The Marshall Tucker Band Loves America!

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I missed having to go to Vietnam by less than a year when the war ended. I would have gone.

I'm always grateful and thankful for those who served in Vietnam for me and my family; I always thanks them personally when I cross paths with such brave souls.

Because they went.

Doug Gray, the lead singer extraordinaire of The Marshall Tucker Band went to Vietnam in the US Army. When I heard this--right after thanking him, of course--I got to wondering: how many rock stars actually went to Vietnam? I mean, it was a very unpopular thing at the time, the war, and I couldn't imagine Neil Young, Bob Dylan or Paul Simon going to Vietnam.

Though famous musicians like Elvis (US Army who made Sergeant and "declined any special treatment"), Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, John Coltrane, Jerry Garcia (brought his guitar to the Army and went AWOL several times), Ice-T (Army Ranger), Shaggy and MC Hammer all spent some time in service to their country, I'm unaware that any of them actually saw combat.

Doug Gray saw combat.

As did Tommy Caldwell and others in the band. I was surprised to find such patriotic, typically long-haired rock stars who loved their country so much that they would risk their lives because they were asked. After all, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

Then I started thinking that perhaps Southern Rock bands might've served their country more gladly than a Neil Young might have. Yes, I believe that's true.

And that's how I got to the patriotic headline above. MTB does love America.

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THE PERFORMER
The Marshall Tucker Band is all about Doug Gray. He's the only remaining original member. But you wouldn't know he's outlasted all his MTB brother's in arms. Nope, Gray's an uniquely positive, gregarious sort of fella.

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Does this mean he doesn't have the occasional bad day, get out of sorts or feel down, as we all do? I'm sure he's had his trials and tribulations. But life is all about how we handle the challenges that are thrown at us. And Gray seemingly handles these tests with aplomb and a smile.

Meeting him at the tour bus and walking upstairs to a dressing room with Gray was like being in a receiving line with the King. The outside and stairwells up were lined with well-wishers, old friends and associates. Gray personally greeted everyone by name and shook hands, or more frequently gave a bear hug. Often asking, "How's your girl?" or "How's work going?" Gray was a most effervescent persona. And it wasn't put on. Nope, Doug Gray is nothing if not genuine.

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Doug Gray now ...

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And Gray in the day ...

Recently, Gray told me, on a bet with his daughter Mariah, he tried on his old Army uniform and it fit, he said beaming. His prize was some of her homemade vegetable soup. Not bad for 50 some-odd years later after having been on the road as a rock star, I told him.

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About his service to his country, Gray is quoted as saying, "We stand for them, because others stood for us."

THE MUSICIANS
In loving tribute to the original Marshall Tucker Band, the originating members were:

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Doug Gray (1948 to present)

Tommy Caldwell (1949-1980)

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Photo Credit: fineartamerica.com

Toy Caldwell (1947-1993)

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George McCorkle (1947-2007)

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Photo Credit: Unknown

Paul Riddle (1953 to present)

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Photo Credit: Unknown

Jerry Eubanks (1950 to present)

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Photo Credit: Unknown
Toy Factory Band, Ft Walton Beach, FL. 1970: Doug Gray, George McCorkle, Ron Edwards, Tommy Caldwell, Toy Caldwell and Wayne Casasanta

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The earliest photo I could find of the band "The Rants," one of Toy Caldwell's (far right) first bands with George McCorkle and Franklin Wilkie

Now, the current band is:

Doug Gray, "The Man Who Needs No Introduction"

Chris Hicks, Lead Guitar, Vocals

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Rick Willis--Guitar, Vocals

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Pat Ellwood, Bass Guitar, Vocals

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BB Borden, Drums

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Marcus James Henderson--Sax, Flute, Organ

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THE INSTRUMENTS
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Then the MTB' guitar tech told me about a special guitar of Rick Willis'. "Rick is such an MTB fan," Doug Gray told me, "and runs into so many artists, he always has other musicians sign this guitar."

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Nothing like a Hammond B3 organ (unless you're road crew, then you dread this sight) ...

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... and the matching Leslie

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THE VENUE
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THE OPENING BANDS

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THE ARTIST COMMENTARY
As Doug Gray and I walked from the tour bus to the dressing rooms, he opted to take me into an opening band's dressing room, The Montauk Project. Nobody was in there and as he closed the door, we anticipated a quiet chat. After we got a couple of cold beers and got comfortable on the leather couch, our conversation began. After a couple of minutes, the dressing room door swung open and one of the guitarists from Montauk Project came in to get a beer. "Sorry, I didn't know anybody was in here. I'm leaving, don't worry."

"Nonsense," Gray quickly replied. "We're just chatting, please stay. It's your dressing room." As the guitarist got comfortable and listened in on Gray's fascinating stories, the door would occasionally swing open and closed with more opening band-members and their girlfriends coming in becoming immediately spellbound by the earlier generation's stories, observations and parables.

It was a wonderful, musician-family dynamic as the younger kids listened enraptured, just like me. Eventually, after the 40-minute, wide-ranging chat with Gray, this is what the tiny dressing room looked like.

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Doug Gray started off, "We went back to Iraq the day after they got the man, Saddam. Going back and having done the things I've done, I've thought about what we've built our strength upon and I'm not philosophical like that, except I do appreciate everything everybody has done for us."

"You and I are in a different universe; I'm 66. Everything's downloads now. But I own my record label and the masters. We welcome everyone to come and record our shows."

"My favorite Southern Rock guys, let me see ... first of all, Gregg Allman is probably the best Southern Rock singer that there is. Wait till you hear Chris (Hicks) sing tonight. But Gregg Allman is the guy. He came into the studio when we were there once and started singing, 'As she sits across the room, prettier than a flower in bloom ... ' and said I gotta record this now.' So we cleared out and let it to him. That's the kind of camaraderie we had."

"Dickey (Betts) was really good whenever any of us had a big sack. I can say that (laughing) cuz I quit on August 16th, 1989. I quit everything then. You can make it though if you quit. Look at me. I'm the only sole survivor of this band from the original time for the last 18 years."

Best tour for Gray? "1975 with the Allman Brothers and Carlos Santana." Best venue on that tour? "Cow Palace in San Francisco. Billy Graham would come and hang out with us; a legend. Course you have your own legends up here (in NYC), Ron Delsener and John Scher. John is my buddy." Favorite guitarist? " I gotta say this, this is kinds cool, my nephew, Clay Cook--he's not really recognized yet--but he does play with Zac Brown. He played with me for eight years and wrote songs with John Mayer when John used to come to our house for Thanksgiving. We played together a couple of years ago at a festival in Cheyenne and both bands did 'Can't You See' together." Best Drummer? "Ginger Baker."

"Hell, I went out (on tour) with The Pointer Sisters and Sly & The Family Stone. You think I'm only Southern Rock?"

"I live in Myrtle Beach and have a girlfriend from New Jersey. And you'll love this, this is gonna be cool. She had a picture of me and her from like 1980 and we then we end up together years later. 'Look at this picture of me and Doug,' she would say. You know I'm always huggin' people. (He is and I do.) And I donate money; that's my big thing. People buy a 'Doug Hug' t-shirt and the money goes to the Native American Heritage Association (NAHA)."

"We've just sold out the 'Rock Legends IV' cruise boat with Gregg Allman and so many others. It's put on in association with NAHA. We've done it with Skynyrd before, we've done three of ours and just did one with The Doobie Brothers. Pat Simmons and I are best friends. You know, he's a song writin' fool."

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Above two photo credits: VintageRock.com
Doug Gray and MTB proudly support NAHA and their "Rock Legends" cruises

Tell me about some of your MTB family who aren't here anymore? "Well of course, Tommy (Caldwell) died in April 1980 in a car wreck right after we did the live Nassau Coliseum show. He died really the next day, he was going to work out at the Y, which was the place we all went to work out. They gave us a call and said Tommy had a wreck and we all knew it would be tough for him to come back from brain trauma."

Gray spoke so eloquently, that any listener would've instantaneously known he was genuine and profoundly loving of the Caldwell brothers--his brothers.

"And we knew Toy would eventually leave because you got your brother up there and all of us. You know we all went to high school together, which is kinda screwed up (chuckling). You know you don't all drive down the road in a Dodge van together for years, and you know you're opening for Joe Walsh across the country."

"I can ramble on and tell you stories. George (McCorkle) and I were best friends. Toy (Caldwell) and I both went to Vietnam. Tommy joined the Marines. Then, Tommy died in the accident. Toy, being Tommy's older brother and having served in Vietnam, I knew the mental thing would be tough on him. He was a strong guy. Losing his brother was devastating to Toy. Most people don't know this but a year to the day Tommy died, Toy lost his other younger brother when a trash truck ran a red light. All of that and all of us. We don't just have a Southern family, we have a Northern family, a West Coast family, my office has been in Beverly Hills for 37 years now."

Were Toy and Charlie (Daniels) close friends? "They had a lot in common. That really drew them together."

Did you let the success get to your head? "No we didn't. I invested in some real estate and got out right before the 'bad thing' happened." (Bad thing being the 2007-2008 real estate crash.)

"This would make a historic picture right here ... " Gray announced.

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Good times with Doug Gray and the opening band The Montauk Project

"You want to know my inspiration in losing those guys? They're will me every minute of every day. When I hear a bass player that's been with me, hit a note that I recall, I just close my eyes and dream of Tommy."

How long are you going to keep doing this? "Well, my daughter told me, she's 22 and graduated college. The other one's 35. They don't tell me I'm done. They told me to move back to the beach (Myrtle Beach, SC) because I can wake up in the mornin' and go out on the beach ... and I change my whole world. There's something about the beach, not just Myrtle Beach. Somebody took a picture of me and I thought, 'This doesn't work.' So I lost 55 pounds."

"But as far as retiring, I take ten days and then my daughters tell me to go back on the road. Last year it was 135 shows and this year it'll be 150. And next year, it's according to who we're with. The Doobies we'll be with again and I want to go back out with Chicago and maybe Earth, Wind and Fire."

THE SETLIST
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The actual set-list was nothing like this Doug Gray told me. "This is just a list that is a reminder for me," Gray said, "it's been this way for over 15 years. I just go with whatever song I think the audience wants to hear at that moment." So MTB did play my favorite song, "Searchin for a Rainbow."

" ... She's gonna take me to the end of our road ... then she lay down and die and I say, 'God rest her soul ... '"

THE AUDIENCE
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An MTB audience is very responsive ...

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... when Doug Gray engages with them (and he does this a lot) ...

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... they always respond accordingly.

THE SHOW
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So this night's show started out in a most unusual way. For me.

As MTB was tuning up and an intro to "Long Hard Ride" started playing through the sound system, I was standing stage right with my camera ready to start shooting when Gray came running up to me breathlessly, saying, "Where have you been? I've been looking for you. Come with me quickly."

Me, Gray and my camera bag were off to the other side of the stage and the monitor board. He said to me, "Put you camera bag right there, it'll be alright." What are we doing? I inquired pointedly. "You're going to introduce the band!" he said, big smile on his face. "I'll walk on with you. Do you think you can do that? Are you ready?" "I was born ready!!" I immediately told Gray.

"Huntington, New York! Are you ready for some good old-fashioned, down-home Rock 'N Roll??!! Won't you please give your warmest Long Island welcome to THE Marshall Tucker Band!!" The crowd roared responsively.

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Then launching into a steady shower of great MTB hits, Gray & Co. got the audience up from their seats and dancing quickly.

The iconic "This Ol' Cowboy" with great flute solo was, as always pure joy. Followed by a "little, chickin' pickin;" "Hillbilly Band," MTB recreated some of their earlier hits flawlessly. I could've been sitting in my bedroom in 1975 listening to them through my Marantz with oscilloscope and Kenwood speakers.

One of the reasons MTB' fans love them is their exquisite harmonies.

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Another is the unique and beautiful flute and sax solos, both of which Marcus James Henderson handled brilliantly ... not to mention his organ playing.

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For me, the entire MTB show was like being in a time machine. "Take the Highway" took us all right back to 1973, one of my better years.

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MTB in full swing

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Chris Hicks and Rick Willis make a most potent guitar combination and have a lot of fun too.

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"Blue Ridge Mountain Sky," "Fire on the Mountain" and "24 Hours at a Time" continued our melodic journey into the Deep South, Southern Rock of 40 years ago.

Now would be an appropriate time to mention Toy Caldwell.

He was a most unusual and extraordinary guitarist. Watch as he thumb picks the solos and provides a great backbone of "24 Hours at a Time" next to his dear friend Charlie Daniels.

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BB Borden hits his drums as hard as anyone I've ever seen

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Chris Hicks and Doug Gray share a laugh and a song

Honestly, I don't think I've ever seen a band have so much fun together. Sure the original Van Halen looked like they were having fun but beneath the smiles was a seething caldron of resentment and hostility as we all found out later.

There couldn't be any of that with The Marshall Tucker Band. Oh, they've had their ups and downs, lost dear bandmates and weathered tough times. But it's such a heartening thing to see the music--what's really important--keeping nice people together through thick and thin. MTB, I'm sure, will be rocking as long as they stay out of a rocking chair. And, probably even then ...

All Photo Credits are Bill Robinson except as otherwise noted