The Marshall Tucker Band: Together Forever

Combining rock, country and even a bit of jazz, the Marshall Tucker Band earned major success in the 1970s. The group from Spartanburg, South Carolina would score six Gold albums, with two going Platinum. In addition to hit albums, the band landed many of its songs on the pop, country and rock singles charts. “Can’t You See,” “Fire on the Mountain” and “Heard it in a Love Song” are among the best-loved songs in the Marshall Tucker Band catalog.

While the band’s lineup has changed many times since its founding in 1972, today lead singer and founding member Doug Gray leads a lineup that has been together for many years. The band is currently on tour with fellow ‘70s rock veterans Jefferson Starship. On the eve of that tour, Gray spoke with me about the band’s earliest, pre-fame days back in South Carolina, and explains why the Marshall Tucker Band has endured well into the 21st century.

Your history in music predates the Marshall Tucker Band. Tell me about the music scene in the mid ‘60s in Spartanburg.

It was bigger than most people can imagine. There were bands playing at every bar. You could walk into one and see one of your friends playing in that particular band, and you’d see another friend or two playing in another band. It didn’t matter where you were; these were all places where people would get together.

And we had a lot of things going on because people were realizing that music would draw people in; that was the key right there. Everybody understood that it wasn’t just the food – and beer, of course – that was bringing people in. It was music.

Even back then, you and (guitarist/songwriter) Toy Caldwell were in bands together. What was that like?

I think I was in the 7th grade when we were the Guildsmen, and that was with a couple of guys who are doctors now. Hell, they’re probably retired from being doctors by now. I’m not going to retire. What would I do then? I’d have to become a doctor, I guess!

Then we were the New Generation. Then we did the Toy Factory, on and off.

How did that group get its start?

We played together for two or three years, ‘65 to ‘67. That band was named after Toy. Then after we got back from Vietnam in ‘69, Toy worked with his dad, who was a master plumber. I went to work for a finance company that turned into a bank. But we knew that we wanted to do [music] again. One day, Toy said, “I got us a gig at the VFW.” I said, “Toy, you’ve only got three songs that we’ve even thought about playing!” He said, “Yeah, but we can get a steak for free, and probably drink a few.” Now, Toy didn’t even drink; he was just trying to pull me in.

So I said, “Well, we’ll go up there. What’s it going to hurt?” Toy said, “The problem is, we’ve got to play three sets.” “So what are we going to do, Toy?” He said that the best thing we could do was do it, and just learn from it.

So what sort of songs did you play?

I think we played “Misty” fifty different ways! We’d get them dancing slow. And then we’d play it really fast; I’d add some lyrics to it, and it kind of grew. Those people would dance. They weren’t embarrassed to dance.

Most people don’t have a clue that we were playing [Eddie Floyd’s] “Knock on Wood,” [Question Mark and the Mysterians’] “96 Tears,” and stuff like that. I actually have a recording; we went to Arthur Smith Studio up in Charlotte, North Carolina. The tape has about four songs on it, and it’s been baked [preserved] so we can listen to it. Nobody but me has heard it in the last 25 years, and it’ll probably never see the light of day. But it sounded good.

I’ve read the story of how the Marshall Tucker Band got its name, but I’d rather hear it in your words…

We’d been practicing at a funky little place about a block or two away from a club that we played on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We’d rehearse for an hour or two, or until the beer ran out.

The promoter/talent buyer wanted us to open a show. So when he came down, he said, “I’ve got to have some handbills.” Toy and I just did not want to keep calling the band Toy Factory. So we told him to come back in an hour, and we’d have a name for the band.

Well, we found a key in our rehearsal space. And on the key, there was a tag that had the name “Marshall Tucker” on it. He was a piano tuner. Somebody said, “Well, hell, looky here. We’ll just call it ‘Marshall Tucker Band’ for this weekend.” So that’s what we told the promoter. And then we asked him, “Who’s headlining the show?” he told us that it was the Allman Brothers Band! So the timing was right, and our attitude was right.

About three weeks after we opened for the Allman Brothers Band at that club, Phil Walden from Capricorn Records called up and said, “I want y’all to come down here to Macon [Georgia] and play at Grant’s Lounge. I want my whole staff to hear you.”

So we said, “Maybe we’ll just keep the name!”

Were you surprised when your first single, “Can’t You See” hit the charts?

We were surprised. It was a year after the first album had come out. We were down in Myrtle Beach, playing at the convention center. We were staying at the hotel, and just running around on the beach. And we looked up and saw our road manager waving his hands and yelling for everybody to come up to a room. We thought something bad had happened!

He said, “Your record just turned Gold!” So we went and had a beer, and that was it. Without thinking about it, we just knew that the next show had to be the best one we’d ever done. And it was.

How did success affect the band?

It didn’t. It was unspoken, but it was like, “Okay, let’s see how far we can go.” You didn’t know what to expect, because you didn’t have enough time to think about it. We were living a dream.

I remember complaining to a guy in management: “All these damn people backstage here; I can’t even move!” He said, “When there’s nobody back here botherin’ you, you don’t need to be in a band no more!”

Was life on the road in the ‘70s as wild and crazy as legend suggests?

The people who say that they didn’t party, they’re lying. Everybody did. There wasn’t nobody who went over in the corner and said, “Nah, I ain’t going to do that.”

We had this Dodge van. And every time we’d hit the brakes to stop for a red light, all the McDonald’s bags, all of the Jack Daniel’s bottles, and all the empty beer cans would fly to the front of the van. We never threw them out.

Your first album, The Marshall Tucker Band, was released more than 50 years ago. What keeps you going?

I talked to a guy just the other night. He said, “When I was little, my dad used to drive me to school, and I’d sit in the car seat in the back. I had to listen to you guys [on the car stereo] all the time. And you know what? You’re actually better live than you are on records.”

And I said, “Thank you very much.” And since he was hearing us just the other night, that makes me feel even that much better.