Doug Gray has spent the past 42 years as front man for the Marshall Tucker Band. And at age 65, he may not rock as hard as he did at 23 but he’s not done yet.
“It’s just a hell of a life we live,” Gray remarked in discussing the long history of the MTB and his relationship with it as its last remaining founding member. “We all started out in junior high school together. We all had the same types of backgrounds; our parents were working class people. We realized early on that if we worked really hard at this music thing it was another step forward in not following in the footsteps of our parents. It was a way of getting out.”
The original lineup of the Marshall Tucker Band, formed in 1972, included lead guitarist, vocalist, and primary songwriter Toy Caldwell; vocalist Doug Gray; keyboard player, saxophone player, and flutist Jerry Eubanks; rhythm guitarist George McCorkle; drummer Paul Riddle; and bassist Tommy Caldwell. The musicians all hailed from Spartanburg, S.C.
Originally, the band formed under the moniker The Toy Factory, named after the lead guitarist Caldwell. The Toy Factory had to take a hiatus, however, in the late 1960s, as Toy and three other band members, including Doug Gray, served their stints in the armed forces during the Vietnam War.
Returning to Spartanburg from military service, Toy Caldwell and George McCorkle put the Toy Factory back together and began performing again, including opening slots for bands like the Allman Brothers and Wet Willie. It was at one such gig that the band came up with its new name, one that stuck.
“Marshall Tucker was this guy in Spartanburg, a blind piano tuner,” explained Gray during a phone interview with Three Rivers Publishing. “He had this huge warehouse that he used to use. We rented the place to do our rehearsals, and the key that we used to open the lock on the door said ‘Marshall Tucker’ on it. They were calling us about printing our band name on the bottom of the concert poster, and we had like an hour to decide what it was going to be. Somebody looked at that key and just said, ‘Marshall Tucker’? And that was how the Marshall Tucker Band came to be. At the time, we didn’t even know what it meant or who he was.”
Early success with a demo led the MTB to be signed with Capricorn Records and in 1973 release their first LP, The Marshall Tucker Band. They became a staple on AOR radio and part of a burgeoning Southern rock scene in the 1970s, even though the band didn’t necessarily consider itself country or rock.
“We just played what we liked,” said Gray. “To be honest, I really didn’t listen to country much. I was into rhythm and blues and jazz music. Toy and I would drive several hours to see jazz festivals together. I saw James Brown perform every chance I could get.”
With five certified gold and one platinum record under their belts, the Marshall Tucker Band continues to record and perform over 100 shows a year. It’s a labor of love.
“Being nice guys and being in a band is kind of hard to find these days,” Gray said, “but that’s what we have going. We’ve always had that. Back in the early days, when it was the original band with Toy and Tommy, we never had a fight. Never in eight years of being together. We just had fun together on the road and laughed a lot. When you know somebody all your life, you know them so well, there’s no limit to what you can do or how much fun you can have with it.”
Gray said the band that performs today isn’t a carbon copy of what came before. “All through the years we’ve had different guys in the band, different personalities with something different to add to the mix,” he explained. “It’s a great band, top-notch musicians, but nobody can replace any of our former members. Nobody plays guitar like Toy did. You don’t want to copy somebody else, just learn the lick that people identify with and then we can stretch it out and play it our way. It’s like bluegrass music: You always want to come back to the root but not be afraid to do something new with it.”
No two sets are alike at MTB shows. Why? Because Gray thinks that would get boring, both for the band and its audience. “We still have that improvisational thing going. The people that have come to see us in the last few years, that’s what they like to hear: the ability to give a player a platform where he can shine with the band right behind you. Everybody in this band is a lead player, a lead instrument. We work like a football team, everybody knowing what goes where and when without getting in the way. You want to be able to stretch it out without losing people and boring them.”
Mostly, Doug asks the audience for help in putting the setlist together each night. “We want to give people a good time, give them what they want, and we’re not afraid to fall on our faces trying it,” he said.
The band is scheduled to play two nights at the Wildwood Springs Lodge in Steelville this weekend. Tickets are still available online for the October 11 and October 12 shows at the lodge.
“It’s such a wonderful venue,” boasted Gray, “one of our favorite places to play. It’s more intimate than most places you play at, and it’s the kind of place where you can socialize with the audience and people feel really comfortable and at home during the show. It’s like a gathering of friends making music together. I love it there.”
Gray said he has no plans to slow down any time soon. The band looks ahead to a 50th anniversary not too far in the future. “We created a memory years ago, some songs that people really latched onto,” he said, “and we’re still keeping that memory alive today, still touching people with our songs.”
Editor's Note: The Marshall Tucker Band is best known for its songs “Heard It in a Love Song,” “Can’t You See,” “This Ol’ Cowboy,” and “Fire on the Mountain.” For ticket information at Wildwood Springs Lodge, go to http://www.wildwoodspringslodge.com/concert13/MarshallTuckerBand.html Check out a cool MTB video from their 1977 tour on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRN6qt6PP0c