"Marshall Tucker is 94 years old and still alive,” marvelled Doug Gray, the straight-talking frontman of the southern rock band that co-opted Tucker’s name, when Classic Rock met him in 2011. “I met him five years ago for a documentary on the band. He told me: ‘I know you were dogs on the road, but I’m glad you didn’t ruin my name.’ I was relieved that he didn’t find out what dogs we really were.”
Always the bridesmaids to Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band, the six-piece from Spartanburg, South Carolina, were part of the same Capricorn Records stable as the Allmans, Dixie Dregs and Sea Level. MTB defied three strikes of the Grim Reaper’s scythe, and accumulated album sales of 15 million.
Nearly five decades after their formation, a permutation of the group continues to perform on stage and make new music. In some ways the Marshall Tucker Band offered a mirror image of the modest-sized town from which they sprang. Just as Spartanburg is renowned for its rural simplicity, the band – completed by guitarists Toy Caldwell and George McCorkle, bassist Tommy Caldwell and drummer Paul T Riddle – met at high school, and even at the peak of their fame they rejected a move to a more fashionable power base of the music industry.
“Spartanburg was a small mill village that grew peaches,” Gray recalls of their birth in 1972. “It was a good place to grow up; families stayed close and there was a real sense of community.”
If this paints them as goody two shoes then think again. Toy Caldwell was teetotal for their first few years, but the band chased women and sank booze like it was going out of fashion.
“We drank a lot of whisky, but at the end of the day we were always the polite Southern guys,” Gray reminisces. “While Skynyrd was out there tearing down the doors, I was the one that went down to reception and said: ‘I don’t know what happened, sir, but your TV just fell out of the window’. I lied like a motherfucker, but somebody had to.”
Gray, who still leads the band, is brave enough to offer an opinion on why Marshall Tucker never quite reached the heights of some of their counterparts of the southern rock scene.
“Unlike a couple of other bands I could mention, when we had tragedies we chose not to go out there and do tours [in honour of the deceased band members],” he says, getting right down to the nitty gritty. “When our guy Tommy Caldwell died, we resisted proposals to pay tribute to him that way, or to release product in memory of him. Labels asked us, we just refused to do it. I would rather mourn privately over somebody than make money and take advantage of their loss.”
The presence of utility man Jerry Eubanks, who besides playing the saxophone also contributed swooping, summery flute solos that reminded the listener of a summer skylark, was another element that set the MTB further afield.
“Yeah, that might have held us back at the start and probably continues to do so today,” Gray agrees. “But we always loved the diversity of instruments that this band uses.”
Guitarist Toy Caldwell was the band’s principal songwriter, but from the start his young brother Tommy became its unofficial leader.
“That wasn’t based on arrogance, but Tommy was so driven,” explains Paul T Riddle. “With him, it was never a case of climbing the mountain: He’d be trying to run through it.”
The group’s unusual name was adopted spontaneously. With nothing to put on the posters for a gig with Wet Willie, someone suggested borrowing the name of a guy whose name adorned the keyring of the warehouse where the band rehearsed.
Inspiring an approach from Phil Walden, the boss of Capricorn Records, the support slot with Wet Willie was more important than anyone knew.
“Phil was a gentleman, and his company had already proven their worth with the Allman Brothers and before that Otis Redding, so accepting their offer was a no-brainer,” Gray recalls of his band’s first major break. Released in 1973, the band’s self-titled debut was an impressive introductory statement.
After the Charlie Daniels Band, Marshall Tucker were definitely among Southern rock’s most country-orientated exponents, but its eight songs somehow distilled their melting pot of rock, country, jazz and blues, overlaid with Gray’s extremely soulful vocals.
“Toy and I used to go and watch travelling jazz festivals, which really affected the way we wrote,” Gray explains. “Nobody played music like ours.”
Caldwell’s unusual technique of picking the strings with the thumb of his strumming hand brought him the nickname of Skinny Thumb.
“Toy was right up there with Duane Allman,” believes Gray, Riddle concurring: “The guy had an unbelievable, spontaneous gift for melody.”
Marshall Tucker gigged a lot with the Allmans, especially in ’73. “A lot of sparring went on,” Gray grins. “You’d test yourself against your opponent. You wouldn’t want to out-stomp anybody, but you were keen to show them your technique.”
“We were one of the first jam bands,” their then drummer Riddle believes, “but our improvisation was always structured.”
The spirit of local camaraderie extended to cameo performances from their touring buddies, with Charlie Daniels and various members of the Allmans lending a hand on the band’s first albums.
“It was the old Southern thing; everybody sitting on the porch playing a song together, adding their own licks,” chuckles Gray. “That first time I saw that movie Deliverance I thought: ‘Boy, that’s gonna be used against us,’ because we really were just a bunch of dumb hicks.”
Hicks or not, the impetus provided by Can’t You See, Ramblin’ and Take The Highway carved the MTB a precious foot-hold. The following year’s followup album, A New Life, then delivered their first hit: 24 Hours At A Time.
“In just three months we went from playing to 60 people at a New York club called Kenny’s Castaways to opening for the Allmans at Madison Square Garden,” says Gray, who, on the night concerned had to be restrained from stealing a police car that had been left at the venue’s side door, keys in the ignition.
“I’d had a bellyful of whisky over the previous day and a half,” he laughs. “There were quite a few incidents like that.”
On stage, MTB quickly built up a head of steam. “On a tour opening for Three Dog Night, the headliners cut our set each night, from an hour to 45 minutes, then 30,” Riddle recollects. “At the LA Forum they gave us 15 minutes, so in that quarter of an hour we went out and played Take The Highway, Ramblin’ and an encore of Can’t You See and tore the roof off the place.”
Touring also renewed a friendship with Lynyrd Skynyrd, though Doug Gray got to see the good and bad sides of Skynyrd’s wildcard, frontman Ronnie Van Zant.
“The night I met my first wife, Ronnie and I were at a club in Denver, Colorado, watching a private show by Taj Mahal,” he relates. “We were both kinda loaded, but everything was cool until Ronnie started throwing chicken wings at the stage. I told him: ‘I’m gonna kick your ass if you do that again’. And of course that’s exactly what he did.
"I said: ‘Look, I like you but keep behaving that way and I’ll have to break your arm’. Before anything else happened one of the security guards came over and three the three of us – Ronnie, my date and I – all got thrown out of the club. Luckily, it saved me from fighting Ronnie Van Zant, but the experience did get me a new wife.”
Marshall Tucker became stars themselves when their third album, 1975’s Searchin’ For A Rainbow, produced the Top 40 single Fire On The Mountain, that its composer George McCorkle had originally meant for Charlie Daniels.
“When he heard that song was going to Charlie, Tommy said: ‘George, have you lost your mind?’” Riddle laughs.
In November 1976, the band played in Europe for the first and last time, performing four UK gigs with Grinderswitch and Bonnie Bramlett as part of a Capricorn Records package titled ‘Straight Southern Rock’.
“The Sex Pistols were in the chart [with Anarchy In The UK], but the tour was pretty successful,” Doug recalls. “When we played the Hammersmith Odeon in London some of the songs ended up on a King Biscuit Flower Hour live CD.”
Off the back of the band’s biggest hit, 1977’s Carolina Dreams album sold a million copies. Thirty four years later, Heard It In A Love Song remains an American rock radio staple, but the man who sang it harbours mixed feelings over Toy Caldwell’s lyrical handiwork.
“I despised that song,” Gray volunteers cheerily. “I put off recording it for a whole year because even though it’s what we were doing out on the road, its line of: ‘I ain’t never been with a woman long enough for my boots to get old’ was just so stupid. There’s no denying that Toy wrote a hell of a song, but it still kinda bothers me.”
After Capricorn went bust in 1979, the Marshall Tucker Band were picked up by Warner Brothers for the following year’s Running Like The Wind.
“We were so comfortable at Capricorn that leaving was tough,” Gray confesses. “They would throw these picnic-style parties that sometimes went on for days. Everyone who was anyone was there – movie stars, celebrities, whoever. Luckily, there were labels waiting in line to sign us.”
Sadly, in April 1980, bassist and frontman Tommy Caldwell was killed by injuries sustained in a freak road accident. On the way to the YMCA to work out, his Jeep, which had been modified for off-road driving, collided with another vehicle and spun over, causing the bassist’s head to hit the pavement.
The band briefly considered calling it a day but eventually hired Franklin Wilkie, a former member of MTB precursors The Toy Factory, as a replacement.
“Tommy would’ve wanted us to carry on,” Gray believes. “What can I say? The Marshall Tucker Band has lasted longer than any of my marriages.”
Although Riddle went along with the decision, after the band’s first gig with Wilkie he went to his hotel room and wept.
“Nothing against Franklin,” stresses the drummer, “but Tommy and I had been so close, I wanted to go home – my heart was broken.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that McCorkle, Toy Caldwell and Riddle all quit the band following the Greetings From South Carolina album in 1983. Toy Caldwell died of respiratory failure a decade later, McCorkle losing a battle with cancer in 2007.
“We’d had a good 15-year run,” explains Riddle of the exodus of original members. “I remember saying to Toy: ‘We need to hang this up’. It was becoming hurtful and I didn’t want to make it ugly, like a divorce. Doug and Jerry wanted to keep the name and they offered me a lot of money to stay. I’d have done so had they agreed to call it something else. But they wouldn’t."
Eubanks remained with the Marshall Tucker Band for a further decade, before leaving Gray as the band’s sole link with the past. The singer has attempted to keep things fresh with influxes of newer, younger blood (including his own nephew, Clay Cook, on flute/sax) wherever possible, performing a minimum of 150 gigs a year.
Now 61 years old, Gray has long since cleaned up his lifestyle and is focused on maintaining his career until he drops.
“Back in 1989 my accountant calculated that I’d spent a couple of million dollars on cocaine, pot and Scotch whisky,” he admits, with not a trace of regret. “But one night in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I just decided to quit everything – including smoking two packs of cigarettes a day – in one go.”
The band’s music is still played on both rock and country radio. Can’t You See has been covered by more than twenty different artists including Poison, Kid Rock, Hank Williams Jr, Waylon Jennings and the Charlie Daniels Band.
Black Stone Cherry are the latest to pay lip service to the 38-year-old song on their 2011 album, Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea.
“Growing up here in Kentucky, country music and Southern rock were all over the radio,” lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist Chris Robertson tells Classic Rock by way of explanation. “The Marshall Tucker Band combine the best of both worlds. They’re the absolute epitome of country rock’n’roll. I’ve got a big spot in my heart for that band because they encapsulate everything that’s great about the South.”
Although there’s little realistic chance of a return visit to the UK, in the States the Marshall Tucker Band’s shows now attract three generations of fans.
“I love inviting younger members of the audience onto stage to sing Can’t You See,” reveals Gray. “Derek Trucks played with us when he was 12.
“I will do this until the day I die,” he predicts, followed by a rueful chuckle: “So if you want to see us, y’all might want to hurry up a little.”
This feature was originally published in Classic Rock 160, in 2011. The Marshall Tucker band are currently on tour.