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Legends of Southern Rock: The Marshall Tucker Band


by Michael Buffalo Smith

"I saw Marshall Tucker in Memphis at the Midsouth Coliseum back in - it must have been ‘73 or ‘74. They were the headliners and the other two acts were The Outlaws and The Charlie Daniels Band. Of course you know the show was about five hours long. (Laughs) ‘Cause you know Marshall Tucker would start playing something like “24 Hours at a Time.” But man I loved that band. I just remember watching Toy play with his thumb like that, playing all of that crazy shit. I thought, if I could play guitar like that...but I’m not really a guitar player." 

- Billy Bob Thornton, in an interview with Swampland.com

 

"Carolina's where I'm at, and I'll always hang my hat
Under those Blue Ridge mountain skies."

-Toy Caldwell


The Legends of Southern Rock Series
 
The Marshall Tucker Band was formed in the cotton mill town of Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1972, when The Toy Factory, a band that soon became the best loved group in Upstate South Carolina, shifted personal, and added Paul T. Riddle on drums and Toy Caldwell’s brother Tommy Caldwell on bass.


The new band was practicing in an old warehouse on Spring Street in downtown Spartanburg when they found a key chain that had a tag with the name of a local piano tuner on it. That name was Marshall Tucker, and the rest is history.


“We cut a tape at Mark V Studios in Greenville,” recalls singer Doug Gray” We had booked some dates in order to pay for the tape. One of those dates was in Spartanburg at a place called The Ruins, which used to stand in the lot across from The Spartanburg Herald-Journal.”


Jimmy Hall and his band Wet Willie were coming into town to play at the Ruins, and The Marshall Tucker Band was booked to open the show.


 “It was Jimmy and Jack Hall from Wet Willie,” says Gray. “Donna, their sister, also sang with their band. But they took the tape to Phil Walden at Capricorn, and we were invited to come down and play at Grant’s Lounge. We played for the weekend, and met with Phil Walden. We were all just freaked out, really nervous. We went down there and talked and played and talked some more. We had a big meeting the next day. About two weeks later, we signed a deal with Capricorn.”


“We had the first record ready to go,” recalls Paul Riddle. “Toy had written all the songs by the time we were discovered by Wet Willie, who went down to Macon and told Phil Walden about us. That really opened the door for us. They booked us in Grant’s Lounge, and Phil came out to see us. Everybody was dancing in the aisles. We were signed immediately.”


Their debut album, The Marshall Tucker Band quickly became a success. The sheer energy that was delivered by the band was captured forever on vinyl. The album contained some of their most timeless songs, including “Take the Highway” and “Can’t You See.” The fiery guitar of Toy Caldwell on cuts like “Ramblin” was a breath of fresh air during a time when AM radio was clogged with the latest pop sensation or one-hit wonder. The MTB gave the public a taste of their infinite diversity with the flat out country of “See You Later I’m Gone” and the rocking gospel of “My Jesus Told Me So,” which showcases the power of Doug Gray’s singing. With the down home lyrics, impeccable musicianship and Southern honesty, The Marshall Tucker Band was a surefire hit.


One of the hottest concert tickets of the early seventies was The Marshall Tucker Band and The Charlie Daniels Band.


 “Playing with the MTB was great,” says Daniels. “It was a natural show. We used to end the night up with three drummers on the stage doing something everybody knew. We probably did more dates with Marshall Tucker than any other band that I know of.”

 


Before they knew it, The Marshall Tucker Band was becoming a national favorite. They 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 began playing over 300 dates per year. Later that same year, the band released their double-album set, Where We all Belong, to critical acclaim.


The release of Where We All Belong was a landmark for the MTB. It was a totally original idea. One live LP and one studio LP. The studio record featured the single, “This Ol’ Cowboy,” and MTB favorites “In My Own Way” and “Where a Country Boy Belongs.” The live record had four songs covering two sides. “Ramblin,” “24 Hours at a Time,” “Everyday I have the Blues,” and “Take the Highway.” Produced by Paul Hornsby, the album included guest appearances by brothers of the road, Elvin Bishop and Charlie Daniels.


        “We have always been a live band,” adds Doug Gray. “It was like we never wanted to quit playing. And we always wanted to make sure the people got their money’s worth. The sound on the records is not half of what we were putting out live. The live album came close to capturing that, as close as you can come on a record. It’s all that energy.”


In the Fall of 1975, The Marshall Tucker Band released Searching for a Rainbow, the album containing George McCorkle’s “Fire On the Mountain,” a single that made it to #38 in the Top 40. It’s one of George’s favorite MTB records


In 1977, the band released the album, Carolina Dreams, containing what would become their most popular single, “Heard it in a Love Song.” With Paul Hornsby once again producing, the album became the band’s bestseller, and contained one of their best-loved songs, “Desert Skies.” Charlie Daniels saws fiddle, Jaimoe plays congas, and Chuck Leavell played some piano on the landmark album.


The year 1978 saw the release of Together Forever. It would be their last record on the Capricorn label, other than a Greatest Hits package that fulfilled their obligation.

 

Capricorn Records artists Elvin Bishop, Dickey Betts and Toy Caldwell at the Volunteer Jam.


Stewart Levine was again brought in to produce the band’s next album, their first on the Warner Brothers label, Running Like the Wind. With it’s signature title track, and Tommy’s love song to his wife, “Melody Ann,” Running quickly became a fan favorite.


 “My favorite track is George’s “Last of the Singing Cowboys” from the Running Like the Wind album,” says Paul Riddle. “That song was my kind of song. It’s so hip. I’m as proud of that track as anything we ever did. That’s typical Tucker at it’s best to me, a pretty melody with a funky rhythm section underneath.


In 1980, the band released their second Warner Brothers album, Tenth, which proved to be an overall excellent album. From the rocking show opener, “It Takes Time,” to George’s “Gospel Singin’ Man,” and the thunderous “Cattle Drive,” which featured Paul T. and Tommy driving the drums and bass like cowboys rounding up a herd. The record, again produced by Stewart Levine, was a major hit. Tragically though, it would be the last one that brother Tommy played on.


The band came back home to Spartanburg on April 21, 1980. The night before, they had recorded 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.


 “I spoke to Tommy right before it happened that Monday morning,” remembers MTB Crew Chief Moon Mullins. “He was going to the YMCA to work out. He was coming by here to pick up something. He was in that old Land Cruiser. He had sold that thing and bought it back. It had a full roll-cage, racing seats and everything. He hit the left side of the car with his right-side tire, it went up on the side and his head hit the pavement. It was just a freak accident.”


After a few weeks, the band voted and decided they just had to keep on going. After all, Tommy would have wanted it that way.


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.


 “We knew we would go on,” says Doug. “And Franklin Wilkie was the natural choice. We let Toy make the choice as to when we would hire Frank and when we would go out to play again.”


In 1981, the band released their third Warner Brothers recording, Dedicated, and hit the road again. It was the only way many of them had of coping with Tommy’s death, and it was all they knew to do. The album was dedicated to the memory of Tommy and his younger brother Tim. Produced by veteran producer Tom Dowd, the album featured fan favorites “Silverado,” “Tell the Blues to Take Off the Night,” and the radio bound “This Time I Believe.”


Between 1981 and 1983, the band would record Tuckerized, Just Us and Greetings from South Carolina under the roof of their own Creative Arts Studios in Spartanburg County.


Following the release of Greetings from South Carolina, in 1984, the band decided to call it quits. Toy had been through an emotional whirlwind with the loss of two brothers; Paul and George had also gotten their fill of the road life.


Doug and Jerry offered to buy the band name from the other members, and set about hiring musicians that might possibly be able to fill the shoes of the founding fathers of MTB. It wouldn’t be easy.The first thing they did was to hire some of Nashville’s finest studio musicians, and one hometown boy who was one of Carolina’s best guitarists, Rusty Milner.


"It all started in the winter of '83,” recalls Milner. “ Doug called and asked if I'd be interested in playing in the band because he said something was getting ready to go down.  I didn't really take it to heart, but he called back in January and said it happened and we'd start rehearsing in January of '84.”


With the Nashville Tucker band in tow, they recorded Still Holdin’ On, for Mercury Records in 1988, which yielded a Top 40 country hit, “Hangin’ Out in Smoky Places.” While the studio music was good, the band just wasn’t clicking live, and Doug and Jerry regrouped.


Back home in Spartanburg in 1985, they hired drummer David Allen and bassist Tim Lawter.


Stuart Swanlund used to sit on his grandmother’s porch across the street from Doug’s house and listen to the band rehearsing when he was only two years old. Swanlund bought his first amplifier from Doug when he was 13 years old.


In 1993, The Marshall Tucker Band was made up of Gray, Jerry Eubanks, Rusty Milner, Tim Lawter, Stuart Swanlund, and David Allen. Ironically enough, Lawter, Swanlund and Allen had previously been band-mates at home in Spartanburg in Lightnin’ West and White Wind. Milner had also appeared in several local bands, and had made his major label debut on MCA records as guitarist for The Artimus Pyle Band in the early 80’s.


In 1993 the band would release Walk Outside the Lines, an all new record that featured a title track co-written by orbit-escaping country mega-star Garth Brooks. Now targeting a contemporary country audience, the record featured another Top 40 country track, “Down We Go,” written by a Spartanburg singer-songwriter named Sam Spoon.


The next couple of years would find K-Tel releasing several compilations of classic Capricorn Tucker tracks, including The Best of the Capricorn Years, a double CD set; Country Tucker; and M.T. Blues.


On February 25, 1993, Toy Caldwell died at home, in his sleep, of respiratory failure. The founding father of The Marshall Tucker Band, the man who wrote the largest part of their hit songs, was gone. The thumb had stopped, his Les Paul silenced forever. He had just released his first solo album on the Cabin Fever label, and there was a major buzz going on in the music industry in regards to the release. With guest shots from Gregg Allman, Charlie Daniels and Willie Nelson, and featuring his band, Tony Heatherly, Pick Pickens and Mark Burrell, the recording was a surefire hit.


In 1995, original MTB band-mate Jerry Eubanks decided to take some time off of the road, and Doug hired an old friend, David Muse, of Firefall fame, to fill the vacancy.


During the turbulent Nineties, The Marshall Tucker Band featured some of the best musicians available. Drummers David “Frankie” Toler (The Allman Brothers) and Gary Guzzardo, keyboardists Mark Petty and Paul Thompson, and guitarists Ronald Radford (Randy Travis Band) and Chris Hicks (The Outlaws), who replaced Stuart Swanlund for a while in 1996, and then joined full time in 2001.


In 1997, the band released a compilation of classic blues based Tucker tracks on the K-Tel/ERA label called M.T. Blues. The collection teased the fans with one brand new track, “I Like Good Music,” which whet their appetites for the 1998 release of the all-new album, Face Down in the Blues.


The Summer of ‘99 would also see the release of The Marshall Tucker Band’s long-awaited gospel album, featuring Gray’s heartfelt vocals on classic tracks such as “Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad,” “His Eye is On the Sparrow,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” and more, along with fresh originals like “Mama Don’t Cry Anymore.”


The year 2001 would see Doug Gray’s highly talented nephew Clay Cook joining the band to replace Dave Muse on sax, keys and flute, as well as lead vocals on some songs and guitar on others. Around that same time, Rusty Milner and Tim Lawter left the band, and Toy Caldwell’s bass player Tony “Smoke” Heatherly joined. Now the lineup consisted of Doug Gray, BB Borden on drums, Heatherly on bass, Clay Cook on horns, Stuart Swanlund on guitar and Chris Hicks on guitar.


Shortly, Dave Muse would return to the fold as Clay left to pursue his solo career.


The band signed with Shout! Factory, who set out to re-master and reissue every album the band had ever done, as well as never before released material like the fabled Stompin’ Room Only, and the DVD of the 1980’s MTV concert, Live from The Garden State, as well as a 2-CD career spanning anthology, and a brand new studio album called beyond the Horizon, one of the group’s finest efforts in years.

Tony Heatherly had to come off the road in 2005 due to heath issues, and was replaced by another Spartanburg musician, Pat Elwood, who had played in bands with Stuart Swanlund for years. The band recorded their first ever holiday album, Carolina Christmas in 2005.


In 2006, Shout! Factory issued Live On Long Island, the 2-CD show that was Tommy Caldwell’s last concert in 1980.


2007 finds the band releasing an all-new album, The Next Adventure, and consistently touring as well as gearing up for the return of The Volunteer Jam Tour with The Charlie Daniels Band and The Outlaws in the summer of 2007. Chris Hicks’ new solo album is also ready to roll, with a release date coming soon.


Thirty-five years after their conception, The Marshall Tucker Band is still thrilling fans of three generations. Seventies fans bring their kids, and their kids’ kids out to the shows to enjoy some of the best music anywhere, and to hear the words that have opened every show for all these years, “Ladies and gentlemen, please make welcome, from Spartanburg South Carolina, The Marshall Tucker Band!”

 

UPDATE: As of February 2009, the band line up consists of Doug Gray (vocals), BB Borden (drums), Chris Hicks (Guitar/Vocals), Stuart Swanlund (Guitar), Pat Ellwood (bass), Marcus Henderson (sax, flute, keys), and Rick Willis (Guitar.)

 


The Legends of Southern Rock Series



 

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