By Jac Chebatoris
It’s the syrupy sweetness of the tea and the bracing burn of the whiskey.
It’s the heat vapors rising like vipers from the scorched pavement after a midday thunderstorm, and the stirrings in the soul that come from the unmistakable sounds born in the South—forged by friends armed with a pride of their heritage and a kinship in music. This is how it was for the Marshall Tucker Band from Spartanburg.
It started simply, and not so seriously. Even the story of the name is simple. No one in the band was named “Marshall Tucker.” Their names were Toy and Tommy Caldwell, Doug Gray, Paul Riddle, Jerry Eubanks, and George McCorkle. Marshall Tucker was a piano tuner, whose key ring inscribed with his name was found by the band at their rehearsal space. They needed a name.
Inside of that rehearsal space, they practiced a lot. Every night of the week. For hours on end. “Practice, practice, practice,” says drummer, Paul, his eyes lighting up as he recalls the memory.
But these were Carolina boys. So it was also, quite simply, that, “We had no idea that we were doing anything besides working on the weekend to buy some beer,” says Doug, the charismatic lead singer and only original member still in the band, of the momentum they were unknowingly building for the soon-to-be-burgeoning Southern rock scene of the early 1970s.
They were raised on the music of their mamas and daddies who worked in the cotton mills and blue collar jobs—country, of course—while they explored new musical frontiers along the way. Elements like jazz, soul, R&B, and more (“I’d listen to the Pointer Sisters, and everybody’d look at me like, what the hell?” says Doug) came together in their collaborations as they added melodic distinctions like mid-song guitar jams and flute solos, like the ones that bookend the beginning and end of their seminal hit, “Can’t You See.” Whatever it was, it worked.
Toy played guitar, wrote almost all of the songs, and took lead vocals on “Can’t You See,” a song Doug says he never wanted to sing. Toy’s brother, Tommy, played bass and, though younger than Toy, was the clear leader of the band. It was Tommy’s “when,” not “if,” vision of success that was the young band’s driving force, which formed when Toy and Doug returned home from Vietnam and hooked up with Paul (who was still in high school), and George and Jerry, adding Tommy after he came back from Vietnam.
Together, as Marshall Tucker, they started out playing in biker bars in Winston-Salem, because of Tommy’s insistence that they only do their original songs. “You had to play covers to get a gig back then,” Paul says. “But in those biker bars we could play our own music and get away with it.” They opened for Wet Willie, an R&B band on Capricorn Records of Macon, Geogia, and, soon after, the Marshall Tucker Band signed a record deal with Capricorn based on a demo they recorded for $500 at a gospel studio in Greenville. That demo, which included some of their biggest hits like “Can’t You See” and “Take the Highway,” became their self-titled debut album released in 1973. By 1975, it had gone gold.
“The record was finished and sequenced and it was ready to go and everybody was going, ‘what in the hell is it?’ Paul says. “We didn’t know what it was. It’s not like the Allman Brothers. It’s similar. It’s in the same neighborhood. It didn’t sound like anyone. It was really different.” What it was didn’t matter. What it did was blaze a new musical trail and ignite a Southern rock revolution, which was first established by the Allman Brothers, carried on by the Marshall Tucker Band, and then by bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Nearly four decades later, it continues with the Zac Brown Band, among others. There’s a reason, after all, that Tucker’s former sax and flute player, Jerry Eubanks, recently played in the band “Legends of Southern Rock.”
“It was a wide, all-encompassing sound,” says fiddle great, Charlie Daniels, calling in from the West Coast while on tour. “It was blues, jazz, and gospel and all kinds of things rather than following a thin line of a genre.” Daniels, who was practically a member of the band for all the shows they played together, recalls the first time he met them, when they both played with the Allman Brothers one night. “I walked in their dressing room, I’d never seen them,” he says, “and I said, ‘Somebody told me you SOBs were from Spartanburg,’ and Toy turned around and looked at me and they started grinning and we’ve been friends ever since.” The Tucker bond was more of soul mates, seemingly, than just band mates. “We all loved each other. There was so much trust,” Paul says, “with Tommy being the foundation.”
A seismic shift happened in 1980 after Tommy, only 30, died following an automobile accident, marking the end of the original lineup. While Tommy’s loss was immeasurable, the group continued playing, bringing in good friend Franklin Wilkie to play bass. By 1984, Toy, George, and Paul decided it was time to hang it up. Doug and Jerry carried on with new members, until Jerry retired in 1996. (Tragically, Toy died in 1993 from respiratory failure, and George, who wrote the hit “Fire on the Mountain,” passed away in 2007). Doug kept on, bringing in new members (some have been in the band for 15 to 25 years), and the band still plays nearly 200 shows a year. In April, The Marshall Tucker Band: Greatest Hits, came out on Shout Factory records, coinciding with the release of Soul of the South, a solo album of R&B material that Doug recorded 30 years ago, but never released until now.
While they may have regrets of allowing Doug to carry on with the Marshall Tucker Band name, if there are any deep-seeded ill-feelings, neither Paul nor Jerry actively voice them. “I admire Doug, and I admire Doug’s worth ethic,” says Paul of his former band mate. Paul still plays drums—currently with the jazz-fusion group, Watson’s Riddle (featuring Chuck Leavell on keyboard who plays with John Mayer), and teaches drums at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville.
Doug recently ran into a member of his old road crew, who is now working for Kenny Chesney, who asked “Dog” (his nickname) when he was going to stop. “Listen, why would I stop?” Doug says. “My daughters get angry when I’m sitting around, bored, driving them crazy.” After all, this has been his life for 40 years, and there is something in his velvety growl that suggests he might even fail to exist, were the road and all its stops not stretched out before him. “The road has been good to the Marshall Tucker Band, and it’s always been good. We all screwed around and done everything in the very beginning,” he says, reflecting on the early days. “I snorted half of damn Peru and Afghanistan, you know, I did, but I’m not afraid to say it. The good part was that I was able to quit, and when I quit it all in 1989, I became a whole different person.”
The lasting influence of hits like “Heard It in a Love Song,” the highest-charting single the band ever had, attests to the indelible moments that the Marshall Tucker Band created for fans. “Summer of 1978 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at Summerfest, fifth-row-center, Marshall Tucker Band,” remembers Greenville resident, Rob Hediger, as if it were yesterday. “I was a junior in high school living in Chicago. In 1989, I moved to South Carolina, and it was thrilling to know I was moving to the town where they were from. I still have the vinyl LPs.
But the fans aren’t just from the “good old days.” A new generation is finding the music as their own, like 21-year-old bass player Anthony House, who started getting into Southern rock when he moved to Greenville from Las Vegas when he was 12. “What they do is 100-percent genuine. The musicians come together and it flows really,
Doug, Paul, and Jerry will tell you that they didn’t know what they were doing back in those early days—but they were doing something big. And it just got bigger: as in, 15 million records sold. As in, 300 shows a year, playing stadiums and Madison Square Garden. As in, 14 albums in 11 years. They didn’t need to know. It just became what it was.
It was Toy Caldwell’s voice as he strains to hit the notes in the verse, I’m going to ride me a southbound, all the way to Georgia now, ’til the train it run out of track . . . which leads up to the iconic chorus, Can’t you see, can’t you see, what that woman she been doing to me. It was the genuine, “Thank you so much, we appreciate it,” from Tommy Caldwell to the cheering crowd as the shows ended. It was the camaraderie between the players and the magic between the notes that is unseen, but deeply felt, even now—the belief in the potential and promise of what was yet to come, as strong as the Carolina sun reflecting in their eyes.
*For the full article, magazine and more photos click here: http://www.towngreenville.com/features/30-artists/156-band-of-brothers.html
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