George Frayne, ‘Commander Cody,’ Country-Rock Pioneer, Dead at 77
George Frayne, best known under his alias Commander Cody and as the leader of the group Commander Cody and His Planet Lost Airmen, died on Sunday (Sept. 26) at age 77, following a battle with cancer.
"Early this morning, as I lay my head upon his shoulder, George’s soul took to flight," Frayne's wife confirmed in a Facebook post, noting that a pair of memorial events will be planned for both the East and West Coasts. "I am heartbroken and weary, and I know your hearts break, too. Thank you so much for all the love you gave and the stories you shared."
Born in Boise, Idaho, in 1944, Frayne formed Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1967. Frayne adopted his stage moniker from a '50s science-fiction character, while the band's name came from a 1951 movie. Mixing elements of country, rock 'n' roll, Western swing, rockabilly, jazz and boogie-woogie, the Lost Planet Airmen set themselves apart from traditional country rockers of the era.
“In about 1966 I found a Bob Wills album and marijuana," Frayne told No Depression in 2018. "I’m pretty sure those guys were stoned most of the time. I started listening to Jerry Lee Lewis’ album that had "Crazy Arms" and Buck Owens’ greatest hits. We did [Owens'] "Tiger by the Tail" regularly. What country music afforded for us was there was no rehearsal, we listened to the record, we drank a bunch of whiskey and Coke, and played. Country music is easy to do if someone knows the lyrics and the song, you can follow along relatively easily.”
After a few years of performing in local bars, the band relocated to Berkeley, Calif., where they signed a contract with Paramount Records and released their debut album, 1971's Lost in the Ozone, which included a Top 40 cover of "Hot Rod Lincoln." The group opened for some big acts of the era, including the Grateful Dead, Alice Cooper and the Beach Boys.
After a few more albums in the first half of the '70s — 1972's Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers Favorites, 1973's Country Casanova and 1975's self-titled LP all landed in the Billboard 100 — the Lost Planet Airman disbanded in 1976. Frayne continued with a solo career, still using his stage name, and toured and released albums under various titles including Commander Cody, the Commander Cody Band, Commander Cody and His Modern Day Airmen and Commander Cody and His Western Airmen.
Frayne received a bachelor's degree in design in 1966 and a master's degree in sculpture and painting in 1968. He spent much of his post-Airmen career exhibiting his art in museums and teaching at universities.
"I have been painting for a long time," he wrote in his 2009 book, Art Music & Life. "I have been rocking for almost as long. The tales of adventure in both cases run together and sometimes intersect."