"Tommy had just passed away, and nobody (in the Marshall Tucker Band) really knew what the next step was," said singer Doug Gray, who has kept the group going to this day.
While the Marshall Tucker Band — whose original members also included guitarists Toy Caldwell and George McCorkle, drummer Paul Riddle and saxophone/flutist Jerry Eubanks — picked up the pieces, Gray used the down time to pursue a different musical interest.
Although there had always been a touch of soul in Gray's voice, his lifelong passion for R&B music had not been fully showcased. So in 1981, Gray decided it was time for his first solo project.
The results of the sessions — recorded in Spartanburg at Creative Arts Studio, which he co-owned — are just now seeing the light of day. Ramblin' Records, in conjunction with Shout! Factory, released the 30-year-old "lost" material last week as an eight-song mini album called "Soul of the South."
Unlike the country- and blues-tinged rock 'n' roll for which the Marshall Tucker Band was most famous, "Soul of the South" has an uptown feel firmly rooted in the then-contemporary pop and R&B sounds of the early 1980s.
From the opening strains of the soulful leadoff track, "Let Me Be the Fool," it's immediately clear that Gray created something sure to take many Marshall Tucker Band fans by surprise.
The material was chosen from hundreds of demos compiled by famed engineer Billy Sherrill and a host of Nashville, Tenn.-based publishers.
Arguably the best songs in the collection, "Sandman" and "Guilty," have an atmospheric, after-hours touch, while upbeat tunes such as "Who" and "Never Enough" have a synthesized funkiness reflective of the era.
The aching ballad "Don't Blame It on the Rain," has a Billy Joel-like pop tinge, and another ballad, "Still Thinking of You," was co-written by a then little-known Michael Bolton.
"It's different," Gray said of the CD. "People have said that they couldn't believe that I could actually do that kind of stuff."
Toy Caldwell, McCorkle, Riddle and Eubanks all contributed to the project, along with bassist Franklin Wilkie (who joined the Marshall Tucker Band after Tommy Caldwell's death) and pianist Ronnie Godfrey (who later became part of the band).
In the liner notes to the newly released CD, Gray said, "These songs are important because they are the only songs by the five living members of the band at that time that have never been released."
The album's final track is a cover of the Spiral Staircase's 1969 hit "More Today than Yesterday."
"Billy Sherrill bet me five dollars that I couldn't hit the high notes, and that's why I recorded that song," Gray said. "I wasn't going to let him beat me on that."
Gray's only regret about the project is that he didn't record more than eight songs.
"Add three more songs, and I would have been a happy camper. But I couldn't find anybody else to bet me anything," Gray said with a laugh.
Actually, the brakes were put on the solo project when the Marshall Tucker Band went to work on its next album. Though he had plenty of major-label interest for his solo work, Gray decided the band he had helped form nearly a decade earlier was more important to him.
"I had a decision to make, and it's evident 30 years later that I chose to put (the solo album) in the can," Gray, 63, said.
Memories of R&B
While Gray's solo recordings might have seemed out of character to casual Marshall Tucker Band observers at the time, the material was likely seen as a natural progression to those who knew him best.
Gray, a 1967 graduate of Dorman High School, had long been an R&B devotee, having devoured music by such artists as Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson and Al Green.
Some of his favorite memories are of him and Toy Caldwell traveling to Greensboro, N.C., to attend the Schlitz Salute to Jazz festivals in the late 1960s. "That was even pre-Toy Factory," Gray said, referring to the group that morphed into the Marshall Tucker Band.
"You could go to Greensboro for about two dollars worth of gas," he said. "You'd hear Thelonious Monk, but there would also be people like the Chambers Brothers on a jazz stage. That was the first time I ever heard Dionne Warwick, and I thought ‘There's no prettier voice than that.' "
Gray also remembers spending many sleepless nights as a teenager absorbing the sounds of Nashville, Tenn.-based radio station WLAC, which specialized in R&B and soul music and whose signal could be picked up in Spartanburg during the wee hours.
In the early 1960s, he attended a James Brown concert in the downstairs area of the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium.
"I went in through one of the side doors and was probably only the second white guy there," Gray said. "But I was always accepted by black people because of my interest in the music."
Gray said Brown's electrifying performance that evening was so powerful, "it changed my life."
As a teenager, Gray frequently visited the Upstairs Club, an intimate downtown Spartanburg venue that hosted some of the most legendary soul singers of the 1960s.
"That's where I saw Jerry Butler; that's where I saw the Tams and the Four Tops," said Gray, who also recalled his parents throwing a surprise party for him at the Upstairs Club when he returned home from military service in Vietnam in 1968.
After the Upstairs Club closed, XL 100 became a favorite hangout for Gray to experience soul music performances.
And even before he was old enough to go to clubs on his own, Gray remembers being bitten by the R&B bug.
"My dad worked in the mill, and on Saturday, we'd all go up to Rainbow Lake," Gray said. "Mom would pack a picnic. There was no such thing as picking up a bucket back then. You couldn't just go to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Somebody had to fix that stuff. … But what I remember most is the jukebox that was up there."
Gray starts singing, "gonna find her, gonna find her," reciting the famous refrain from the Coasters 1957 hit "Searchin'."
"Those were the kind of songs that would make everybody run toward the jukebox," he said as his face lit up with a nostalgic smile.
Thirty years after recording the material that comprises "Soul of the South," Gray said his affection for R&B music was the driving force behind the project.
"I just wanted to do something that showed my true background," he said. "And my background was going to places like the Upstairs Club."
Along with "Soul of the South," a new Marshall Tucker Band "Greatest Hits" package — to celebrate the group's 40th anniversary — was released last week. The 14-track collection features such classics as "Take the Highway," "Fire on the Mountain" and "Heard It in a Love Song."
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