About this time last year I wrote the first of a couple of articles about silly songs, spotlighting not only the music but also how modern practitioners such as Weird Al Yankovic have been preceded by generations of musicians. One of those I featured was Phil Harris, whose “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette” was a special favorite of mine.
It’s a song that’s been tackled by a a lot of different singers through the years, most notably Tex Williams, who was also one of its composers. Among the many other singers was one who was the leader of a rock band that had a minor hit with the tune — but it wasn’t their biggest by a long shot.
Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen was the colorful name of a very good rock band organized in the Detroit area by pianist George Frayne (aka The Commander) in the late 1960’s. The group struggled at first and went through a number of personnel changes, relocating to San Francisco and searching for success in that city’s exploding musical scene.
In addition to the Commander, the band featured lead guitarist Don Bolton and John Tichy on steel guitar, a combo that could hold its own with many of the big-name groups of the time. The musicians were at home with everything from rockabilly to Western Swing to R&B, but their best sellers were destined to be songs that were decidedly a little different.
Their biggest hit, 1972’s “Hot Rod Lincon,” was a novelty song that had earlier been a minor success for country singer Johnny Bond, but it was Commander Cody’s lively version that captured the imagination of the listening public (especially teenage boys). It ended up leaping into the top ten on the Billboard pop charts, and the band’s success seemed assured.
However, they might have had mixed feelings about the tune’s success, because even though they continued recording and performing live during the 1970’s and beyond, it’s probable that most listeners equated their music with – well – silly songs. Not surprisingly, they also had good-sellers with that “smoking” tune we mentioned earlier, as well as “Beat Me Daddy, Eight To The Bar.”
But even though their last charted song, 1976’s “Don’t Let Go,” was probably a little closer to the kind of music they often featured in their successful live appearances, they still embraced the popularity of the comedy songs. For example, one of their most memorable album covers features a huge cartoonish cowboy with a cigarette hanging from his mouth.
As with so many bands, they eventually broke up. In subsequent years the Commander has re-formed various groups a couple of times, and although never reaching best-seller status again, he’s continued to perform to enthusiastic audiences and sell records. And he’s still rockin’ — you can see what he’s up to these days at his official website.