This Ol' Cowboy Lives On: Remembering Toy Caldwell (1999)
by Michael Buffalo Smith
When Toy Caldwell graduated from Dorman High School in Spartanburg, South Carolina in the mid-1960's, he knew that he had a steady gig at the Spartanburg Waterworks waiting on him if he wanted it. His dad, Toy Caldwell, Sr., was a respected employee, and lining his son up with a job would be no big deal. There was just one problem. Toy had a fire burning inside him. He had felt it begin as a warm glow when he was just a child, watching his father pick on an old Gibson acoustic guitar. He was listening to records by Hank Garland and the Sugarfooters, another Spartanburg export, as well as a myriad of blues artists- B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Freddie King-and country music from the likes of Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and Chet Atkins.
Toy Caldwell, Jr. had come into the world at the General Hospital in Spartanburg on November 13, 1947, and he never left his home town. Well, he left a lot, to tour the globe as lead guitarist, singer and songwriter for The Marshall Tucker Band, but he always came back to Spartanburg, because it was home.
As a teenager, Toy became overwhelmingly fascinated by the guitar. His brother Tommy was already following in his dad's footsteps, and played any instrument from guitar to drums, eventually settling in as a bassist. Together, the brothers played barn dances and parties, but when they hit high school as teens, Toy decided that he wanted to play in a rock and roll band. He joined The Ramblers, along with George McCorkle, Franklin Wilkie and David McCutcheon, with Wallace Huckaby on drums, and Robbie Cobb and Reggie Gosnell playing horns, playing r & b and Motown sounds.
As for how they came up with the name, Franklin Wilkie explains it all.
"My first band with Toy Caldwell was called Magar's Madmen. It was a three piece with Kenny Magar on drums. We were in the 7th grade, and Kenny was in the 9th. We played all instrumentals, no vocals. Right after Kenny, Toy and I met a guy named Jimmy Trout. He had a Falcon station wagon, and played keyboards, which he was always carrying around in that wagon. He was older, and kind of helped us get organized. The band that came out of that was The Ramblers. We had these red and white shirts with a block "R" on the pocket and black pants. We were doing "Green Onions," early instrumental stuff."
With the British invasion of 1964, The Ramblers had decided to make a few quick changes.
"We decided to play English stuff," says Franklin Wilkie. " We fired the horn section, grew our hair long and started doing English rock."
When that band broke up, we still had those shirts that had an "R" on the pocket, so we had to come up with another band name that started with "R," and that's how we got The Rants."
"We were behind them from the very beginning," says Toy Caldwell, Sr., his warm smile coming to the surface, "They would practice a lot in the basement, and it would get so loud, you could watch a coffee cup dance across a table from the vibration. They loved it loud."
When The Rants began to do original music, fellow Carolina musician Rudy Wyatt got a chance to hear some of it.
"Rudy was instrumental in getting us our first studio date," recalls Wilkie. "It was at Mark Five in Greenville, and he came in and played maracas on "Hey Little Girl," "Seven Lonely Days," and "Make No Mistake."
With three excellent songs recorded, it seemed like things were really opening up for The Rants.
"Willie took the tapes to Nashville and played them for a guy named John Hurley, and another guy named Ronnie Wilkins," says Wilkie. "We got to go to Nashville and record, but ultimately, it didn't work out, so we just came back home."
Following the breakup of The Rants, Toy and brother Tommy started up a group called The Toy Factory, which included Wayne Casasanta, Ron "Redrock" Edwards, Toy and Tommy, and Doug Gray. Jerry Eubanks would join after returning from California.
The Toy Factory played gigs anywhere they could get booked, and began to grow a quite large following.
"We were booking through Beach Club Promotions, Cecil Corbet," says Wilkie. "Cecil heard some of our original material and sent us to record in Muscle Shoals. We did some tapes with Barry Beckett, a keyboard player and engineer. I remember him saying the material was good, but he wanted us to leave Toy down there. After all, that's where Duane Allman got his start."
Corbet engineered the opening spot for The Toy Factory on The Allman Brothers Band's eastern tour. Another vital move for the band.
According to Wilkie, there was a confrontation between Toy and Tommy one night in the Spring Street rehearsal space. Whatever the initial reason was for the fight has long since faded from memory, but it caused a little rift for a while that sent Tommy packing to play bass with Pax Parachute, a band that featured George McCorkle and Paul Riddle.
For a while, after the tempers cooled, Toy was rehearsing with both Toy Factory and Pax Parachute. Soon, members of both bands came together to play as Toy Factory.
"We hooked playing guitars together," recalls George McCorkle. "But we were real good friends from many, many years ago. I think that cat was one of the most talented people who ever lived, and he never got the credit for it. I loved him like a brother too."
The band swapped out members several times between 1966 and 1969 when Toy, Tommy, Doug, and George all served in the Armed Forces. Toy, like his father, was a Marine, and served in Vietnam.
Toy Caldwell was not only the star attraction of the band, but it's number one songwriter. The group began rehearsing songs like "Hillbilly Band," "Take the Highway" and what would soon become one of the most recorded songs in America, "Can't You See."
"We had started playing our own stuff," says Paul Riddle. " It was a 'make it or break it' kind of deal."
The band started rehearsing, and played a couple of shows at The Sitar, where the earlier Toy Factory had previously opened for the Allmans. When Wet Willie played the Sitar, and heard their opening act, the new Toy Factory, they were blown away. Wet Willie lead vocalist Jimmy Hall invited the band to come down to Macon to speak to Capricorn Records President, Phil Walden.
"We were playing Spartanburg, at the Ruins," recalls Hall. "We were booked there as the headliner. We didn't really pay attention to who was opening until we got there. But we sat out front and listened to them. They just knocked us out from the beginning. It was a sound that was totally unique to my ears, and to the other guys in the band as well. It had a lot of the elements that we were into-good Southern music, good rock and roll. But there was so many things that set them apart from the others. The first thing we noticed was the two brothers.
Of course we had two brothers in Wet Willie. My brother played bass. So we noticed that right away. There was an innocence there. They came from a rural area of the South, and their music really echoed that. But to see a couple of brothers who had a musical kinship- and when I talk about the innocence, and the purity of it-their technique wasn't politically or musically correct, if you want to call it that. When you see these guys up there, playing with their thumbs, the first thing that comes to mind is, that's the way they learned to play it, and that's how they gottheir sound. It was untainted. In other words, nobody tried to change it, and they didn't want to change it. It was the purity of that that said something to me. The bottom line was, there was something different. We could hear it, I could hear it, in just that one night. And we let them know, Toy and Tommy, 'Gosh, you guys are something else. Ya'll are real special. We had our breaks and our opportunity to record for Capricorn Records in Macon, Georgia, and we think they'd be real interested in hearing you guys.'
At that point, we invited them to Macon to hang out. We arranged a gig for them in Macon at Grants Lounge. And we got the people from the label to come down and hear them. It happened pretty fast after that. All the label had to do was hear them that one night. Phil Walden and Frank Fenter, who's no longer with us on this earth, but one of the staff at Capricorn, they came down, and were really impressed by what they heard. They felt the same way we did. They said, 'You guys were right on. These guys are great, and we want to sign them.' I will say this, the guys have always been gracious in telling that story of how it happened, and giving me credit. I could just see the talent. That's the way I am about it. I've had people help me along in my career, and if I can help someone else, I'm gonna try my best to do it, because that's the way you do it. You pass it around."
The band went to Mark V studios in Greenville and cut a demo. They took the tape down to Macon, and Walden signed them on the spot. Apparently, Capricorn didn't like the name Toy Factory. They just didn't feel like it was commercial sounding. The band was rehearsing on Spring Street, when they found the name tag that belonged to the former tenant, a local piano tuner, now living in Columbia, S.C., named Marshall Tucker. Toy told Greenville's Rock 101 about finding the tag in a radio interview back in 1989.
"It was no big deal," said Toy. "We said, hmmm...Marshall Tucker. How's that for a band name? Everybody shook their heads yes, and somebody said "Good. Let's go eat."
"There was resistance all over the South when we started. We got thrown out of clubs left and right for playing our own music," says George McCorkle. "We'd play a set and the club owner would raise hell because we weren't playing something by someone else. But we weren't gonna do it! We thought we had something, and we knew the only way we was ever gonna find out was to stick with it."
When their debut Capricorn LP, "The Marshall Tucker Band" came out in the fall of 1973, the band began playing anywhere and everywhere. Their overall philosophy was 'whatever it takes,' and they always delivered, one-hundred percent. It was this kind of devotion to their craft that yielded a fan following that even today still speaks with quiet reverence concerning the original Tucker Band.
Having an album out was by no means the answer to all of the guys problems. The band was performing regularly at a club in Atlanta called Richard's, where they were pretty much considered the house band. Toy was still working his day job as a plumber with his father, and driving back to Spartanburg every night after the gig.
According to Paul Riddle, it was Tommy Caldwell who finally got fed up with watching his brother bust his butt to hold onto both the day job and the night gig. Tommy made a trip to the record company, and while there is no record of the conversation that ensued, suffice it to say he told the company that they were just going to have to front Toy some money so he wouldn't have to work the day job anymore. It was a typical Tommy Caldwell move.
Along with the overwhelming success of his band, Toy was keeping the home fires burning by regularly calling his wife, Abbie and checking on her and his children while on the road. Toy had married Ab during the '60s, and she would remain his one and only love and wife until his death. Together, they had two daughters, Cassady and Geneal.
Events had begun to turn in favor of The Marshall Tucker Band. They began to open for The Allman Brothers Band, and quickly made the move from packed-out clubs to packed-out coliseums. Their debut LP sold 500,000 copies and went gold. By 1974 The Marshall Tucker Band was hot, with a new LP, "A New Life," and started playing over 300 dates per year. Later that same year, the band released their double-album set "Where We all Belong," consisting of both live and studio takes, to critical acclaim.
It was nothing but the good life for the band members. They had worked hard, and were reaping their rewards.
"We just hop in a boat and take off," said Toy Caldwell in a 1975 interview. "Fishing will take your mind off everything. If you're catching fish, you don't think about nothin'."
Playing live was nothing short of a spiritual thing for Toy Caldwell and The Marshall Tucker Band. It was a feeling that transcended anything they had ever felt before.
"We would go out on a limb every night," says Paul Riddle. "It would be just rocking out loud like a thunder storm, and Toy would bring it all down to a whisper. He had a sense of magic, and his guitar would take us places where we didn't even know we were going."
In the Fall of 1975, The Marshall Tucker Band released "Searching for a Rainbow," their very first platinum album which peaked at #15 on the charts. Allman Brother and close friend Dickey Betts added his unmistakable guitar work to the title cut, and the band displayed even more of their country roots with the "joy-of-fishing" song, "Bob Away My Blues," featuring the blues vocals of Doug Gray, underscored by some more fine pedal-steel work from Toy Caldwell.
One night during the early part of 1977, while The Marshall Tucker Band was getting set to do a gig in Atlanta, and everyone was pretty fired up and ready to go, Paul Hornsby walked in, and asked, in passing, if Toy had any new songs ready for the upcoming album project. Caldwell pulled out his acoustic guitar and started playing "Heard it in a Love Song." Hornsby loved it, and told him that it would be the band's first hit single. As usual, Hornsby knew what he was talking about. The record reached #14 in the spring of '77, and the LP, "Carolina Dreams," made it all the way to #23.
"Carolina Dreams" was followed by "Together Forever," and in 1979, the band's label, Capricorn was going bankrupt. The Tuckers signed with Warner Brothers, and in 1979, the recorded their first WB album, "Runnin' Like the Wind," followed shortly thereafter by "Tenth," which would be the last album to feature Toy's brother, Tommy. Tommy was hospitalized following a Jeep wreck in downtown Spartanburg on April 22, 1980, and passed away at Spartanburg General Hospital on April 28, just one month after a wreck involving a county maintenance vehicle and a car driven by younger brother Tim claimed the life of his brother.
After Tommy's death, The Marshall Tucker Band was really considering calling it quits. The band had not only lost a brother and a friend, but they had also lost their number one cheerleader and business man.
"It was Toy's call," says Riddle. " He felt very strongly that Tommy would want us to continue."
The band called in long-time friend, Franklin Wilkie, and recorded "Dedicated." A couple of albums later, band tensions were at an all-time high, due to fatigue and conflicting agendas. In June of 1984, Toy Caldwell, George McCorkle and Paul Riddle all decided to call it quits. Doug Gray and Jerry Eubanks chose to carry on as The Marshall Tucker Band.
Toy went into the studio with producer Paul Hornsby in 1984, and recorded an unreleased solo album. He started playing here and there with his own band, and putting together material for an album. He made appearances all around the United States, showing up at Charlie Daniel's Volunteer Jams and sitting in with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hank Williams, Jr. and played a series of shows opening for The Outlaws, with them also acting as his backup band.
By 1992, The Toy Caldwell Band had solidified, and included guitarist Pick Pickens, bassist Tony Heatherly and drummer Mark Burrell. Cabin Fever Records released "Toy Caldwell," an excellent solo album which featured guest appearances by Gregg Allman, Charlie Daniels and Willie Nelson, among others. His hot-rocking "I Hear the South Calling Me" was a major hit with Toy's fans, and his re-tooled "This Ol' Cowboy" was a sure-fire winner. Perhaps the finest track was a newer Caldwell composition, the bluesy "Midnight Promises," a duet with Gregg Allman.
"Oh yeah, Toy Caldwell was a good ol' guy," recalls Gregg Allman. "I played on his last record, and I never got to see him after that. I really enjoyed it. "Midnight Promises." We recorded down at Mud Island in Memphis. In that old firehouse they made into a studio. They had a B-3 set up and hell, I was out of there in two hours. I was in the moooood!"
That same year, Toy was greeted with open arms by the fans at Charlie Daniel's Volunteer Jam, and over 50,000 fans went berserk when Toy pulled out "Can't You See" at Willie Nelson's Farm Aid concert in Dallas.
Just as everything looked as though it was coming together for Toy, he slipped away from us. He died on February 25, 1993, from respiratory failure, brought about by health complications. The music world was devastated.
At Toy's funeral, mourners listened as long-time friend Al Crisp spoke about the happy times with Toy Talmadge Caldwell, Jr., and Richard Betts from the Allman Brothers Band joined George McCorkle, Paul Riddle and others to sing "Can't You See."
A sea of fans, friends, and family listened to the eulogy, delivered by the Rev. Bill Gowan, who said, "He truly had an abundance of love." The Reverend also spoke of Toy's love for his family, friends and his music.
"Toy was just ol' Toy," recalled long time friend Charlie Daniels. "He was generous. I've had him give me stuff you wouldn't believe. Back in that same time when we weren't making a lot of money, he gave me four brand new speakers, and he wouldn't let me pay him for 'em. He said, "I can't use 'em. I play with my thumb, and they're Celestions, they don't have enough highs on 'em for me." He said, "You take 'em. Keep 'em." He loved playing that dad-blamed guitar. He had a totally unique style. Toy was about half hillbilly, and about a quarter jazz, and about a quarter rock and blues and stuff. But no matter how far out he'd get jamming, you could always hear those country licks in there. He was was just my friend - my buddy. I couldn't go to his funeral. At the time, my mother had cancer, terminal cancer, and the end was getting pretty close. We were playing up in New York, and I had taken my wife and my son just to spend a couple of days, and get away from it all. And it just floored me when they called me and said that Toy had died. I said, I just can't go. I just ain't ready for this. Even to this day - I don't know. There's a hole in the world since Toy Caldwell died. There's a place in the world that nobody else can fill that's uniquely shaped like Toy. And that's in my heart, and certainly in the music business."
Friend and MTB band-mate, Doug Gray says that he will never, ever forget Toy. "Without Toy Caldwell, there would have never been a Marshall Tucker Band," says Doug Gray. "There would have never been any of these great songs that are out there. When he did something, he did it right. If he didn't play a song just right, it would piss him off so bad, that he would be mad at himself. And you don't find too many people like that, a lot of them will blame somebody else, and then all of the sudden, you're mad at your wife or something. Toy was always there, and he always made me feel good because he always had confidence in me."
Former Allman Brother and current front man for Gov't Mule, Warren Haynes, counts Caldwell among his early influences.
"He was a writer who had the ability to put into words what the common man felt and, as a guitarist, he had influences from country to jazz to B.B. King that he brought together in a uniquely melodic, soulful way. He always played from the heart."
"Sometimes Toy was so musically intense that he would blow me away to the point of breaking my concentration," recalls Paul T. Riddle.
"Tommy and the others would sometimes do that to me, but Toy was especially prone to giving me that reaction. Toy would come to a climax three times in a song and he would take it to another step. He always had a magic."
"Toy was intense," recalls Allman Brothers Band drummer, Butch Trucks. "I do miss him."
Barry Borden, a former drummer for Mother's Finest and The Outlaws, who currently tours with The Marshall Tucker Band, has fond memories of Toy Caldwell.
"A long time ago when I was with The Outlaws, we did this big tour. It was Mountain, Foghat, The Outlaws. Toy was doing his solo thing then, but the way they booked it, he went out, but his band couldn't come out-for logistics or whatever. So The Outlaws were his band for about three months. So, I got to play all of those songs with Toy. Toy was just the best. He was such a sweet guy."
In 1997, Pet Rock Records released "Can't You See," a live set from The Toy Caldwell Band recorded at a club in Spartanburg in 1992, and Charlie Daniels' Blue Hat label is re-issuing Toy's solo album under the title "Son of the South." There are also rumors that Phil Walden plans to release some of Toy's early live tracks with The Marshall Tucker Band.
Toy Caldwell will live forever in the hearts of friends and family and fans. Many of us feel the same as Charlie Daniels, who once told me, "there's a big space in the world that only Toy could fill. We will love him always, and remember him forever."
Portions of the preceeding story appeared in Hittin The Note Magazine, 1999 and Goldmine Magazine 2000.