The History of "Great Big Rollin' Railroad"

by Bill Fries

  • The History of "Great Big Rollin' Railroad"

    Chip Davis, left, and Bill Fries in the studio. In 1973, Bill Fries would go on to write TV commercials for Old Home Bread, which, in 1974 won a CLIO for Best U.S. Television Campaign. The music for those spots was by Chip Davis, who would go on to create Mannheim Steamroller. In 1974, Bill became the voice of C.W. McCall, who, with Chip, wrote and recorded more than 60 songs for MGM/Polydor Records, including one that changed their lives forever - "Convoy." They remain partners to this day.

  • The History of "Great Big Rollin' Railroad"

    Bill Fries, left, and Chip Davis at the mixing board.

A note about the history of "The Great Big Rollin' Railroad" from the song's creator, Bill Fries:

I remember a cold winter day early in 1970 when I was asked to write an advertising campaign proposal to Union Pacific. I started thinking about what might get UP's attention. I noted that 1969 was the 100th anniversary of the Golden Spike. Wow...what history! What a great big American railroad story! I thought a song just might be in order. So, I scribbled a few words on a scratch-pad that went like this ... "we're a great big railroad that everybody knows" ... I thought about that ... then, I added the word "rolling" and dropped the "g." Two verses and a chorus later, plus some hand-clapping, foot-stomping music to go with it, I walked into a UP conference room and sang it for the first time ...

"We're a Great Big Rollin' Railroad, one that ev'rybody knows,
We were born of Gold and Silver Spikes, a hundred years ago,
We're a million miles of history a-shinin' in the sun,
We're the Union Pacific and our story's just begun...

From the Great Plains of Nebraska to the California seas,
From the Summits of the Rockies to the mighty redwood trees
We're a thousand wheels of freight train, hear the diesel engine's power,
We're the Union Pacific, doin' ninety miles an hour...

Bound from Omaha to Portland through Cheyenne and Laramie,
We're a-headin' west for Boise on the Mainline to the sea
'Cross the flats at Salt Lake City, on to Vegas and L.A.
We're the Union Pacific and we've got the Right-of-Way.

From the green fields of the Prairies to the blue Pacific shore,
We deliver your great cargo and come rollin' home for more.
On the backbone of Our Nation you can see us make the climb,
We're the Union Pacific and we're gonna be on time...."

That was 42 years ago. The president of the Union Pacific Railroad, John Kenefick, loved it. He wanted to hear it over and over again. It became the basic music track for all Union Pacific TV commercials and even a nine-screen circloramic slide show for the Spokane World's Fair. And, of course, the award-winning spot with the Union Pacific employees singing the song became a classic. The 1970 "Singing Union Pacific People" TV commercial was produced by Galen Lillethorup and Bob Spittler in Omaha, Neb.; music by Bob Jenkins and Dick Proulx.

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Historical Events, Creative
Omaha, NE
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  • Very interesting trivia. I can remember wearing out the grooves on my vinyl 45 rpm of Convoy.

    - Stuart L. Schroeder a few years ago