Remembering Toy Caldwell
A Conversation with Tony "Smoke" Heatherly
by Michael B. Smith
Editor's Note: In February, 2000, Blue Hat Records (Charlie Daniels' label) re-released the fine 1992 album Toy did on Cabin Fever with Mark Burrell, Pic Pickens, and Tony Heatherly. We at GRITZ are thrilled that this great album has been given "a new life," and that Toy's music, as well as Tony's, will live on.
How did you first meet Toy Caldwell?
I first met Toy somewhere around 1973. I was with a group called Mickey Fowler and the Variation Band, and we were playing down in Spartanburg. We were playing a lot of Waylon Jennings and Outlaw music, some Marshall Tucker too. Well, as much as we could, with Mickey and me singing. I mean, who can copy Doug Gray? I don't even think Michael Bolton could copy Doug Gray. We had just certain songs that we could play by them. But Toy came out to a little club on the Frontage Road off of I-85 that Moon Mullins was running. I remember Moon wanted us t come down there and jam. I kept hearing this sound in the kitchen, and I went in there and it was Toy playing the steel guitar. You know how he was always on fast forward, he jumped up and shook my hand and said "I'm Toy Caldwell." Later, he came out to jam and he wanted us to play some old Hank Williams songs, because he wanted to get he feel of that pedal steel guitar. From then on, when they were off the road, we were Toy's chosen band to jam with, and that went on for several years, on up until I left Mickey's band in 1980. We used to play at Big Daddy's here in Greenville. In fact, the first time I met Charlie Daniels, it was at Big Daddy's. They were in town, and Toy brought Charlie over. There we were in this club in Greenville with Toy Caldwell and Charlie Daniels onstage. We had a fiddle player that was really good at the time, from Lyman, named Jimmy Rumsey, and he was up there playing twin fiddles. The Skynyrd boys would come over an jam when they were in town, and bring those backup singers. They were great.
You were a friend of Tommy Caldwell early on, right?
I'll tell you what a great friend Tommy Caldwell was. I was playing with Mickey Fowler and The Variation Band back in the seventies. We were Toy's favorite jam band. When he was off the road, he was with us. Toy was always coming in and jamming with us. He loved to play his steel guitar with us, because we did a lot of the old classic country stuff a lot too. Anyhow, I met Tommy, and we just hit it off like we'd known each other forever. Naturally, I tried to copy every lick he ever played, because he was one of the greatest bass players ever. His tone and everything was so good, I just tried to carbon copy it. Toy told me one time that I was a champion at that, and that I could copy Tommy as well as anyone he knew. You don't know how good that made me feel. Tommy, bless his heart, would send me like a gross of Rotosound bass strings. And you know how expensive those are. He's send me about twelve packs at a time. He kept me in bass strings for years, up until his death. And one night I was playing at Big Daddy's here in Greenville, and I blew a speaker. Toy got on the phone and called Moon and some of the guys from the crew. It wasn't but about an hour before they were all over there with these drills, taking my speaker out, and put a new one in. I said, 'Wait a minute, man. Who do I owe for this?' And they said, 'No, man. Tommy told us to go get a speaker out of the warehouse and put it on for you. They looked like a crew for Richard Petty. It was things like that that really blew me away.But nobody had a freer heart than Toy or Tommy. I saw Toy give a kid from Spartanburg a Les Paul guitar, because he wanted to learn to play. He also gave Mickey Fowler one. He gave Jimmy Westmoreland a guitar. I kidded him about it, I said, "Toy, you've given everybody else a guitar but me." He looked at me and said, "Yeah, but Smoke, I gave YOU a job!"
The Great Toy Caldwell
How did Toy feel about Doug and Jerry's later version of The Marshall Tucker Band?
There were all these rumors going around that The Toy Caldwell Band was in competition with Doug's version of The Marshall Tucker Band, but that was just untrue. We took up for one another, we were brothers. Toy was real proud of what Doug was doing. We all know that the old version of Marshall Tucker will never happen again. They all contributed their part that made that band what it was. It was a hit machine, as far as I'm concerned. Doug's great vocals, and Toy's writing ability and guitar playing. All of them, like Eubanks with the flute, Paul, a great drummer, McCorkle, all of them. It was just a great band. All of that was just something that cam together that was just wonderful. I admired Doug so much for keeping the name going. He has a different version of Marshall Tucker. The main thing is, I think Doug is around my age, and he's keeping 'em rocking. He looks good, and he's got things really happening. I'm really proud of him. I never got to know Doug that well, because back in the old days, they all had their circuit of friends. I had shook Doug's hand and told him he was great many times, but i never got to just sit down with him like what we're doing now. So I never got to know him until I joined the millennium a few weeks ago. I emailed Doug, and he wrote right back to me.
Did he ever say anything about the breakup of the original Marshall Tucker Band?
Basically, what Toy told me was that they had been together for like fourteen years, and they had known each other for longer than that. He just felt like he wanted to do something on his own. I think the feeling was mutual. He never told me anything about any animosity. He said they had gone as far as they wanted to go. I don't think they realized that they could have latched onto the new country thing at that time like Alabama did. They wanted to remain rockers. But I don't think they had any idea of how big the young country thing was going to be. But Toy, even up until the time he died, didn't have much faith in Nashville. So I think they all just decided to go their separate ways. I don't believe there was any big blow-up or anything.
How did the Toy Caldwell Band operate?
We sat up late and talked all the time. We had that military mentality, we'd be up driving and talking all night. The band was even arranged like that. Toy was the General, I was the Captain, and it went down like that. It went down in a military manner.
Toy, Tony and Bruce Marshall
Tell us a little about the auto accident you and Toy were involved in.
It was the first year I joined the band, 1989. It was Mother's Day. We had a rental car from the airport. We were in a seven-car accident, and we all came out of it without a scratch. Toy was driving. We had just left New Jersey headed for Connecticut. The car we were driving was totalled.
What is the true story behind you leaving the Toy Caldwell Band?
Contrary to what some people have spread around, Toy and I did not have a falling out of any kind. We were best friends right up until the end. There was even a plan for me to return. But I was a walking diabetic, and didn't even know it. I couldn't understand why I kept getting weaker all the time. I mean, you know this Michael, the road can really take it's toll on you anyway, in good health. I saw Toy on Sunday before he died the following Thursday, and he said to me, "Smoke, any time you get ready to come back, just let me know. You know you're my bass player, you're my band leader, and nothing has changed." Ryan (Ware) was a good bass player, and I'm not taking anything at all away from him. But I did plan on coming back, I just had to get my health together first. I didn't know what was wrong. I was passing out, without even drinking. You just wonder, what's wrong with my system, you know? I wouldn't go to the doctor, ad my wife stayed after me to go. One thing Toy and I had in common was that we were both Vietnam Veterans. So I went to the Veteran's Doctor, finally, in November of '92, and I was told I needed to stay home for a while. Toy died in February. So Ryan played bass with Toy for about three months. Ryan knew I was going to return, and he knew there would still be a place for him in the organization. That's the way Toy was. Once you were in, you were in. You were there until you got ready to leave. When he signed me on, I had questions about Frank Wilkie. I said, 'You and Frank have been friends since kindergarten.' He said, 'Hey man, Frank left me. If you sign on with me the job is yours. As long as we don't have any major problems, we get along and everything, you'll have the job. Toy and I had been like brothers since the early seventies, since the first day I met him.
Ryan is the son of long time Tucker roadie, "Stump" Ware, right?
Yes. Ryan is a really good boy, and Stump has been a friend of mine for years. They are some fine people.
Is it true that Toy was extremely well-read, and knowledgeable about all sorts of things?
Before we got into a bus type of thing, we'd be up late at night driving, and Toy didn't trust anybody driving but me, and I didn't trust anybody but him. I guess it was a Vietnam buddy thing. But, I've always been a history buff, I am really into the Civil War. We'd be going through the Shenandoah Valley, and we'd always go 81, through Gettysburg. I'd get to talking about it, and I'd say, "Man, Toy. This was a great battle that was fought here in 1863. I think if we had not been so much on the offensive, we may have won this thing. He'd say, "Really? I don't remember too much about the Civil War, Smoke. Tell me some more." I'd tell him. "Wouldn't it be something if we'd be riding down through here and see a ghost calvary coming through?" I really think I inspired a lot of his songs. He didn't forget a thing. Anything you told him, he remembered, and drew off of it later. He was the type of fella that, if he knew you were into something, it wouldn't take him but about two or three weeks, and he'd be an authority on it. He read all the time. Then he read all these books on the Civil War, and he was telling me things I didn't know. It was amazing. If he knew you liked something, he wanted to learn about it so he could talk with you about it.
Tell us a little about your daughters.
I've got three daughters. Tina, Paula and Brandy. Tina is 30, and graduated from the University of South Carolina, and she's a pharmacist. Paula is 24, and she's doing very well now. She's still finding her direction. Tina is 20, and she's a Downs Syndrome child. She's really into music, she loves country music, especially Little Texas. That's why I saw Toy on that Sunday before he died, because I took her to Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson to see Little Texas opening up for Travis Tritt. I think that God meant for it to be that way. For me to see Toy again. I had not seen him in months. At the time, we were hugging one another, and I was telling him I just needed a little more time to get it together, health wise. At the time I didn't know that I was a diabetic, or had high blood pressure, or any of that.
Buffalo and Smoke at the annual ANGELUS benefit in Clearwater, Florida.
You and Toy both were probably in bad health at the time the album was released. Did you ever talk about it?
Toy was the type of guy, he was always concerned about me and my health- but he was in bad health himself. He had that Marine mentality. Keep going and going until you drop. He needed some medical attention himself. Every time I tried to talk to him about it, he'd get almost blazing mad. He'd say, 'You tellin' me I can't do my job? You think I can't do it no more?!' He didn't want to talk about his health. But one time we were playing, and Toy had developed an abscessed tooth. Well, he wouldn't tell anybody what was wrong, but he was getting so ill with Dibby that Dibby was going around borrowing money from everybody to quit and fly home. We finally did get in touch with management there, and they took him in and did a root canal. He was fine after that. But he wouldn't come out and tell anybody he was hurting. I hate to say it, but that might be one of the reasons why he's gone now. He just wouldn't go to the doctor and get something done for himself.
What can you share about February 25, 1993, when you heard of Toy's death?
It was devastating. I was alone. I was running a store down in Anderson, Jimmy Rogers House of Music. I didn't have many customers, so I was alone. I just locked the doors and pulled the blinds. I didn't want to see anybody. I watched it snow for a while. It seemed like it just started snowing when I got the word he was gone. My wife called and asked me if I was alright, and I said, "Yeah . I just don't want to talk to anybody right now. I want to be left alone." I went and got my favorite guitar off of the rack and sat there and played "Can't You See." I couldn't hardly play for the tears, but it's something you have to get out of your system. I was over at Mark Burrell's house the other night, and he was playing some of the stuff we were getting set to release when he died. I was remembering how excited Toy was about getting the next project going. But it was completely devastating. Charlie Daniels said it best, when he said "There's a great big hole in the world that Toy used to fill."
You worked a lot with Charlie, didn't you?
We did many, many shows with Charlie, and we were all like family. Charlie Hayward, Charlie's bass player, is still my favorite bass player in the world.
What were your favorite songs to play with Toy?
It was always "I Hear the South Calling Me." That one had that same tempo as "Ramblin.'" And "This Ol' Cowboy." But Toy always gave me a whole lot of freedom on the bass. He wasn't like a whole lot of guys who write a song and say "I want it played exactly this way." Any time he'd write a song, he appreciated my input. He'd say, "You're the bass player, man. Here's the chords and here's the melody, you figure it out." That last song, "Why Am I Crying," he wrote that thing in no time because we needed another song in a pinch. To me, that's one of the greatest songs he wrote. I had some help on the bass part from Rusty McFarland, who was a bass player too, and the engineer on that album.
What were some of you personal high points playing with Toy Caldwell?
I'd say the high point of my whole career- and I've played professionally for over thirty-one years, was playing bass on the Toy Caldwell album. I mean, that was Toy's only solo project, and that was quite an honor. And to be able to sing a song on the album was a thrill. The ultimate compliment. There couldn't be enough money in the world to take that memory away from me. That was the biggest honor of my life.
An extra special thanks to Tony for sharing his life experiences with us. We, too, will always remember Toy Caldwell.
Tony went on to play bass for The Marshall Tucker Band for several years before retiring.