For many people, remembering where they were and what they were doing on any given New Year’s Eve is an effort hampered by time, memory, or alcohol. But Doug Gray recalls exactly where he was more than four decades ago when the year 1978 rolled into 1979: Onstage at the Warehouse in New Orleans, fronting the Marshall Tucker Band through a lengthy and fiery set.
There were over 2,000 people in the audience, but tens of thousands more heard the concert simulcast nationwide on more than 150 radio stations. This show is also the latest archival release on the band’s own Ramblin’ Records imprint: New Year’s in New Orleans: Roll Up ’78 and Light Up 79!
“That show was something! And it sounds really, really good. Everybody was having a good time, and you could tell. I remember a lot because I brought my mother and father down there. And I had been hanging out with Gregg [Allman] – the best Southern Rock singer there is,” Gray says today from his home of Spartanburg, South Carolina. The city not coincidentally also give birth to the original band in 1972. Gray also has a non-musical memory of that night that involves…fast food?
“It was the first time my dad ever ate Popeye’s chicken! And during [that day], he wanted to get more of it!” Gray laughs. “So about four hours later I was busy with something, and just told him go down the street himself to get it.”
The record includes MTB standards like “Long Hard Ride,” “Fire on the Mountain” “Searchin’ for a Rainbow,” “Heard It In a Love Song,” and “This Ol’ Cowboy.” There’s also deeper cuts “I’ll Be Loving You,” “Desert Skies,” and “Fly Like an Eagle” (not the Steve Miller version). It boasts the most Southern Rock-sounding-ever take on the appropriate holiday standard “Auld Lang Syne,” and the band brought out members of opener Firefall for a jam on the country standard “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Taken from the original 24-track soundboard recording tapes and worked on by longtime MTB producer Paul Hornby, it’s not doctored or sweetened up. There’s bum chords, notes, and feedback, which lends an authenticity that Gray insisted upon. And the band’s leader/guitarist, Toy Caldwell, apologizes for his very hoarse voice before launching into perhaps the MTB’s best known hit, “Can’t You See.” It’s a rare tune not sung by Gray, but the latter wouldn’t have it any other way, even today.
“I wouldn’t be talking to you now if it wasn’t for Toy,” Gray says of the group’s primary songwriter. “With ‘Can’t You See,’ he wrote it for me to sing, and I told him I couldn’t do it. First, it was about his wife – so that was out! But he wanted me to sing it hard, and I asked him to show me. He went out there, nailed it, and we recorded it. It’s just better for his voice than it ever was for mine, and it would not have been as big a hit as it was if I did it.”
The record features the original/classic lineup of the group: Gray, Caldwell, brother Tommy Caldwell (bass), George McCorkle (guitar), Paul Riddle (drums), and Jerry Eubanks (keyboards/sax/flute).
Of course, fans know there is no Marshall Tucker in the Marshall Tucker Band – the group took their moniker from the real-life blind piano tuner whose name they found on a keychain that led to a rehearsal space the band rented early on. Unbeknownst to them at the time, Tucker was the space’s previous renter (the group would form a friendship with him…and his equally-blind wife!).
But Gray has lost track of how many thousands of times over the decades people have called him “Mr. Tucker” or queried about the origin of the name. “In the beginning it was funny. We made up a joke – I can’t tell you it! – but we were doing so many interviews and it got asked,” he laughs. “And we’d count it how many times we’d have to tell it. We’d go ‘This is number 34! This is number 35!’”
In 1980, Tommy Caldwell died from head injuries sustained in an auto accident, and the group disbanded three years later. Gary and Eubanks revived the group in 1988. Toy Caldwell died in 1993 from a drug-related heart attack, McCorkle in 2007 from cancer, and Eubanks and Riddle have largely retired form performing.
The band’s current lineup – which comes to Houston March 13 at the Dosey Doe - includes Gray, B.B. Borden (drums), Tony Black (bass/vocals), Marcus James Henderson (keyboards/sax/flute), and Chris Hicks and Rick Willis (guitars/vocals).
And they’re very, very busy on the road. This year will find them sharing stages with fellow Southern Rock Royalty Lynyrd Skynyrd on that band’s farewell tour, playing with longtime friends the Charlie Daniels Band on the Fire on the Mountain tour (the titled shared by an MTB song and Daniels album), and finally their own headlining Southern Rockin’ Roundup run of dates in which Gray is seeing his audiences actually grow younger.
“It’s all about the music. And kids who weren’t even born when the songs came out are responding to the music,” he says. Gray also recently spoke with Dan Rather for the latter’s music-themed series “The Big Interview.”
A conversation that was supposed to last less than an hour went for more than three as the two men reminisced about their time in Vietnam during the war – Rather covering it and Gray fighting it, as did several other members of the original band. There’s even a second part coming out.
“But I haven’t watched it! don’t like looking at myself!” Gray says. “I have a hard enough time looking in the mirror at myself at four o’clock in the morning. I want it covered up. My girlfriend says I’m crazy!”
If Southern Rock is a three-legged stool, then Lynyrd Skynyrd is one, the Allman Brothers Band another, and the Marshall Tucker Band the third. Today, Gray is more concerned with his actual legs and getting enough exercise.
“I’m almost 72. You have to take care of yourself,” he says. “We didn’t take care of ourselves early on, or we embalmed ourselves with some of the things we were doing. But I don’t think people relate age to the way the music makes them feel.”
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Finally, the Marshall Tucker Band has always had an affinity for the city of Houston – it even gets name checked in the opening line of their song “24 Hours at a Time.” Houston was also the place were back in the ‘70s, Doug Gray could have feasibly been arrested for murder. Or at least involuntary manslaughter.
“There used to be a Holiday Inn in downtown Houston. It was a real tall building – that was a lot of years ago,” he explains. “I was 30 stories up and I had a frisbee. I looked down and saw someone near our van. I threw the frisbee down and thought it would catch the wind. But it didn't, and the damn thing near killed that person when it hit him in the head!”
The Marshall Tucker Band plays 8:30 p.m. on March 13 at the Dosey Doe Big Barn, 25911 I-45 North. For information, call 281-367-3774 or visit DoseyDoe.com. Tickets $128-$208 and include a three-course dinner and soft drinks served 6:30-7:30 p.m.
For more on the Marshall Tucker Band, visit MarshallTucker.com