Commander Cody and the band's guitarist, Bill Kirchen. We each had a band and then we just decided to bring them together and make them into one band. That is how the serious version of Cody got together. I met those guys up there and I guess I was the token Southerner in the band because they were all yankees and westerners and stuff and they had no southern roots in the band, but they did want to do that kind of stuff.
I thought for years that they were southern guys just because of the music, but I guess I am not the only one that thought that.
(Laughs), no I have heard this from lots of people. We played on the country circuit a little bit, but not much, we stayed mostly on the hippie-country-rock circuit most. There were lots of people that felt like we were southern. I was the front man and they would hear my voice and accent and just assume we were. Most of them were just college guys from up north that wanted to play the good stuff.
I know you sang in the Commander Cody band but did you also play in the band on an instrument?
I played on the harmonica some, but my biggest musical contribution was writing a good bit of the material.
What are some of the songs that you wrote?
I wrote the band's theme song, "Lost in the Ozone," and "Down to Seeds and Stems." Those were the two most prominent. Unfortunately, I did not write "Hot Rod Lincoln," and that was the bands big hit on Billboard, number 8 for three weeks back in 1972.
Didn't someone else have a hit with that?
Oh yeah, this old guy out in San Diego named Charlie Ryan in 1960 had a hit with that and Johnny Bond also did it. We came along and had another hit version and then Asleep At The Wheel had a hit with it. It has been several years now and that song has had a nice career. Like I said I am sorry I did not write the thing.
Well yeah, but the ones you did write are really great too!
Thanks, Michael I appreciate it, and I get a lot of kicks out of writing songs and I have really enjoyed performing. That is the main thing that I do and I do spend lots of time writing tunes and trying to come up with things that I can use and stuff that I can give to my publisher, Bug Music, that I can get other people to do.
So you are published by Bug, huh?
Yeah. They are out of LA and have been around for awhile and have too many writers, solicited or unsolicited, and to them it is all the same, it is hard to get anything heard by them. I have been with them since the beginning practically, me and Leroy Preston from Asleep At The Wheel. We were two of the first guys that they started with. I have had a few things placed but nothing big yet, but we are hoping.
Just a couple of questions about the Commander Cody Band. What were some of the "high" points that you remember with that band? No pun intended.
(Laughs) We opened for the Grateful Dead at the Hollywood Bowl in 1974, and that was one of ourbigger shows. Then Bill Graham put on a series of concerts at Oakland Coliseum . We played this for three years in a row and he had acts like Grateful Dead, The Beach Boys, Elton John, The Doobie Brothers, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and had maybe 80-100,000 people. But the show that meant the most to me and I still have the clippings from the New York Times,was in about 1975 when the Cody Band played a big festival at Roosevelt Field just outside of New York and it had James Brown and Bo Diddley, Crosby, Stills and Nash,The Starship, and just a ton of bands. We put on a helluva a show that day and the headlines the next day was "James Brown was great but you should have seen Commander Cody." It was one of those things and I do not know how it turned out that way, but we were on that day.
I wouldn't have minded getting to see that myself?
Oh, man, I stood behind the bass players amp when James Brown did his whole show and that was a great thrill for me that day. I just got to see him do all his routines and I even got to see Bo Diddley. I just stood right back there and watched because I have always loved both those guys.
I wanted to ask you about a couple of guys in that band, the first one being Commander Cody himself, George Frayne. Was he the piano player?
Yeah, he was basically the piano player and he would get up and sing one number at the end of each set. He was not really a vocalist. He would sing something like "Smoke That Cigarette," or "Hot Rod Lincoln," or "That's What I Like About the South."
Tell me a little bit about Bill Kirchen? I just got a new record from him, called, Tied to the Wheel. I saw him in Lincoln, Nebraska, a couple of years ago.
Oh, yeah, I recently went up and did a tour with him around the D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia area and we are still good buds and I have talked with him about producing a cd by me and currently he is producing a cd by one of our old friends Kevin "Blackey" Ferrell who wrote a song called "Mama Hated Diesels" which was a big favorite of the old band, (laughs), and he asked me if when he was done with that, that he would want to produce one of mine. I plan on discussing it with him and seeing what we can come up with. He is on the road a lot. I e-mail him and we talk about various things, including the Commander Cody reunion tour that is tentatively set for this fall. We are trying to put that together.
That answers the next question, I wondered if you guys were going to do a reunion.
There was one a year ago January. We were on the Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor and did a live performance. We also played around Ann Arbor. The fiddle player in the house band was our former fiddle player Andy Stein. He got us on that show and it was a quick one week tour that worked out real well. We are trying to juggle everyones schedule so we could get together and do a longer one and go to Texas, and back to California, then to the east coast and do it right and come out with a live cd.
What do you feel is the best Commander Cody album?
I think the best one was a Live at the Armadillo World Headquarters, In Austin. That was our best crowd and our favorite gig. We just decided to do a live album there and we spent like four nights in a row there. This was something they had never done, usually it was a different band every night.
Is the Armadillo still in existence?
No, it got torn down around 1977-78.
I am sitting here looking at a poster on my wall, actually an original poster from the Armadillo of the Marshall Tucker Band with the Ken Featherton artwork. I grew up around those fellows and they loved playing there. I can only imagine what it was like.
This was an old, huge warehouse building and the actual music area held about 500 people and had a big stage. There was a place there that sold the best damn, hippie Mexican food that you ever had in your life. We used to live, just to go there and have them feed us. For a while there was a band playing outside while there was a band playing inside. The place was just totally swamped with people everytime we were there. The Texans could have more fun than anyone I have seen up to that point in my life. I loved to go to Austin and hang out. I had a lot of friends there and we talked about moving there especially when the Austin music scene really got going and we all talked about it, but most of the guys in the band were already set in California and not willing to move back to the east. We did not do it, but some good friends of ours, Asleep At The Wheel did move back and it turned out to be a great move for them. I tell you Micheal, that was a helluva a town when it was jumping. I could tell some stories.
Maybe you will, I understand that you are in the process of putting a book together which ought to be interesting.
I have done a couple of chapters and am encouraged to finish it and get it published.
What year did you leave Commander Cody band and what happened after that?
The Commander Cody band disbanded in 1976 and I started my own band and Kirchen started his and Cody went off in a rock direction. I believe the rhythm section went out with the Byrds, and we all were scattered into the four winds. I played around California for another 2-4 years opening for a lot of big country acts like Rick Nelson, Flying Burrito Brothers, Kenny Rogers and then decided to take a few years off to raise my kids and then in the mid 80s went back to Commander Cody for another 6 years or so and I was the only original member in the band during that time. He had some good personel in those days. In the early 90's, Fred James in Nashville got a hold of me and I have been doing solo albums every few years.I have about 4 of them out now.
I wondered how many solo albums you had out. I know about Southern Moon because, of course, I reviewed that one and named it one of the top 25 albums of this year. Tell us a little about that album and how did you hook up with Zane Records.
Well, thank you Michael. I met Peter from Zane about 10 years ago when he came back to Decatur doing some stuff with Eddie Hinton before he died. I met him and his wife and really liked them and then about upteen years later, Fred James and I do this Southern Moon thing and we sent it to Peter and he went for it in a big way. I've had this theory for the past few years why not do the country and blues together and no one has given me any trouble about it yet. The guys in Chicago, are totally into blues and would not dream of doing a Rockabilly song or country song. A blues singer from the south might, and was probably raised on both. I know lots of black guys that do great country and western and they would if their record producer asked them to. I think it is perfectly natural for someone from the south to do that. It is my roots and my music and I have written lots of songs. A couple of years ago there was a collection of stuff by me put out called Rockabilly Blues and this had some rockabilly stuff with Elvis' old drummer, D.J. Fontana, and Lonnie Mack on guitar and Joe B.Mauldin on base and so we called this Rockabilly Blues and that made me think that I should do all of the stuff that I can do rather than pigeonhole myself into one thing.
Some of those guys that you are mentioning are some of the best. Have you ever met a guy named Bob Timmers, Rockabilly Hall of Fame founder and has been doing that for years and they have a studio in Berns, Tenn. where lots of those guys come in and record. It is very cool!
No I don't know him. But it sounds cool.
Don't you have another album coming out beside Southern Moon?
Yeah, I have another one that we are planning to shop. This is with the band that you saw there and we have this all mixed and set up and are ready to do something with it.
Tell me something about that guitar player and drummer that were with you, I was dumbfounded by it.
I tell you there is nothing scientific about it, I just lucked into it. The guitar player is Matt Gibbs, and he works at this place called The Fret Shop here in Huntsville and he was raised on a hippie commune in Alabama and he just plays the hell out of a guitar. We together have this concept of a three piece thing, featuring the drums almost as much as the guitar, or the voice or the harp. We found this boy Soloman Grable, who has been playing locally in some bands and is about 23-24 years old and Matt is about 26, 27 and we just kind of got to working on it and we practiced so much we got good I guess.
You guys really sounded great and that was one of the best things that day in Alabama.
For the musicians it was like a homecoming because you know we all played our own separate little gigs and seldom do all of the north Alabama guys get together. There was some of the best music that Huntsville has had in a long time that was rounded up that day. They had nothing but Alabama's own there and it was something worth noticing I think.
Then there was Jimmy Hall at the end of the day, and he can wail too.
Oh yeah! Definitely. I was very glad they asked me to play because it was a great day and it gave me a chance to get out with my new band. We have not played out there very much. We have circuits up north and out west but not much is solid in the south. I do try to play here on weekends.
How was your reception in England?
It was a ball and we had great crowds. My record label Zane gave me great coverage over the BBC and this fellow Paul Jones who used to play with Manfred Mann,had a great show on the BBC at night and he was playing my stuff. I was playing one club in Wales that was run by Terry Williams who played drums for Dire Straits and had been with Rock Pile with Nikolo and Dave Edmunds. He took me under his wing and to his house and made me feel very welcome and was very hospitable. Everyone was so receptive to the music and I just got an e-mail where the promoters are getting another tour together for September. At one point we played 11 nights in a row and it was so much fun it was not tiring.
What's next on the agenda?
Well, okay- different things have happened all of a sudden and there is a cut that just came out on Taxim Records, a compilation from Alabama artists called Blues From the Heart of Dixie. Beside myself there is Microwave Dave,Little Jimmy Reed, The Butler Twins and others. In April I am going to German, Switzerland, and Austria for most of April.I was over there for one year and this is getting to be a regular thing, because it is fun and the people are very enthusiastic about our music. We were in former East Germany on the coast of the east sea and we played in this old run down church that they are renovating. They built a stage and had about 500 people coming in.They made so much noise dust was coming off the ceiling and walls. There is also the freedom to smoke a joint in the open in Switzerland, just go to the hemp shop and ask for it. There are many customs there that I like. It is great and my promoter picks us up in a van and has all of the stuff laid out and takes very good care of us. Beyond that I am looking for the Cody reunion later this year, more touring, more cd.s coming out, definitely with this trio, I think that will be the next thing happening for us.
Visit Billy C. Farlow's website at www.billycfarlow.com