Way back in 1974, William Dale Fries Jr. was working as a creative director for Bozell & Jacobs, an Omaha, Nebraska-based ad agency. He created a Clio Award-winning (the Clios are the Oscars of the ad industry, but perhaps AVN awards would be more appropriate) campaign for Old Home Bread that featured a truck driver named C.W. McCall, which led to a series of songs called “Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep on a-Truckin’ Café”, “Wolf Creek Pass” and “Black Bear Road.”
Fries wrote the lyrics and sang those songs, while Chip Davis — who would go to dominate your parents’ holidays with Mannheim Steamroller — wrote the music.
Their song “Convoy,” though became a monster. A true crossover, it became the number-one song on both the country and pop charts in the US, number one in Canada and number two in the UK. In fact, it’s such a big song that it’s listed 98th among Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time.
Please note: McCall is no one hit wonder. The aforementioned “Wolf Creek Pass” hit #40 in 1975. and three others songs — “Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep on a-Truckin’ Cafe”, “‘Round the World with the Rubber Duck” (the pirate-themed sequel to “Convoy” where the convoy leaves the US and travels around the world, touring the UK, France, West and East Germany, the USSR, Japan and even Australia, where the lyrics “Ah, ten-four, Pig Pen, what’s your twenty? Australia? Mercy sakes, ain’t nothin’ down there but Tasmanian devils and them cue-walla bears” are sung) and “There Won’t Be No Country Music (There Won’t Be No Rock ‘n’ Roll)” — reached the Billboard Hot 100 when things like that really mattered. And to top that off, a dozen McCall songs reached the Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart.
Let me explain one more time how big of a song this was: Sam Peckinpah — yes, the guy who directed The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and played a drunk in utterly bizarre Ovidio G. Assonitis film The Visitor — made a movie about it. Even stranger, it was the most successful movie of his entire career.
Somwhere in the Arizona desert, truck driver Martin “Rubber Duck” Penwald (Kris Kristofferson, pretty much the most attractive man to ever drive an 18 wheeler) is passed by Melissa (Ali McGraw, a woman able to break the hearts of both Robert Evans and Steve McQueen, but once you see her in this film you’ll say, well, yes, I understand how they could throw caution to the wind and ruin their lives for Ali McGraw; PS — I learned pretty much 99% of my writing style from The Kid Stays In The Picture), a photographer who gets him in trouble with his arch enemy Sheriff “Dirty Lyle” Wallace (Ernest Borgnine, The Devil’s Rain!). It turns out that the Rubber Duck has been pulling his rig into the driveway of Lyle’s wife Violet (Cassie Yates, who we all know and love from Rolling Thunder) if you know what I’m driving at.
Along for the ride are fellow truckers Pig Pen/Love Machine (Burt Young, who I will always love thanks to Amityville II: The Possession) and Spider Mike (Franklyn Ajaye, The ‘Burbs). After a big brawl, Melissa ends up riding with Rubber Duck as Lyle gives chase.
A giant convoy — yes, there has to be one — saves our hero, brought together through the magic of the Citizen’s Band radio. Sure, the National Guard gets involved after the trucks petty much ruin a Texas jail, but everything works out just fine.
During this period of Peckinpah’s life, he was struggling with addictions to alcohol and drugs. Much of the film is actually directed by actor and friend James Coburn, who was originally brought in to serve as second unit director. The movie was made at twice the budget, but still made tons of money at the box office.
However, rumors of increasingly destructive alcohol and cocaine abuse would ruin the director, leading to him making only one movie, The Osterman Weekend, before his death. At one point, the cocktail of blow, quaaludes and vitamin shots that left Peckinpah believing that both Steve McQueen and the Executive Car Leasing Co. were conspiring to murder him.
Speaking of cocaine, Ali MacGraw, who was always uncomfortable in front of the camera, used powder and tequila to perform until she went too far one day on set, which led to her quitting for good.
The soundtrack to this movie is exactly what was playing on my hometown radio station, WFEM in New Castle, in 1978. “Lucille” by Kenny Rogers. “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gayle. “Okie From Muskogee” by Merle Haggard. All it’s missing is the Steckman Memorial death report at 7 AM, with the theme music of BJ Thomas singing “Morning Has Broken” followed by Paul Harvey and it’s exactly the music of my young life. I also realize that that was a joke that literally no one other than me would get, but when you own your own website, you can make obscure jokes about the small power country music FM stations of your youth, too.
Somewhere out there, there’s a print of Peckinpah’s two and a half hour plus director’s cut before the studio took it from him. I would watch that right now.
You know who else must have liked this movie? Tarantino. Stuntman Mike’s hood ornament in Death Proof is the Rubber Duck’s.
Finally, one more moment from my youth.
Saturday afternoon’s belonged to WUAB in Clevaland’s Superhost (the nights belonged to Saturday Night Live and Chilly Billy Cardille’s Chiller Theater). Suprhost was really Marty Sullivan, a floor manager and occasional news anchor at the station who showed monster movies and the Three Stoges every weekend from 1969 to 1989 in a baggy Superman suit with a red nose. He made his own version of “Convoy” that was so popular that it aired every single week, because none of us had VCRs, much less the internet. It might seem silly to you today, dear reader, but having horror movie hosts that would do things this ridiculous created memories that will never go away and bring happy tears to my eyes even as I type this.
You can watch watch this on Tubi.