Bill Fries, the deep-voiced country singer known as C.W. McCall, who turned an ad campaign for an Iowa bread company into the outlaw trucker anthem, “Convoy,” which reached No. 1 on the charts in 1976 and inspired a Sam Peckinpah movie, died on Friday at his home in Ouray, Colo. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by his son, Bill Fries III, who said his father had been in hospice care for about six months.
Mr. Fries was working as an ad executive at Bozell & Jacobs in Omaha in the 1970s, when he helped to create a series of television commercials for Metz Baking Company about a trucker named C.W. McCall hauling Old Home bread in an eighteen-wheeler and a gum-snapping waitress named Mavis at the Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep On A-Truckin’ Cafe.
The ads — including one that ended with the tagline “Old Home is good buns” — became wildly popular and helped pump up Old Home bread sales as they told the story of a diesel-scented romance between Mavis and C.W., who spoke in a formidable twang voiced by Mr. Fries.
“It was just amazing,” Mr. Fries once told Bozell. “Fan clubs were springing up and people were calling into TV and radio stations wanting to know when the spots were going to air.”
In 1974, the ads were recognized by the Clio Awards as the nation’s best overall television advertising campaign.
“When I accepted the award, I could see the shock and horror on the faces of all those New York advertising executives,” Mr. Fries told The Omaha World-Herald in 2001. “I remember saying, ‘I’ll bet y’all never thought something this good could come out of Omaha.’”
Mr. Fries helped to spin the ads into a promotional record for Metz Baking Company, called “Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep On A-Truckin’ Cafe,” which sold about 30,000 copies, according to Bozell. Before long, MGM Records in Nashville was calling.
With a record deal from MGM, Mr. Fries spawned a cultural phenomenon with “Convoy,” an ode to renegade truckers driving across the country, written with Chip Davis, who had also written the music for the Old Home bread ads and who went on to found the group Mannheim Steamroller, known for its Christmas music.
Crackling with CB radio lingo, the song tells the story of the truckers Rubber Duck and Pig Pen who are “puttin’ the hammer down” as they thumb their noses at speed limits, industry rules and law enforcement officers — “bears” and “smokies” in CB parlance. Along the way, they end up leading 1,000 trucks and “11 longhaired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse microbus.”
Originally recorded merely as an album filler, “Convoy” tapped into the surging popularity of trucker culture and CB radio, which truckers used to communicate during long, lonely hours on the open road. It was part of a boom in trucking-themed country songs like “Roll On Big Mama” by Joe Stampley and “Willin’” by Little Feat.
“Convoy” spent six weeks at the top of the country charts and crossed into the top of the pop charts for a week, according to The World-Herald. More than 20 million copies of the single have been sold, according to Bozell. In 1978, Mr. Peckinpah turned the song into a movie, “Convoy,” starring Kris Kristofferson as Rubber Duck.
“It went farther than I would have ever dreamed,” Mr. Fries told The World-Herald. “I’ve got a whole scrapbook full of articles people have written through the years about ‘Convoy’ and the ‘Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep On A-Truckin’ Cafe.’”
Billie Dale Fries was born on Nov. 15, 1928, in Audubon, Iowa, and later changed his name to William Dale Fries Jr. His father, Billie Fries, was a supervisor at a farm-equipment plant that manufactured hog pens. His mother, Margaret Fries, was a homemaker.
After graduating from high school, Mr. Fries attended the University of Iowa for a year and then came back to Audubon and started a sign-painting business.
In the late 1940s, he went to work for the NBC affiliate in Omaha as an art director, which led him into advertising and a job at Bozell & Jacobs.
In addition to his son, Bill Fries III, he is survived by his wife of 70 years, Rena Fries, two other children, Mark Fries and Nancy Fries, four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandson.
Mr. Fries said he got the idea for “Convoy” while sitting in his Jeep listening to CB radio chatter.
“It sounds like a war going on out there,” he told Mr. Davis. “It might be an idea for the album.”
Mr. Fries, who ultimately released nine albums, according to his son, retired to Ouray, a city about 300 miles southwest of Denver, in 1981. He was elected mayor in 1986 and served until 1992, his son said.
Even after his country music career was over, Mr. Fries said the runaway success of “Convoy” remained an enduring source of pride.
“It’s one of those things that can only happen in America,” he told The World-Herald. “CBs have all faded into the woodwork. Most young people won’t even know about CBs or truck convoys, but at the time it was the thing. That was pretty special.”
Jack Begg contributed research.
Source: NY Times