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LI-raised George Frayne, aka rock star Commander Cody, dead at 77

George Frayne, who led the country rock band

George Frayne, who led the country rock band Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, has died at age 77. Credit: Alamy/Pictorial Press Ltd

George Frayne, who as leader of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen enjoyed a cult following in the 1970s with such party and concert favorites as "Hot Rod Lincoln" and "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)," has died.

Frayne, who grew up on Long Island, died Sunday in upstate Saratoga Springs, said his wife, Sua Casanova, who did not immediately provide further details. He was 77 and had been diagnosed with cancer several years ago.

"As I lay my head upon his shoulder/George’s soul took to flight/I am heartbroken and weary/And I know your hearts break too," Casanova wrote last weekend on her Facebook page.

Formed in 1967, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen drew upon influences ranging from Western swing to jump blues. They became a popular touring and recording act during the first half of the 1970s, getting around the country in a converted Greyhound bus. They specialized in up-tempo remakes, notably the top 10 hit "Hot Rod Lincoln"; "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)," a novelty song from the 1940s; "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar" and "Diggy Liggy Lo." The sound was country-rock boogie and the mood lighthearted and ready to get wild, as defined by Frayne's witty talking-blues vocals.

Frayne, a native of Boise, Idaho, grew up in New York City and Long Island and had an early interest in piano and art and design.

In a 2018 interview with Newsday's Glenn Gamboa, Frayne clearly remembered the day at Oceanside High School when he was first captivated by the piano.

"I took piano lessons, but that sucked," said Frayne. "I took music at Oceanside High School, but that was just something to do before track practice. But the music teacher Mr. O’Leary would get the class’ attention by sitting in the corner on the piano playing this kind of music."

When young Frayne first heard him play "The Army Boogie" on piano, he was hooked. Suddenly, there was more to his life than competing in the shot put and the high jump events for the track team, even when his family moved from Oceanside to Bay Shore before his junior year.

"I went home and told my mom that I heard some piano playing that I really liked," Frayne recalled. "Well, she used to hang out in Greenwich Village with Eddie Condon. And she got me the piano player from Eddie Condon’s orchestra, who so happened to live in Massapequa and was teaching piano in Rockville Centre. He taught me boogie-woogie music, chords and some jazz."

Frayne attended the University of Michigan as an undergraduate and graduate student and was still living in Ann Arbor when he helped form Commander Cody along with Billy C. Farlow, Bill Kirchen and others he would call "neo-radicals who specialized in a form of quasi-social mayhem." Their name was lifted from old movie serials — including a science-fiction adventure from the 1950s featuring space fighter Commander Cody.

They resettled in the Bay Area in California in 1969, when a trippy name like Commander Cody and His Lost Plane Airmen fit well with such local groups as the Charlatans, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. They had success in the early 1970s with "Hot Rod Lincoln" and released six albums from 1971-75, including the acclaimed "Live from Deep in the Heart of Texas," while resisting Warner Bros.' efforts to model themselves on the commercial country-rock of the Eagles.

The band broke up in the mid-1970s, but Frayne (still calling himself Commander Cody) continued to tour and record, performing with Jerry Garcia, Elvis Costello and Sammy Hagar, among others. He also released such albums as "Dopers, Drunks and Everyday Losers" and "Worst Case Scenario." He also painted, made films, and taught at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

In 2009, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen was voted into Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame.

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