Rock band

This ’70s Southern rock band (and ‘Almost Famous’ inspiration) continues

Marshall Tucker Band lead singer Doug Gray just hung up on the guy who handles their merchandise. It’s time to order more goods. Gray’s guy asked if they should order two or three times what they ordered last time, but the singer said, “No, that’s it. You don’t order a lot. You just sell what you have and see how it works.

Things are working pretty well these days for the Marshall Tucker Band, Gray tells me. The band are on their 50th anniversary tour, with them performing ’70s classics like “Take the Highway”, “Heard It in a Love Song” and signature hit “Can’t You See”.

Classic Southern rock is a breeding ground for great bands, from household names like Lynyrd Skynyrd to cult favorites like Hydra. But if we choose a Mount Rushmore of southern rock, after the Allman Brothers, Skynyrd and ZZ Top, the Marshall Tucker Band claims that fourth place as much as any other group.

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Formed as a sextet in Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1972, the Marshall Tucker Band blended country, rock, jazz and R&B sounds to cook up a singular blend. MTB’s classic lineup included Gray, lead guitarist and lead songwriter Toy Caldwell, bassist Tommy Caldwell (Toy’s brother), rhythm guitarist George McCorkle, drummer Paul Riddle and flautist/saxophonist Jerry Eubanks. The group was on the iconic Macon, Ga. Capricorn Records imprint, label mates and touring companions of The Allmans. Gray was also close friends with Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant.

Gray is the only original member still in the group. The Marshall Tucker Band’s current lineup also includes drummer BB Borden, bassist Ryan Ware, multi-instrumentalist Marcus James Henderson, and guitarists Chris Hicks and Rick Willis. On a recent afternoon, Gray called from his home in Myrtle Beach for a phone interview. The edited excerpts are below.

Doug, since you’re on tour for the 50th anniversary, what do you remember from the very first concert of the Marshall Tucker Band?

The first date was why we called it the Marshall Tucker Band, and it came from a tag that was on the key that let us into the warehouse (in Spartanburg, SC) where we were rehearsing. About a block away was a nightclub called The Ruins, which lived up to its name I must say. And this promoter, we now call them buyers, he walked in and said, “I need a name because I want you to open up for these guys that I met.” And we didn’t even ask who it was. We had all been back from Vietnam for about a year so we had day jobs and wanted and wanted to be in a band – we were in bands 10 years before in middle school and stuff like that, just in bands different groups. We just sort of threw ourselves together.

And the guy who came from the club said, “I need a name to put a name on the marquee and the flyers,” because you weren’t doing much radio at the time. He said, “Come back in an hour and we’ll find it.” Well, we took some snaps. And then we drank a few beers. And this place (warehouse), if you can familiarize yourself with a 100 square foot space and all of us in there playing and singing. One hundred square feet is a small third bedroom in your house, isn’t it? But we sounded pretty good.

We had rented this warehouse space from a guy named Gerald Smith. And about six months before, there had been a blind piano tuner that used that place to store pianos, and then he moved to Columbia, South Carolina. And on the key fob to let us in was (this piano tuner’s name) “Marshall Tucker,” on a little white tag with foil on the outside. So we were like, “Shit, we’ll just call him Marshall Tucker for tonight,” and that was almost 50 years ago. On February 15 it will be 50 years.

A lot of historic bands don’t have their original line-up yet. Often it can be just one original member. I know Toy Caldwell wrote a lot of Marshall Tucker Band songs, but how important do you think it is since you’re the only original member that you’re also the vocalist, in terms of keeping the essence from the original group?

It is very, very important. And it’s very important that people know that I sang 99% of these songs in their original form. The ones I didn’t sing had nothing to do… Toy had a shrill voice. Testify, let’s call it. He testified: “You don’t see what this woman is doing to me.” [Toy Caldwell sang lead on “Can’t You See” on the original studio version.] Toy, he would always come up to me and be like, ‘Write this real quick’ – and I would and I still have a lot of these old papers too that I used to write stuff on – and I was like, ‘Toy, I don’t can’t sing this song like you just sing it. You sang it and killed me with it. It was good.” But he didn’t consider himself a singer. He was always like, “Man, make this one pretty.” And that was 99% of them.

The Marshall Tucker Band is not a one-person business. It’s definitely not about me. It’s about the whole group of people, including all the guys in the crew. All in all, Marshall Tucker Band, from the beginning, we’ve never had a fight – and it’s hard to say because I’ve been there two or three times, okay?

Everyone knows that Toy succeeded – all the others succeeded except one, they left. And when I replaced them, it was usually with people who wanted to be part of Marshall Tucker, who had this flexibility and who had the same motivation. Plus they knew that the Marshall Tucker Band sold out pretty much everywhere, whether it was a big place or a small place, it didn’t matter to us because we always played so hot. Manhattan is an example. We played Kenny’s Castaways up there for 40 people. Two months later, we were headlining Madison Square Garden. The quick turnaround came because of people’s word of mouth.

Other than Marshall Tucker, there weren’t many rock bands in the 70s that used the flute extensively in their music. Traffic and of course Jethro Tull did. Other than Marshall Tucker Band, which band do you like for the way they incorporate the flute into their music?

Well, Firefall for one. David Muse is one of my best friends and he came to work for me for a while and in the Marshall Tucker Band. And then there’s (Jethro Tull) Ian Anderson, whom Toy and I went to pay for tickets to see Ian Anderson play. It was a few years before going to Vietnam.

And listen, we’re tired of playing the same way all the time. People call us the first ever jam band, but we weren’t. There were other people who were learning how to merge all these different genres of music. But not everyone could do it. And we succeeded because of Toy playing like he did jazz, Jerry playing flute and saxophone like he did and keyboards, and me up there singing the country song with a rhythm and blues aspect.

All these years later, when you sing a classic like “Heard It In A Love Song”, “Take the Highway”, “Fire on the Mountain”, what goes through your mind? How do you come back to this place where you took so many listeners with these songs since the beginning of the 70’s?

First, you keep your eyes open and look at the audience before you start the song. And you may not know it, but we never do the same show. I have a piece of paper (with a list of songs on it) in front – it’s kind of my balancing act – but it’s never in that order. It’s always different, mainly because it keeps us all on our toes.

The Marshall Tucker Band headlined the 1979 Knebworth Festival in England, headlined by Led Zeppelin. Do you have a vivid memory of that show or maybe you interacted with the Zeppelin guys backstage?

No, we were just inside and outside. Normally when you play with big bands you have a time slot and you arrive 30 minutes early and warm up a bit and then go out to play.

Who are the singers who inspired you very early on and made you want to sing?

I saw James Brown when I was 8 years old. I was the only white boy in there.

I read that for his movie “Almost Famous”, (rock journalist turned writer/director), Cameron Crowe had the idea to have the band sing to Elton John’s song “Tiny Dancer” on their bus from from an experience he had on tour with the Marshall Tucker Band. Is it true?

Yes, because he was my friend. He named one of his dogs Marshall and the other Tucker and I remember when Tucker died – it was a sad time. But yes, most of this is true. He was a smart guy and he all knew his writing abilities were just overwhelming and he wasn’t afraid to lean in the direction he wanted to read. He was just too good.

It’s kind of funny to think of the guys from the Marshall Tucker Band in the 70s singing “Tiny Dancer”.

Well, it’s not that funny if you think about Jack Daniels and beer.

The Marshall Tucker Band performs February 3 at the Mark C. Smith Concert Hall at the Von Braun Center, address 700 Monroe St. in Huntsville. The Georgia Thunderbolts, an up-and-coming Southern rock band from Rome, Georgia, opens the 7:30 p.m. show. Tickets cost between $27 and $77 via ticketmaster.com.