In the 1970s, C.J. McKnight was an itinerant ad man and jack of all trades. And then suddenly he was a country & Western artist, known (if at all) for the soundtrack to the hilariously forgettable 1977 trucker film Stinker Lets Loose! His twangy, cowbell-clankin’ tunes were back on the radar in 2018, thanks to Audible Comedy’s audio version of Stinker, based on the novelization by James Taylor Johnston and with Jon Hamm in the lead role.
Good luck finding the original soundtrack album on eBay: It’s one of the rarest LPs out there. Now, in 2019, Burger Records comes to the rescue with a deluxe 42nd Anniversary Edition of the soundtrack. 10-4!
How on earth did this thing ever come out of the vault? It’s a tale about as twisted as a Georgia backroad (or election). Stinker Lets Loose! is one of those 70s movies you think you might have seen on late-night tv or at the drive-in, or maybe you just dreamed about it. But one person did remember it: the best-selling author and humorist Mike Sacks. Let Mike tell it: “The movie is very bad. It will certainly never enter the lofty canon of the Criterion Collection, but I still remember it fondly. It was the first movie I ever saw in a theater—this would be in Virginia Beach—and I was five. Yes, five. I was with my parents, but still…”
Fast forward a few decades. Sacks finds a beat-up copy of James Taylor Johnston’s paperback novelization of Stinker Lets Loose! He is transfixed. He mentions the discovery, along with a crazy scheme to get the book back into print, to Mark Rozzo, a musician friend (Champale, Maplewood, Bambi Kino, collaborations with America), who is flabbergasted. His late uncle C.J. McKnight is the guy who did the soundtrack! The Great Trucker in the Sky was having a good chuckle that day!
“Uncle C.J. was definitely the black sheep of our family,” Mark says. “When I was a kid, sometimes around 8 at night, when my folks were watching tv and reading the paper, the phone would ring. I would jump to get it, and it would be Uncle C.J. I remember his mellow, smoky voice, which had a distinct twang. And I remember how nice and funny he always was. He’d be calling from wherever he was living out West, like Phoenix. I knew he did music but it wasn’t my folks’ or my kind of music, really, and the whole Stinker thing was a blip, maybe even an embarrassment. I was pretty young when that came out. But he’d get me laughing and then he’d ask to speak with my mom and dad. They’d be on the phone with him for an hour, just cracking up the entire time. I don’t think I ever heard my parents laugh as much as those times when Uncle C.J. called. It was only later that I realized he was probably really lonely. My Aunt Addy had died before I was even born and C.J., I guess, liked a beverage or two.”
When C.J. passed away, at age 69 in 2002, Mark found himself the inheritor of a couple of boxes of his uncle’s stuff. “Totally random collection of crap,” he says, “but it was pretty cool.” Included were the original multitracks from the Stinker Lets Loose! sessions, which C.J. conducted at his own “Shack” studio in Phoenix, where he’d come to live after years of bouncing around, working in advertising, on the railroad, and in music, trying his hand at this style or that. “He did a record a few years before Stinker Lets Loose! in which he called himself C.J. McCoy,” Mark says. “He was doing a Philly soul thing! I have that recording. It’s an instrumental called ‘C.J.’s Fanfare’ and it is insane.”
Willard Katz, one of the screenwriters on Stinker Lets Loose!, knew C.J. from an agency they’d both worked at and asked him to try his hand at the theme song. The producers loved what he came up with (and the fact that they didn’t have to blow the budget on a Jerry Reed or a Waylon Jennings or a C.W. McCall) and asked him to keep on writing. So he did. “He probably figured it was his interstate to stardom,” Mark says. “And why not? That is a great theme song.” But despite some radio airplay, it all turned out to be a dirt-road detour to nowhere. The movie was a flop, and the followup, 1979’s Stinker Strikes Back, was an even bigger flop. C.J.’s McKnight’s brief run as a country-music almost-star was over and out. His redneck-disco theme song to that turkey—probably the only good thing about the movie—is included as a bonus track on the re-release. It flat-out cooks.
In the Stinker Lets Loose! novelization, the character of Stinker—a redneck hero who drives a red-hot 1977 Trans Am named Miss Becky, has a way with the ladies, befriends a chimp in estrus, outwits the Smokey bears, and preaches a home-fried gospel of tolerance and respect—is described as “the man this country needs in these difficult times.” Perhaps the man our country needs right now, in 2019, is Mr. C.J. McKnight. As he might say if he were still with us, “Keep the shiny side up, good buddies! And don’t forget to turn up the volume!”