William Dale Fries Jr. died on April 1, 2022, and I’m very sure that few people who read this blog have ever heard of him. Probably not, even if I tell you that he was the former mayor of Ouray, Colorado. Since Ouray is a tiny little place, with a population of only 1,000 in the 2010 census, that probably doesn’t mean anything to you, either. Would it help if I told you that Mr. Fries once worked for a Midwest advertising agency and won several Clio awards before retiring and moving out west? Probably not. But I can guarantee you that when I tell you a little bit more about the man, you’ll recognize him.
Fries was born into a musical family in Audubon, Iowa, in 1928. His father was a foreman at a farm equipment factory who performed in a musical group with two of his brothers on weekends called, appropriately enough, the Fries Brothers Band. He also played the violin, accompanying his wife on the piano as they played ragtime music at local dances.
Growing up, young William played the clarinet in school and was the drum major for his high school’s marching band. But though he enjoyed music, his true love was art. He studied Fine Arts at the University of Iowa for a year but then had to drop out because he couldn’t afford the tuition.
He returned home to Audubon and found work as a sign painter. In 1950 he went to work for a television station in Omaha, Nebraska as an artist, where he spent the next ten years before an advertising agency hired him as their art director for double the salary he had been earning.
One of the agency’s clients was the Metz Baking Company, which supplied Old Home Bread to supermarkets across the Midwest. Fries created an advertising campaign around the company’s semi-trucks, which were common sights on the highways with the Old Home Bread logo on their sides. Part of that campaign was a song called the Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep on a-Truckin’ Café, a popular stop with the truckers because of a waitress named Mavis who used to flirt with her favorite truck driver, a character Fries named C.W. McCall. I bet you know that name, don’t you?
Even if you don’t, I am sure you’ve heard some of the music that Fries created and sang under that stage name, including Wolf Creek Pass, Black Bear Road, Roses For Mama, and probably his most famous song, Convoy. That song alone, which sold over two million copies, may not have sparked the fire that created the CB radio craze in the 1970s, but it certainly was the anthem of that era for anyone who drove an eighteen-wheeler or dreamed of driving one. And believe me, Convoy and the 1978 movie by the same title starring Kris Kristofferson, Ali McGraw, and Ernest Borgnine made a lot of young men and women fall in love with the idea of spending their lives driving big rigs across America’s highways.
Fries, or C.W. McCall, whichever you prefer to call him, became so popular that he played to sold-out concerts around the country, and in 2014 Rolling Stone magazine named Convoy #98 on its list of the top 100 country songs.
He was the very first celebrity I ever interviewed during my newspaper career. I was only about 25 years old at the time and understandably nervous, but he put me at ease immediately and was one of the most genuinely nice people I have ever met. People on the radio might have thought he was famous, but to him, he was just folks, as he put it. And that’s the way he came across, just folks.
Fries and his family had vacationed in Ouray, Colorado for years, and when he retired from touring, they moved there. He became involved in local politics and was elected mayor in 1986, serving a total of three two-year terms. During that time he helped rebuild the town’s City Hall, which had been badly destroyed by a fire decades earlier.
Fries died from cancer at the age of 93, and if there is any kind of an afterlife, I would like to believe he is spending his double-clutching and guiding some ethereal big rig down Old Route 66, chattering away on the CB radio to all his trucking good buddies. Rest in peace, my friend. And thank you for the gift of your music.
Thought For The Day – Don’t try to figure me out. I’m a special kind of twisted.