While they were often tagged strictly as "Southern Rockers" after starting out in the early '70s, the Marshall Tucker Band also freely incorporated blues, jazz, country, and other sounds into their music. They had a flute player, for chrissakes!
Led by guitarist and chief songwriter Toy Caldwell, the group's classic six-man lineup scored a string of hits including "Take the Highway," "Fire on the Mountain," "Heard It in a Love Song," "Searchin' for a Rainbow," "This Ol' Cowboy," and "Can't You See."
When Toy's bassist brother Tommy died in 1980 from injuries sustained in a car wreck, the band soldiered on before splitting up in 1983. With Toy's blessing, singer Doug Gray and flute/sax player Jerry Eubanks resurrected the group five years later, continuing the MTB's "long hard ride" on stage and in the studio. A new greatest-hits compilation has just been released, along with Soul of the South, a Gray solo effort.
Rocks Off spoke with the affable vocalist and torch-bearer from his home in Spartanburg, S.C., where the band started, about Toy's legacy, souvenir women's panties, and the realMarshall Tucker.
Rocks Off: You're playing here on a double bill with Blue Oyster Cult. How the hell did that booking happen?
Doug Gray: You're telling me (laughs)! We have played festivals with them before and I'm familiar with them. But we used to open for bands like Golden Earring and Slade in the early days. We'll see how the show works!
RO: As the only original member still in the band, do you feel an extra weight in terms of carrying on the legacy?
DG: Of course. I think it's very important for me to please the audience. And if I was the one that was no longer around and any other of the original members wanted to keep it going, I'd roll over in my box and go "Good job!" (laughs).
I mean, this ain't a jerk-off contest. But one of the guys has been with me for 27 years. I even had my nephew for awhile [Clay Cook], but he's in the Zac Brown Band now. He's best friends with John Mayer. John came over and had Thanksgiving with us several times. We still sell music - and downloads!
What it boils down to is that if you keep pleasing the audience, they'll keep coming back. When we started, we just wanted to make enough money to buy beer.
RO: What about women?
DG: Well (laughs) we don't sell Marshall Tucker panties at our shows for nothing! But things have changed. Instead of people bringing an extra bottle of booze or a line of cocaine to party with Marshall Tucker, they bring whatever their wife cooked.
RO: Tell me about Soul of the South.
Gray: I went into this studio with some of the guys from the band and I wanted to do something different with some of the [soul music] that I'd loved. We had B.B. King open for us on a lot of dates. And I loved watching him. B.B. told me I needed to let some of that soul out of my body!
It was recorded at a time we weren't sure if the band was going to continue after Tommy died. Toy and I used to go to all these jazz and blues festivals, us country rednecks, then we went to service in Vietnam and came back. And we learned a lot from watching those guys. I still miss Toy a great deal.
RO: Which song do you still like singing the best personally?
DG: I have to start with the one that I have the audience sing first, and it's the one Toy used to sing, and that's "Can't You See." But some of the old ballads like "In My Own Way," and "24 Hours at a Time," which is all about Houston [opening line: "I've been down around Houston, Texas/ Where the sun shines most of the time"] are great. We also like to do a lot of jams live, depending on how much time we have.
RO: Any particular memories about playing Houston?
DG: I've got tons of friends down in Houston, and that's from the days of the original Holiday Inn downtown before they imploded it. I'd get out on 59 when there were just a few buildings out there. And some of our finest shows were at Rockefeller's. The Summit was the first show that we played after Tommy died, and we recorded that.
RO: Finally, the famous story of how you got the band name is that you found a key ring in a rehearsal space with the name "Marshall Tucker" on it, and it turned out he was a blind piano tuner who had rented the space before you. Did you ever meet him?
DG: Oh yeah, several times. The first time was when CBS flew him in. He's blind and his wife is blind too. So we talked in a restaurant and they filmed it. I remember he leaned into me and whispered "You've never let me down yet, don't let me down now!"
He retired two years ago, and we sent him a gold record and some stuff. And it's the least I could do because when we started out, they spelled his name wrong. We were opening for the Allman Brothers, and the [marquee] just had "Marshal" We told the promoter it was wrong, and he said, "But I only have one 'L'!"