The "Convoy" Story, or "What If the Quaker Oats Guy Had a No. 1 Hit Record"

Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald | Jun 16, 2015

Tom Bodett now sort of famously hates the song "Convoy," to the point that it made him evacuate from the lower 48. But the story behind the song "Convoy" is one of the greatest swindles ever to be perpetrated on the American public. It's at the intersection of bumpkin music, twin oil crises, the truckers' strike, and the close of the Mad Men era, and you've got to read it to believe it.

To understand the story, you have to go back to the early 1970s. See, in those days, everybody wasn't walking around with a phone in their pocket, or even hard-wired to their car. No, if you wanted to communicate with other people, you had to pull over beside the road, walk into a hot, glass box, pick up a receiver and place a call.

As you can imagine, that was wildly inefficient for truck drivers. To keep their times out of the truck as infrequent as possible, truckers started using Citizen's Band radios, which had been around since World War II, but that the FCC had recently deregulated as a personal radio service. By the early 1970s, truckers were universally using the radios to talk with other drivers, find cheap gas, keep an eye out for cops and open weigh stations, and alert other truckers when attractive women were nearby.

In 1973, the Oil Embargo forced the price of fuel to dizzying heights, when you could find it at all. At the same time, Congress enacted a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit from coast to coast. It meant that state police were writing tickets at an unprecedented level, and truck drivers were bearing the brunt of the attention. They were looking for every opportunity to find cheaper — or even available — fuel. The CB radio became their preferred tool of communication when all this was happening.

Amid the fuel shortage and the griping about the national speed limit came a Mississippi-born truck driver named J.W. Edwards. His CB handle was "River Rat," and he was the first president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association of America, a sort of a union of independent truck drivers.

 

In February 1974, four months after OPEC had declared its oil embargo against the U.S. and other western nations over their support of Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Edwards and his association staged a national strike protesting the spiraling costs of fuel, fuel shortages, and reduced speed limits. Edwards and other truckers pulled their trucks across I-80 in Pennsylvania and completely blocked the highway for ten days. Pennsylvania governor Milton Shapp was forced to activate National Guard units to provide security.

Overnight, independent truckers suddenly found themselves being depicted as folk heroes, striking back at the government, big business and “the man” in general.

The guy who would become known as "C.W. McCall" -- a veiled tip o' the cowboy hat to J.W. Edwards -- was no dummy. His real name was William Dale Fries, Jr., and he was the creative director at an advertising agency in Omaha, Nebraska, called Bozell & Jacobs. Now known as Bozell, Bozell & Jacobs, it wasn't some rinky-dink ad agency pasting up ads for car dealers. Over the years, it developed some campaigns that have become a lasting part of American consciousness. "Pork. The Other White Meat." Theirs. "Got Milk?" was created by another agency, but the idea of the "Got Milk?" mustache was theirs. Ricardo Montalban purring about "Corinthian leather"? That was theirs, too.

As Bozell & Jacobs' version of Don Draper, Fries was placed in charge of coming up with an advertising hook for the Metz Baking Company's Old Home Bread. He developed a series of 60-second spots for the bread company, showing a trucker named C.W. McCall, who was portrayed by actor Jim Finlayson. The actor never speaks, but it's Fries who provides the country-fried voice-over, full of CB-talkin', gear-jammin' lingo.

The series of 12 commercials were wildly popular. They won a Clio award for Bozell & Jacobs in 1974. We've got one here, but you can see the entire series at Bozell's website:

The commercials proved so popular that Fries started writing lyrics for songs himself, always as the C.W. McCall character. He paired up with Chip Davis, who wrote the music, while Fries wrote the lyrics. Davis would eventually go on to found Mannheim Steamroller.

By 1975, Fries had a couple of songs on the Billboard Hot 100, but "Convoy," which loosely recounted the Independent Truckers' strike in 1974, was the one that really hit. It captured the mood of the moment, and it went on to inspire the 1977 movie Smokey & The Bandit, the TV show B.J. and the Bear, and a movie version of "Convoy" starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw.

That ain't bad for an ad campaign for hot dog buns.


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