Their tireless celebration of creativity has enabled the Marshall Tucker Band to reach the milestone of 50 years of music. Noted for the success of chart-toppers and radio hits such as “Can’t You See”, “Fire on the Mountain”, and “Heard It in a Love Song”, the South Carolinians were blending elements of rock ‘n’ roll with extended jams, jazzy standalones, and country wistfulness, long before the word “fusion” was ever an adjective applied to music.
“We play Southern rock ‘n’ roll music with the ability to stray,” says Doug Gray, founding member and lead vocalist of the Marshall Tucker Band. “We reach our arms out to people who come with some of their old dreams, and make the songs better.”
Gray says that one of the secrets of the band’s longevity is that he and his bandmates sound much better live than on records. Another reason is that all of them cherish the challenge and opportunity of spontaneity.
“We don’t do the same show every night,” says Gray. “The same list has been at my feet for 15 years, all of about 25 songs, and I’ve never followed that setlist in 15 years. We look at each other for a minute, and maybe I’ll start singing a song that no one has ever heard us do live – a song that wasn’t a hit.
“The creativity of the band is that we could get out there and actually pull that song out. Those kinds of things go a million miles with people. Being someone sincere who likes to go out there and entertain for 90 minutes to two hours is what we are the best at.”
Gray was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, a small, woodsy town in the northern part of the state, in 1948.
“The beautiful part was that I had a mom that liked music,” says Gray. “I had two aunts that loved music. We had an ice cream shop up at the end of the street that had a jukebox. ‘Love Me Tender’ was coming out. The ladies at the store, they would tip me a nickel to get me away from them. I’d have a handful of nickels, playing ‘Love Me Tender’ and different songs that nobody really questioned. Seven years old and I started imitating Elvis.”
While in high school, he and his friend Tommy Caldwell (1949-1980), a bassist, joined a band called the New Generation. After high school, Doug and Tommy merged with a second local band called the Rants, which included Tommy’s brother, Toy Caldwell (1947-1993), a guitarist, as well as two other musicians, collectively reforming as Toy Factory.
Gray joined the Army and served in the Vietnam War. After he completed his military term, he reconnected with his old bandmates from Toy Factory, and they added a couple of new players, later affixing a new and what proved to be eternal namesake. Indeed, by 1972, they had adopted the first and last name of a man who repaired and tuned pianos for a living (and who, incidentally, was blind) in Spartanburg.
“We got back from the military and we needed a place to rehearse,” says Gray. “We were all in two different bands before then. Someone said that we should all get real jobs. And I worked in a bank. One of us worked with a master plumber.
“We would rehearse on Tuesdays and Thursdays a night for an hour. For twenty-five dollars a month, we rented out space in the basement of the Gladstone Hotel. The first time they let us in, we had a key, and a keychain had the name of Marshall Tucker on it. Though, it was spelled differently. [Marshall Tucker] is in his 90s now. He met his wife at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind, in Spartanburg. He’s very proud of the band.”
The rest – the transformative relationship with the Allman Brothers, the contagious whistle and lyric-friendly radio hits, the combustible Southern jam-country-rock ‘n’ roll revelry – is now a part of music history. (The band, by the way, is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though calls for their induction grow louder by the year.)
“Now us small-town guys, we got together and we played Ebbets Field in Denver (a neighborhood bar named after the field) and it held about 25 people. Then we jumped fast from 20 seat venues all the way to Madison Square Garden.
“The promoter said you need a name, and we needed to open for the Allman Brothers, up at a club. They were known but not at the top of the list then. We had a great time, and we got to meet them all.
“Our tapes made it to Bill Walden at Capitol Records and we signed a contract with them for ten years. Then after that, we opened for the Allman Brothers for five years.”
The Marshall Tucker band has five gold and four platinum-selling records to their credit. In 1976, the instrumental song “Long Hard Drive” was nominated for a Grammy Award, a lavish event replete with fine foods and slick haberdashery, a wild ride indicator of just how far “a bunch of redneck small town fellas from ol’ Spartanburg,” as Gray recalls them, had come in only a few short years.
Gray kept on with the band for its full course of recording and performing. Indeed, he is the only original member who is still living.
“But the old spirits of those who are gone are standing right there on stage with the current band,” says Gray. “Toy and Tommy (the Caldwell brothers) make me feel the song that I just sang. They say, try this one! Remember, the old band lasted eight years.
“The new band has been around for the rest of that time. They grew up wanting to be a part of the Marshall Tucker Band. Losing people made us re-think what we were doing. But we started as a group, and it’s still a group effort today.”