After nearly four decades, vocalist and keyboardist Doug Gray is the sole remaining original member of The Marshall Tucker Band.
In 1980, the future of the Southern rock pioneers was up in the air. Original bassist Tommy Caldwell was killed in a car accident in April of that year, and the rest of the band — particularly Caldwell’s brother, lead guitarist, vocalist and main songwriter Toy Caldwell — were reeling from the loss.
For Gazette music writer David Singer's review of this show, click here.
“None of us knew exactly what was gonna happen,” Gray said recently from his home in Spartanburg, S.C., where the band formed in 1972. “Toy and Tommy were brothers, so we knew it was going to be hard to walk back out onstage. We waited on Toy to make the decision, and then we hired one of our really, really good high-school chums to play bass [Franklin Wilkie].”
The band went on to release a handful of albums that failed to reach the success level of the group’s ’70s output, before finally splitting in 1983. But Gray couldn’t stay away from the songs for too long, and by 1988 had assembled a new lineup of the group with fellow original member and flutist Jerry Eubanks. When Eubanks retired in 1996, Gray soldiered on.
“The reason I took over was, these guys didn’t want to do it anymore; they didn’t want to work,” he said. “I wasn’t about to give up something so dear to me.”
Today, the band’s lineup consists of Gray, guitarist Stuart Swanlund, keyboard player and flutist Marcus James Henderson, guitarist Rick Willis, bassist Pat Elwood and drummer B.B. Borden. The band continues to tour hard, playing anywhere from 150 to 200 dates a year — they’ll be performing at this year’s second Alive at Five show at Albany’s Riverfront Park this evening.
Maintaining the sound
At this point, all of the other original members of the band have either retired (Eubanks, drummer Paul Riddle) or died (Toy Caldwell in 1993; rhythm guitarist George McCorkle in 2007). Although new musicians have come and gone in the band’s lineup, the sound has remained consistent thanks to Gray’s leadership and his insistence on hiring bandmates that are more than just session musicians.
“When they all left, I put together a group of guys that I wanted to be in a band with, instead of guys I thought would be the best players,” he said. “Everybody in the band was hired because of their personality, not for their qualifications to play. And you know what? I’ve gotten more results than most people could, because the egos don’t stand in your way.”
It seems to be working. Audiences of all ages come out to the band’s shows nowadays.
“It’s really weird — kids will come to see us at a fair or some other open show in the afternoon,” Gray said. “That’s what their moms and dads forced on them when they were kids, in the car seat, and now they’re all old enough now to go out and have a good time on their own. And you get five, 10 kids coming out to our shows — it’s like going to the beach. The Marshall Tucker Band is the beach.”
He attributes the band’s continuing success to the songs. The group’s hits, including “Take the Highway,” “Long Hard Ride” and “Can’t You See,” and other album cuts were recently repackaged in a 14-track extended version of the band’s “Greatest Hits” collection, originally released in 1978 with eight songs.
Still a lot of fun
“Most people say they can’t believe we’re still out there,” Gray said. “What it is, is it’s fun and it’s easy. It’s as much fun now, if not more than it was, to present people with these songs that we created memories with back in 1976, ’77.”
Since the original “Greatest Hits” album came out in 1978, Gray has been hearing from fans wanting more of their favorite songs on the album. Through online feedback, he and compilation producer Ron Rainey chose additional tracks, including fan favorite “In My Own Way” and “Take the Highway,” which was featured in the 2008 film “Swing Vote” and now leads off the album.
“What I did over the last five years with the Internet, I grabbed five additional songs that everyone felt should be on a greatest hits album, and incorporated those songs with radio versions and lone album versions,” Gray said.
“So it really is a greatest hits, not just one that the record company wanted to put out. They [the fans] wanted to hear ‘In My Own Way,’ which is more of a ballad, but has that Southern rock feel to it, Southern rock playing, and the lyrics are so qualified to be on any song, any list. That’s what made Marshall Tucker songs.”
This year also saw the release of another Marshall Tucker Band-related project — Gray’s 1981 solo album, “Soul of the South.” Recorded with the remaining original members of the band shortly after Tommy Caldwell’s death but not released at the time, the eight-song album finds Gray reaching back to his soul-singing roots.
“I was given the opportunity to leave the band and go sign with somebody else based on these particular tracks,” he said. “But since I went to high school with these guys, I chose not to leave and put the songs up, even though a lot of people loved it and were ready to buy into it.”
When putting together “Greatest Hits,” the record company, Ramblin’ Records, decided to give “Soul of the South” one more listen. “They heard it and flipped out, and said, ‘Why don’t we put this out together?’ ” Gray said.
“I’m overwhelmed that people like it,” he continued. “It does sound like it was done in the ’80s, but maybe it will stick around for a while like the rest of these other records. I don’t think I’ll ever do any additional songs like that again, though.”
Eye on the studio
One thing he is planning on is a new Marshall Tucker Band studio album. The band’s last studio set, “The Next Adventure,” came out in 2007.
“We’ve been in the studio to cut some stuff for movies, and that all worked out really good,” he said. “We have about 10 songs, nine songs right now that we have not been in the studio for; we just haven’t had time to do it. They are good — they sound as good as some of the old Marshall Tucker records, but they’re not quite there yet. Plus we’ve got 100-some dates to do still, so we probably won’t even go into the studio until at least February of next year.”