My association with The Marshall Tucker Band has been in the words of Robert Hunter, “a long, strange trip.” It has also been a trip I wouldn’t have missed for the world.
Growing up in the same hometown of Spartanburg, S.C. it was inevitable that we would cross paths. The very first Tucker connection I recall occurred back in the very early 1970’s, before Tucker was even formed. I saw Toy Factory at a local club called Uncle Sam’s on Asheville Highway in Spartanburg. I must have just been a kid, but I sat at a table near the stage and just watched that guy play with his thumb instead of a pick. I blew my mind. He was amazing. I’ll never forget Toy was wearing a leather jacket with his name emblazoned across the back in silver studs. He was ready to be a star, and it was obvious he had all the makings of one even then.
Another place I used to love to visit during the late seventies was Arthur’s, at Hillcrest Mall in Spartanburg. I can remember seeing Matt “Guitar” Murphy jamming his heart out there. One of my fondest memories is of a show featuring The Throbbers. At that time, the jazz-fusion-rock band consisted of Paul T. Riddle, Buddy Strong, Franklin Wilkie, and Ronnie Godfrey. On this particular night, Toy Caldwell showed up to jam out on a few pop and jazz standards, like “The Nightlife,” and “Stardust,” playing the guitar given to him by B.B. King, a beautiful hollow-body with B.B.’s name spelled out in mother-of-pearl inlays between the frets. Artimus Pyle was there that night as well, sporting a brand new haircut and beard trim. I can remember just sitting there savoring the music. Toy could play it all.
Shortly after Toy’s death, his friend Al Crisp threw a big benefit show for Abbie and the kids at Al’s Pumphouse in Greenville. My band, The Buffalo Hut Coalition, was there to pitch in. Every local southern rock and country player imaginable played, with Marshall Tucker covers mingling with rock and country originals and the stray Hank, Jr. cover. A good time was had by all, and Toy’s memory was once again given a booster shot.
The first I had heard of the Tucker Band was in 1972. I was a student at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, S.C. and someone had brought a copy of The Spartanburg Herald newspaper in, showing it to everyone and an article that had been written about the band and their impending success. As I recall it was only a week or two later that I heard the debut Capricorn Records album played in its entirety on WORD-AM radio in town, following the annual countdown of the top 100 singles of the year. A disc jockey named Billy Mack spun the album and spoke with some of the band members. It was the beginning of a tradition that would repeat with each new MTB release through the years.
One of my fondest Marshall Tucker Band memories is the 1977 Homecoming Concert at Memorial Auditorium in Spartanburg. It’s been almost thirty years, but I still remember it like it was yesterday.
Friends, family and neighbors as well as folks from Atlanta, Charlotte, New Jersey and all across the USA packed into the auditorium for what would turn out to be almost an four-hour long benefit show, filled with some real honest to God Southern rock and roll. This was the first in a long line of backstage experiences, and I was hooked. There was just something special about hanging backstage with the band. This was also the only time I can recall that I went backstage without writing about it. That is, until now.
My first meeting with Charlie Daniels was in the stairwell at this show. He wore the biggest damned grin I’d ever seen, and was so friendly, he made me a fan for life. His Fire On the Mountain lp remains in my “top ten,” and always will. At that same show, I stood nervously just off stage right after the concert, as Toy Caldwell came walking by. I was such a fan. I couldn’t even speak. When everyone went downstairs for a photo with a couple of Mid-Atlantic wrestlers and an interview for Rolling Stone, I was in hog heaven, but still too shy to say anything to anyone. That was the first time I met Tommy Caldwell. He spoke first. I guess I looked lost up there. He was real nice, and shook my hand. We would meet a few more times in the coming two years, mostly at the grocery store where I worked, but I would have grown up a bit by then, and lost a great deal of my “star struck” attitude.
Before the evening was over, the band was joined onstage by Charlie (who had already joined in on several tunes, including the scorching obligatory “24 Hours at a Time”), Jaimoe, and Marshall Chapman.
Mayor Frank Allen presented the band with the key to the city, and WORD’s Billy Mac was on hand to aid in the presentation of a check for $23,500 from the proceeds of the show to Shriner’s Hospital for Crippled Children. Everyone was so pumped, that even the news of a bomb scare couldn’t sway them.
“Someone called and said they’ve planted a bomb in here,” said Tommy Caldwell from the stage, as cool as a mint julep. “But we ain’t goin’ no where if y'all ain’t!” The crowd went wild.
We weren’t about to leave this show. No way, baby.
The concert lasted a good four hours at least, and when it was all over, we walked out of the auditorium, sweat soaked and smiling. I made my way over to speak to Tommy Caldwell.
“Great show, Tommy,” I said.
“Glad you liked it, man!” He said, grinning from ear to ear.
I shook hands with Toy and Charlie, and headed off toward home, knowing that I would remain a Tucker fan for the rest of my life.
I had run across Doug Gray a few times in my life. I remember seeing him at Pic-A-Book in Spartanburg once. I tried to speak to him, but there were a lot of folks around him and I gave up too easily. Who would have ever imagined that he would one day be a close friend of mine. While writing Carolina Dreams: The Musical Legacy of Upstate South Carolina (Marshall Tucker Entertainment) back in 1996, I was interviewing the past members of The MTB, and fell into the trap of listening to the wrong people. Some self proclaimed “friends” of the band advised me against talking to Doug, stating that he was hard to talk to and didn’t like to be bothered with things like interviews. Boy howdy were they ever wrong. I ended up becoming fast friends with Doug, who even helped me get Carolina Dreams into print via a company he and his manager Ron Rainey had started. Doug remains one of my best friends today, and he is still carrying the MTB banner all around the country, doing hundreds of shows each year.
The band came back home to Spartanburg on April 21, 1980 after recording one of their hottest shows, live in Long Island, New York, for broadcast on The King Biscuit Flower Hour. The tour had been going extremely well, but everyone was ready for a little time off back home.
On April 22, Tommy Caldwell was in his Land Cruiser on his way down Church Street to work out at the YMCA when the unthinkable happened. Someone driving a 1965 Ford Galaxy had come to a complete stop in the lane directly in front of Caldwell. Tommy’s jeep had been modified for off-road driving, with huge tires that put the vehicle high in the air, so when he hit the stalled vehicle, the Jeep flipped over.
Tommy was taken to the ER at Spartanburg General Hospital, treated and admitted, but he was in a coma. I remember asking my sister Patsy for updates, because she was a nurse there at the time. For the next six days, prayers and well wishes came in from all over the country and the world. Everyone waited. Tommy’s Mother and Father waited. They had just lost their youngest son, Tim, in an auto accident a month earlier. Tommy’s brother Toy waited. The Marshall Tucker Band waited.
On April 28, 1980, Tommy Caldwell passed away. Friends and family and fans alike were grief stricken. The world had lost one of it’s finest treasures, and The Marshall Tucker Band had lost it’s leader.
The obvious choice for a replacement came in the form of Franklin Wilkie, a one time member of The Toy Factory, and a life-long friend of the band. Later that year, WORD Radio DJ Sgt. Rick McAlister hosted a contest and asked listeners to write an essay as to why they loved the Marshall Tucker Band. I was among the winners who were treated to a ride by bus down to Columbia for a Marshall Tucker and 38 Special show, along with backstage passes and a visit with the band after the show. That bus ride was fun. All I remember about it is there was a lot of smoke on the bus - and it wasn't from tobacco.
During the early 1980’s, three members of MTB, George McCorkle, Jerry Eubanks and Doug Gray, owned a recording studio in Spartanburg county called Creative Arts. Because of my association with The Silver Travis Band, I ended up spending quite a lot of time at the studio. I remember being in the studio with engineer Randy Merryman when Doug Gray was putting vocals on some songs for the album Tuckerized. It was quite an exciting experience for me. I had never seen anything like it. I received quite an education on studio work during those days. The studio was a great place to hang out, and while working with Silver Travis, I got to spend a lot of time there.
The original Marshall Tucker Band broke up in 1984, but Doug Gray and Jerry Eubanks chose to continue on. At first, they hired Nashville session men, but later brought in guys like Rusty Milner, Ace Allen, Tim Lawter and Stuart Swanlund, all road veterans of local bands.
When Toy Caldwell died on February 25, 1993, I was devastated. Toy was my all time inspiration for playing guitar, and his death rocked my world. I remember it was snowing outside when I received word, via a friend at WSPA-TV, that he had passed. Over the years, I have joined Tony Heatherly, Toy’s bass player, a couple of times to visit Toy’s grave on the anniversary of his death. On one occasion, Toy, myself and Mark Emerick (Commander Cody Band) stood over the grave playing Toy’s songs, and Tony sang the song he wrote for Toy, that I recorded on my Southern Lights album, “Ride On My Friend.” It was a beautiful memorial.
I had been working on the aforementioned Carolina Dreams book for a couple of years. It was to be a book about all of the great musicians to come out of our South Carolina Upstate. People like Artimus Pyle of Lynyrd Skynyrd, jazz guitarist Hank Garland and of course, The Marshall Tucker Band.
After pitching the idea to a few publishing houses, Doug Gray offered to publish it through Marshall Tucker Entertainment, a company he owned with his manager Ron Rainey. After several stops and starts and a few bumps in the country road, the book was published in 1997. We had a book signing party at Pic-a-Book in Spartanburg with MTB friend and store owner Jane Hughes, which was ironic since that was the first place I ever saw Doug offstage, years earlier. We had another one at Barnes and Noble in Greenville, and Doug came out for it. Then we did a smaller signing at Books-a-Million in Columbia, SC. A published author. I was thrilled.
In the years to come I would write the as of yet unpublished biography of Doug Gray, the voice of The Marshall Tucker Band, and in doing so, meet many of his old friends and family, including his dear mother Peggy, whom I just loved. Sadly, Peggy was killed in an auto accident just prior to The Volunteer Jam Tour of 2000. Marshall Tucker bowed out of the Greenville show, and Charlie Daniels dedicated “How Great Thou Art” to her memory. The day of the Greenville Jam, we all found ourselves at the funeral home in Spartanburg for Mrs. Gray’s funeral. It was truly a sad day.
For a few years there I was working as editor of a weekly newspaper in Inman, SC, not far from where Doug lived. During those days, we were getting together for lunch all the time, usually Mexican, and having fun talking about everything from politics to rock and roll.
Around this same time, the band had a little recording studio in Spartanburg that sat beside Smith Music, the place where we all bought our instruments and supplies over the years. I can remember visiting the studio several times, like the occasion where the band was recording Face Down in The Blues. I always enjoyed watching the songs as they were assembled, layer by layer.
I have now been blessed to sit in and sing with Tucker over 15 times, and it is always fun. Most of these jams took place at the annual Angelus Benefits down in Clearwater and Tampa, Florida. Those events are always the highlight of the year. There are late night jam sessions, the all day country and Southern rock concert, the golf tournament, and lots and lots of face time with old friends.
In 2007 I was able to spend several days in the studio as MTB recorded their album The Next Adventure. Imagine my surprise whe Doug invited me to play some guitar on the album.
In the summer of 2007, The Volunteer Jam Tour was back on the road. This time, the tour featured The Charlie Daniels Band, The Marshall Tucker Band and The Outlaws. The tour kicked off in Greenville, and I was there, front and center. I was once again honored to sing with the band on "Can't You See," with Doug, Chris Hicks and original MTB roadie "Puff" singing along.
It was June of 2007 when we lost the third original MTB member. George McCorkle died of cancer, and we all wept. In November we would hold a memorial Jam 4 George in an effort to work throgh our feelings. George had truly become a friend of mine over the past few years, recording on my latest album, as well as on a planned Ray Brand memorial CD. George played at many of out GRITZ functions, and was always the first to pitch in for our benefit shows. K.G. was one of a kind.
Now it seems as though everything has come full circle. From the time I bought my first Marshall Tucker Band LP at Record Bar, and asked my friend Larry to give it to his sister to get autographed- to the early 80’s, meeting some of them in town, at work and at the studio, and the writing of Carolina Dreams. All of the gigs, bus rides, studio experiences. The Marshall Tucker Band continues to tour and record to this day, keeping the memories of Toy, Tommy and George alive. As long as I am drawing breath, I will be out their with them, doing my part to keep our brothers’ memories alive myself.
Keep it Real.Keep it Southern. Take the Highway.