“I want to show you something,” announces George McCorkle, his eyes twinkling. The Marshall Tucker Band rhythm guitarist bounds out of a chair and rummages through a drawer in his New York hotel suite. A moment later, sporting a broad grin, he brandishes a pile of photos. “Look here!” says George, in his Carolina drawl. Supplying captions and belly laughs for each shot, he displays pictures of various members of the band throwing pies at various other members in an assortment of hotels, motels, and dressing rooms.
“We love being on the road together,” comments George, who turns a bit more pensive as he puts away the photos. “Everybody in the group really knows how to have a good time. And nobody has any gripes; we bring everything out in the open. When you need to talk to someone, they’re there. And everybody that works for us is a friend, too; there’s none of that ‘you’re a roadie’ shit.
“We all grew up around Spartanburg [South Carolina, where the band’s members still reside]. We hunt and fish together, knock around the woods together, make music together. It’s like we’re all . . . brothers.”
Two members of the group, Toy and Tommy Caldwell, really are brothers. And it was from combos they started that the Marshall Tucker Band evolved.
Toy, who is by two years his brother’s senior, learned guitar at age 11. When, shortly thereafter, he passed the knowledge on to Tommy, the two established an informal guitar duo and began entertaining at parties given by their parents. Later, as the brothers’ interest in music grew, they joined high school bands. Toy went with the Rants, a rock ‘n’ roll group that included George McCorkle on rhythm guitar. Tommy, playing R&B in the New Generation, guitared on stages that spotlighted another future Marshall Tucker member, vocalist Doug Gray.
Draft notices for several musicians in both bands (Toy and Tommy included) put an end to the aggregations in 1966. The Caldwells each spent four unmusical years in the military, then returned to Spartanburg and immediately assembled new groups.
Joining the older brother in a band he dubbed Toy Factory were Doug Gray and Jerry Eubanks, the latter now MTB’s sax and flute player. Tommy, meanwhile, played bars and clubs with a variety of combos; but by 1972, he had teamed up with his brother’s outfit, bringing McCorkle and drummer Paul Riddle along with him.
The revamped group changed its monicker to Marshall Tucker (after an old blind Spartanburg piano tuner), and its members took a half-year break from performing so as to write and rehearse a crop of original material.
“We all had day jobs,” George recalls. “Toy was with his father’s plumbing company and so on. We’d rehearse five, six hours after work, go to bed, go to work, come home, and play again. You know, we thought we had something so we were determined to give it a try.”
After polishing its material, the fledgling crew returned to the club circuit in Georgia and the Carolinas. “We were so powerful,” boasts George, “that we were capable of blowing most any band in the country off the stage. But people didn’t know us and we’d get thrown out of a lot of clubs, ’cause we were playing our own music; we weren’t playing Top 40.”
Then one night, at a small Spartanburg club called the Ruins, the tide began to turn. The MTB opened for Wet Willie, whose members liked what they heard.
“They dug us, we dug them,” remembers George. “It was mutual friendship more than anything else. Anyway, they promised to throw our name around a bit with Capricorn, their record company.” And, George adds, Wet Willie’s members suggested that Marshall Tucker send a demo tape to the label’s Macon, Georgia headquarters.
The group immediately dispatched a tape; and Frank Fenter, a Capricorn executive vice president who cottoned quickly to its contents, arranged for a weekend audition at Macon’s Grant’s Lounge.
“We went down,” George states, “played Friday and Saturday nights and everybody came to hear us.” Phil Walden, Capricorn’s president, danced in the aisles. “They bought us a round of drinks and told us to be in the office Monday morning as soon as it opened, and they signed us.”
A strong debut album, The Marshall Tucker Band, appeared in April of 1973. Featuring such Allman Brothers-styled blues/boogie romps as “Take the Highway,” “Can’t You See,” and “Ramblin'” (all penned by Toy Caldwell), the disc drew accolades from the critics and reached the low numbers on the charts. A year of show-opening gigs with the Allmans (who also record for Capricorn) further exposed the group’s talents; by February 1974, when the MTB’s label issued A New Life, the band had risen to headliner status.
That second album, which like its predecessor spotlighted Toy’s material, also sounded redolent of those by the Allmans. And while the disc sold well, some listeners claimed that the material and MTB/Allmans tours represented a mere copy of the Brothers.
“Anytime you have two guitar players on stage,” notes George, “and one’s playing rhythm and one’s playing lead, it’s gonna sound basically alike if they come from the same part of the country. So people compared us to the Brothers. But really, I don’t think we’re anything like them.”
Music that began to bear out George’s assertion first appeared on 1974’s Where We All Belong. To be sure, the double-disc evoked the Allmans at times, particularly on the pair of sides recorded live at a Milwaukee concert. But Jerry Eubanks’s flute and sax playing and the fiddle work of guest artist Charlie Daniels (on “24 Hours at a Time”) distinctively enhanced those tracks. And the studio LP included such un-Allmanish efforts as “This Ol’ Cowboy,” which opens with a nod to Kenny Burrell and features the dual fiddles of Daniels and Commander Cody’s Andy Stein.
Now there’s a fourth record, Searching for a Rainbow, which finds MTB staking out large new terrain. While a live version of the group’s popular “Can’t You See” evidences its longtime penchant for Southern boogie, other tracks exhibit the influence of jazz, honky tonk, Western swing (i.e., Bob Wills), and Appalachian music.
“We’re getting to the point where we’re really comfortable with what we’re doing,” George comments, “and everybody’s starting to write more. Toy still writes most of our stuff, but on Rainbow, I did ‘Fire on the Mountain’ and Tommy wrote a tune, too. We’re bringing out more of everybody’s influences and you might hear some different stuff from now on . . . very different from what we’ve been playing.”
Might such growth eventually lead to solo projects? “No,” says George emphatically. “You know, somebody at the record company was talking about that. And I said, ‘Well, hey, if I did a solo album, I’d want Toy to play guitar and Tommy to play bass and Jerry to play flute. And I’d want Paul on drums and Doug to sing.’ Everybody else said the same thing, so there wouldn’t be any sense to it. We just dig playing with each other.”
Moreover, they dig most everyone who expresses an interest in what they do. Asked why the group recently performed a benefit for presidential candidate and former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, Toy remarks: “He’s a real big fan of ours, a hell of a nice guy. I don’t know much about his politics, but he could just sit there and tell you every song on your album. He knows the words to about every tune I’ve written.”
For similar reasons, the MTB almost never turns down prospective interviewers. “If a person’s nice enough to come up and ask us to do an interview,” states George, “we’re damn sure gonna do it. It might be 11:30 at night, but we’re gonna do it.”
In fact, adds the guitarist, he wishes he could talk frequently to fans as well as to interviewers. “I just finished a song with Jerry and Doug,” he says. “It’s about sitting in a hotel in Chicago on the 30th floor, looking out the window and not knowing what’s going on. And that’s the strange thing about being in a band. You know, all these people have seen us play, but we haven’t seen them. I’d like to just sit around and shoot the shit with them. I’d like to spend some time with each of them.”
But time is rarely available for George, who at this moment is due for a soundcheck for the evening’s Beacon Theatre gig. Before he leaves, he notes how much he enjoys playing in New York. Then again, he adds, he enjoys playing just about anywhere.
“It amazes me sometimes,” he admits, “to go on stage as the headline act before 10,000 people. You look out there and you see all these people in this one building, man, and you think, ‘They all came to see us!’ And they’re paying me to do it. It’s strange, it’s really strange.”