Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were founded at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, forging a unique combination of western swing country and boogie-woogie rock.
When they took that combination to San Francisco in 1968, it quickly caught on, with the band landing an audition for the legendary promoter Bill Graham within a month. In two months, they were opening for the Grateful Dead.
What many don’t know, though, is that while Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen found inspiration all over the country for their wild ride, it all began on Long Island.
After all, The Commander, who was known as George Frayne then, still clearly remembers the day at Oceanside High School when he was first captivated by the piano.
“I took piano lessons, but that sucked,” says The Commander, calling from his home base in Saratoga Springs. “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 George first heard him play “The Army Boogie” on piano, he was hooked. Suddenly, there was more to his life than competing in the shotput 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,” The Commander recalls. “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.”
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The Commander remembers having trouble playing to a metronome and that his teacher told him he would never make it – something he happily never let his teacher forget, even though he remains grateful. “Without him, ‘Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar’ never would have happened,” he says. “I took what he taught me and just played boogie-woogie music to entertain my friends.”
That continued when he graduated from Bay Shore High School to study art at the University of Michigan, forming a band to play fraternity parties and bars around Ann Arbor for fun. “I was also the marijuana guy in Ann Arbor at the time,” The Commander says, laughing. “I paid people in joints.”
When guitarist Bill Kirchen moved to San Francisco in 1969 and found that people there would enjoy their mix of rock and country, he convinced The Commander and the rest of the band to join him out there. And Kirchen turned out to be right.
“No one had ever heard steel guitar and a fiddle there before,” he says. “We played rockabilly music with a swing feel to it and people loved it right away.”
Soon, Commander Cody and His Lost Pilot Airmen had a record deal with Paramount Records. When they released their debut album “Lost in the Ozone” in 1971, they quickly landed a Top 10 hit with “Hot Rod Lincoln” and set off on tour.
One of the first places The Commander wanted to play was Long Island. “I just wanted to show my high school and lifeguard friends what I was doing,” he said.
They had a show at the C.W. Post campus in Brookville, but no alcohol was served so they couldn’t really party. That was when they decided to try out a new club in Roslyn called My Father’s Place.
“I was just trying to help myself out,” The Commander says. “I wanted a place on Long Island where people could come out and see me without having to go to Manhattan.”
However, for Michael “Eppy” Epstein, co-founder of My Father’s Place, the Commander Cody gig turned out to be incredibly important.
“At the time, I was booking bands at a payphone,” Epstein recalls. “Someone with the band told me they wanted to have the after-party at the club and that I would sell more beer than I could possibly think of so I agreed and ordered the beer. After the show, they made an announcement that the party would continue at My Father’s Place. Nobody knew who we were. We had only been open three or four months. But there was a caravan of cars to the place and we really did sell more beer than ever.”
“After that,” Epstein says, “the floodgates opened.”
My Father’s Place quickly became a stop on the tours of up-and-coming rock acts, including Bruce Springsteen and Bob Marley. And Commander Cody and His Lost Pilot Airmen had a Long Island club to call home twice a year.
The Commander says he’s looking forward to playing the new My Father’s Place at The Roslyn Hotel on Saturday, Nov. 3. “I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of friends,” he says. “It should be quite interesting. I think Bill [Kirchen] is going to jam with us.”
And Commander Cody is also looking forward to the future. He has long been an accomplished painter and in recent years, painting has become his focus. But he is captivated by music once again.
“I have a new live album in the can that I will finish mastering this winter,” he says. “I have a new label, Rockbeat Records, and people have been listening to our music online so much, I recently got a check from a record company. That’s my first check from a record company in 45 years…. We’re going to be doing some fresh material with a fresh band. That should be exciting. It’s as it should be.”
WHO Commander Cody
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 3, My Father’s Place at The Roslyn Hotel, 1221 Old Northern Blvd., Roslyn
INFO $60; 516-413-3535, myfathersplace.com
THE COMMANDER’S BIGGEST HITS
Commander Cody helped forge the genre now known as Americana, or roots music, by combining various distinctly American musical styles. Here’s a look at some of his most popular songs:
“HOT ROD LINCOLN”: The story of racing souped-up cars set to a mix of rockabilly guitars and country orchestration became the band’s biggest hit. (No. 9, 1972)
“DON’T LET GO”: The band’s version of the 1958 Roy Hamilton hit pumps up the energy and plays up its rockabilly edge. (No. 56, 1975)
“BEAT ME DADDY, EIGHT TO THE BAR”: The boogie-woogie number is a showcase for The Commander’s piano-playing skills and, in concert, was generally filled with solos from several band members. (No. 81, 1972)
“SMOKE! SMOKE! SMOKE! (THAT CIGARETTE)”: The story song about the addictive properties of cigarettes started as a Tex Williams talking blues number, but the band added some rockabilly guitar flourishes and The Commander’s tongue-in-cheek delivery. (No. 94, 1973) – GLENN GAMBOA