May 26, 2005
by BOB DORAN
STUDENTS OF ROCK TRIVIA KNOW THAT MARSHALL Tucker was not a member of the Marshall Tucker Band [ photo below]; he was a blind piano tuner who rented a warehouse space in Spartanburg, S.C. The musician tenants who followed him found his name on a set of keys, and the rest is rock `n' roll history.
Thirty-three years after the Marshall Tucker Band released their first eponymous album, the band is still on the road led by founding member Doug Gray, lead vocalist since day one.
Gray still lives in Spartanburg, the blue-collar town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains where he was born and raised. "It was a mill town, very much a working town. I grew up with my father working the third shift in the cotton mill," he recalled.
Gray and his friends started playing songs by James Brown and other hits of the day in junior high. In high school he joined forces with bass player Tommy Caldwell to form The New Generation. "We were the nerds of school because we were in a band; you know, the outcasts, the lower 5 percent," Gray said.
After high school the act evolved into a band called Toy Factory with Tommy's brother Toy playing lead guitarist and writing songs. They had some success, scored a couple of regional hits, but music fell by the wayside when the military called. "Toy went first in '67. Then I went in '68. Both of us went to Vietnam. Jerry, he left to go be a hippie in California," Gray said.
When Toy returned from the Marines he restarted Toy Factory; Gray came back home soon after. "They picked me up in Spartanburg, straight back from Vietnam, and we played a gig that night. It was real easy to pick up where we'd left off. Then we started shifting into a little bit more of an original sound."
As pioneers of the music we call Southern rock, the renamed Marshall Tucker Band combined the twang of mountain music with blues, soul, jazz and gospel in tunes like "Can't You See" and "Searching for a Rainbow."
"We weren't a country band," said Gray. "We were a bunch of hippies playing rock `n' roll. We had everything. When we started Marshall Tucker, Toy was the country person, but he could also play [jazz-style] like Barney Kessell, then we had a guy who could thump the bass, which was Tommy, his brother, and then we had Paul [Riddle], the young one, he was a prodigy on drums. We got him right out of high school. Jerry was the outside person with the jazz in the flute and the sax. I was the slam rhythm and blues person."
Gray's is the voice we remember from most of the band's hits. Of course the band's lineup changed considerably as the years rolled on. As Gray put it, "People die. Guys have families and they don't want to go out on the road But you know, Stuart [Swanlund, MTB's slide guitarist] has been with me for 14 or 15 years now. That's five years longer than the original band was together.
"We've been around long enough that we have different generations coming to the show together. The folks who heard us when we were getting going come, they bring their kids out. We even have grandkids coming out. We'll get some kid with his pants draggin' with his underwear showing and a chain on his hip. He says, `Man, my grandpa brought me to see you.' He says, `Y'all got any CDs out?'"
As a matter of fact, the band is reissuing its entire back catalogue, in part due to Gray's business skills. "That's something I was forced to learn," he noted. "I realized if I wanted to keep this band out here I had to. I was still going out with Jerry, my saxophone buddy; he was the last one to stop touring and that was five, six years ago. About a year before he left I formed the record label, Rambling, with a partner in L.A. It worked out great."
It could have turned out differently. MTB had recorded for years for Capricorn Records, one of many labels that went bankrupt. "It's like there was a reason for it going under," said Gray, "that's how we ended up owning all our music. Because Capricorn folded, the Marshall Tucker Band as a whole ended up with all of our publishing back in one big pot."
Rambling struck a deal with K-Tel. "I call `em the Ronco Studsetter people, the Pocket Popeil," said Gray with a chuckle. "Those people sold a ton of our records. They put out six records and sold millions."
More recently Rambling joined forces with Shout Factory, a relatively new label founded by the reissue masters who originally built Rhino Records. They released a retrospective in February followed by re-releases of three classic MTB albums in May. Three more are due in July.
Gray concedes that he does not really need to be out on the road touring. "I've made some good investments, and we've made some good business moves, but I feel like I have to keep playing.
"Marshall Tucker is a part of people's lives. People tell me they buried their brother to a song called `Desert Skies' or they got married to one of our other songs. I've heard all that, and it's a little unbelievable.
"I have to share this gift; I was born to sing. That allowed me to be around someone like Toy Caldwell, before he passed away, so that he could write some of the songs that I still sing today. That's what makes me keep going, and I'll probably keep going until I die. I have to keep the sound and the music and the memories for all the people who bought all those records years ago."
The Marshall Tucker Band performs at Cher-Ae Heights Casino on Tuesday, May 31, with showtime at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 for reserved seating, $20, general admission. See www.marshalltucker.com for more on the band.
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