Let Them Truckers Roll

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I ride certain hobby-horses at this blog that you might find inexplicable. My obsession with “Afternoon Delight” is one of them. And I think maybe my praise of C. W. McCall’s “Convoy” represents another. That extremely well-told story of truckers crossing the country dodging the cops is one I’ve heard a million times since 1975 without getting tired of it.

C. W. McCall was a character created for bread commercials in the Midwest and sung by adman Bill Fries. Jingles, and later songs, were co-written with Chip Davis of eventual Mannheim Steamroller fame. Four McCall records were mid-level country hits in 1974 and 1975; two made the Hot 100: “The Old Home Filler-Up an Keep-on-Truckin’ Cafe” and “Wolf Creek Pass.” The latter spent a single week (March 22, 1975) at #40 and is legitimately funny. And then came “Convoy.”

To understand why “Convoy” detonated in American popular culture, recall how citizens band radio was becoming a thing at the end of 1975. It had long been a tool of truckers. After the oil shock of 1974, they communicated by CB to find cheap fuel and after the national speed limit was lowered to 55 in 1975, to help avoid speed traps. They also used CB to organize protests against new traffic laws and high gas prices. The outlaw spirit of the open-road truckers was appealing, and before long, people other than truckers wanted CBs in their vehicles. Radio Shack and other retailers were advertising CB radios heavily. So CB was cool and exotic, and in a golden era for mass-appeal novelty records, “Convoy” was right on time.

“Convoy” first appears at ARSA on a survey from WIXY in Cleveland dated November 14, 1975. It hits the Billboard country chart at #79 on November 29, and country stations across the nation are reporting it as one of their top adds. (It’s already #1 at one Top 40 station, WZGC in Atlanta.) On December 6, it roars up to #28 on the country chart and debuts on the Hot 100 at #82. The week of December 13, it’s #1 at WLCX in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and KCPX in Salt Lake City, and it gets adds at prominent Top 40 stations, including WLS in Chicago. On the country chart, it moves to #12 and blasts into the Top 40 at #39. On December 20, “Convoy” makes a giant leap from #12 to #1 country. It also makes the Easy Listening chart for the first time at #49, and goes to #14 on the Hot 100. During that pre-Christmas week, it hits the top in Pittsburgh, Tucson, Louisville, and Birmingham.

“Convoy” goes to #1 in Kansas City on Christmas Day 1975, and in the next week records #1s at WLS and at KTLK in Denver. On the Hot 100, it slows its roll over the holidays, going to #7 and #6 before taking the #1 spot on January 10, 1976. In that week, still #1 country, it peaks on the Easy Listening chart at #19.

But after a single week, “Convoy” falls to #2, then #3, #7, and back up to #6 on February 7. By then, it was or had been #1 in Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, Washington, Philadelphia, and in other cities large and small. On February 14, it falls to #11 and then to #29 on February 21 (a week when it was still #1 in Hartford, Connecticut). From there it goes 55-62-72-93 and out, gone from the Hot 100 dated March 27, 1976. (It spent six weeks atop the country chart, through the week of January 24.)

By the time “Convoy” completed its chart run, the FCC office responsible for issuing CB licenses was backlogged with a million applications a month, so thousands of CB owners went on the air without one.

“Convoy” was big enough in December 1975 to appear on a few year-end radio surveys. It was #8 for the year at WLCX in LaCrosse and #19 at WLS. Many more stations ranked it among the top songs of 1976; it was in the year’s Top 10 at KILT in Houston, WIND in Chicago, and in a couple of smaller cities. On Billboard‘s year-end list for 1976, it was #57. CB radio inspired a few other hit songs, but none had the astounding impact of “Convoy.”

I’m not the first to suggest that CB was the first social medium. You broadcast yourself to both friends and strangers; as on Facebook and Twitter today, maybe other people would respond to you and maybe they wouldn’t. You used a “handle” rather than your name, so you could be relatively anonymous. And while the social communication fostered by CB could be useful and valuable, it could also be vapid and annoying. So not much has changed in 40 years, then.

Although I never owned a CB, a friend had one I used when riding with him, so I adopted my own handle: “Captain Fantastic.” What else?

10 responses

  1. I dig your comparisons between CB radio and Facebook. Very well thought out.

    I had this 45 as a child, and I can guarantee I had no idea what the story was about. I just liked the sound of the song. I also liked hearing those old Kern’s Bread commercials, which may explain why I liked the record so much. Nowadays it’s a novelty to hear it, but those backing vocals….yeesh.

  2. Cap’n Kacey

  3. I’ve never bothered to look up the credits, but the bass player is pretty slick

  4. apparently the backing group is Manheim Steamroller, which explains the virtuosity

  5. Interestingly enough, WHO AM (the same station Ronnie Reagan got his start) pulled “Convoy” off its playlist due to complaints from the police. Apparently the local cops thought “Convoy” was encouraging speed limit violators; obviously it didn’t affect the song’s popularity.

  6. CB license # KPM-5024. Handle “King of Polka Music” (KPM). Had a Radio Shack CB with a highly unlawful 100-watt “kicker”, as they called the CB amps back then, installed in my hot-rod Mustang by our station’s chief engineer. Probably the most requested song for a couple months when it came out. Our morning guy did a segment with a local trucker explaining all the lingo from “Cab-over Pete with a reefer on” to “portable parking lot”.

  7. Another C.W. McCall song I kind of liked was “There Won’t Be No Country Music (There Won’t No Rock & Roll)” which was a minor hit in 1976. I watched C.W. McCall perform on “The Midnight Special” where they did that song and “Convoy” live.

  8. Bill Fries aka C.W. McCall was a guest DJ on 70s on 7 late last year. He mentioned his email address (guessing for fans) and said he would respond to people. I recall he lives up in the mountains somewhere out west.

  9. Glad to see the love for “Wolf Creek Pass”. By far the better record, but “Convoy” tapped into the moment.

  10. Never had a CB myself, but my pal Murl had one. He was Renegade and when I rode with him, I was Penguin.

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