One of the worst things that can happen to a musician, especially a vocalist, is a problem with his voice. But that was the case with Doug Gray, lead singer and founding member of the Marshall Tucker Band, who perform on Sunday, May 30, at the Stockton Inn.
About five years ago, Gray found that his vocal cords had simply burnt out and frayed to the point that he could not effectively sing anymore. He had been forced to shut down and seek help.
“I had to have my vocal cords rebuilt,” says Gray in a phone interview from his home in Spartanburg, South Carolina. As befits the Southern rock pioneer he is, Gray speaks with a rich baritone Carolina drawl, and you would never be able to tell that he had had serious problems with his voice. “Now, I can talk and sing fine, and can do it as well, if not better, than before,” he says.
As Gray’s voice got worse, he began doing his research. He checked all over the country and world, and, fortunately for him, help came in the form of a renowned vocal cord surgeon, who at the time happened to be based at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, not far from Gray’s home in Spartanburg. His surgeon, Jamie A. Koufman, now with the Voice Institute of New York, performed an experimental procedure that involved placing plastic implants on Gray’s vocal cords to strengthen them.
“They had shut me down, told me not even to talk,” says Gray. “But three months later, (Dr. Koufman) came to see us at B.B. King’s in New York, and I was already out there. It worked so well on one side, that after three or four months they did the same thing on the other side. Since then, I have seen her about two times, and it’s gone so well that I haven’t been scheduled to return. Not even a sore throat since then.”
Gray, who turned 62 on May 22, says the band tours about 140 days a year. That’s down from the group’s heyday in the mid-1970s, when it was on the road more than 300 days a year. “I am one of the fortunate ones. I’ve had some health problems, and I’ve pulled back together, and I’ve had some drug problems, and I’ve pulled back together. I’m glad to say that I’m doing anything at 62.”
He says the group was preparing to go on its summer tour, primarily in the northeast, south, and midwest. The Stockton Inn gig is part of the 300th anniversary celebration of the inn, which is located at 1 Main Street in Stockton. Opening for the Marshall Tucker Band is the J.B. Kline Band out of Lambertville; the Don Mayer Band, featuring Jim Weider; Guitardogs; Rough Mix; and Laurie Vosburg and 519 South. Also, says promoter Joe DeJessa of Falcon Productions, who is putting on these shows, the inn will be the site of an Americana concert on the Fourth of July weekend and the Delaware River Bluesfest over Labor Day Weekend.
“During the summer, as you get to be an older band, and a lot of bands don’t like to admit this, we just try to fill out every weekend — Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday — and come home to our families the rest of the time. A lot of them have kids in school or whatever,” says Gray. “It’s worked out pretty well for us. Who can complain about being down to 140 days?”
Gray has four children, two sons and two daughters, the youngest about to graduate from high school and enter college, another about to enter the Air Force. His oldest daughter, who is 30, just made Gray a grandfather.
Marshall Tucker Band was founded in Spartanburg in 1971 by Gray, guitarist Toy Caldwell, bassist Tommy Caldwell, guitarist George McCorkle, drummer Paul Riddle, and flautist/saxophonist Jerry Eubanks.
“Tommy Caldwell and I had cut a record in the ’60s, and a local radio station liked it, just like in ‘American Graffiti,’” he says. “We had only printed up 100 copies of the record. I just found a copy of it the other day, so I have two of them now. I went off to Vietnam, Toy came back, and when I got back in 1969, we put together a band called the Toy Factory. Somebody had told us we sounded good and that they wanted us to open for the Allman Brothers Band.”
But the band needed a new name. The name Marshall Tucker came from a place the band had rented as a rehersal space. Marshall Tucker, a blind piano tuner, had used the space as a workshop, and his name was still on the front door of the building. So Gray and the Caldwell brothers decided to call themselves the Marshall Tucker Band.
Its peak, at least in terms of commercial success, came with the platinum-selling album “Carolina Dreams” and the Top 15 single “Heard It In A Love Song,” both in 1977.
Gray says he never wanted to be known as a rock band, a country band, or even a blues band, although the music Marshall Tucker Band plays has deep roots in all three styles. The band now boasts Gray on lead vocals, B.B. Borden on drums, Pat Elwood on bass and vocals, Marcus James Henderson on keyboards and flute, Stuart Swanlund on guitar and pedal steel guitar, and Rick Willis on guitar.
“When our music first came out, ‘Take the Highway’ was on the black charts in Billboard, it was on the pop charts — there wasn’t a country chart back then on Billboard but it was also swinging that way. But the radio stations didn’t know what to do with us. I couldn’t pin the tail on the donkey at all. We do a lot of rock and roll and country stuff.”
When he talks about the musicians he played with in the earlier years, especially on the road with the Allman Brothers Band, Gray points both to the genesis of Southern rock and the nascent ethos of the jam bands, which have grown in popularity since, peaking in the 1990s and into the past decade.
“We never turn down a local musician who wants to come up and play with us,” says Gray. “We like doing old-style 1970s jams, like we used to do with the Allman Brothers and Wet Willie, and Jimmy Hall and Chuck Lovell, and Jaimoe and Gregg, Dickie, and all those guys, and we have a lot of that in this band.”
A couple of years ago, Gray at last got a chance to meet Marshall Tucker. A CBS-affiliate television station set up a meeting between the two men. “So many times we passed through and never got to see each other,” says Gray, who reports that Tucker, now in his late 90s and living in Columbia, South Carolina, said he appreciated the band’s putting his name out all over the world.
“He was more proud of us than we were thankful to him for being able to use his name. He said he was happy that we had never done anything bad to hurt his name, and I said, ‘yeah, that’s what you know,’ with a wry laugh. “He said, ‘Aww, I know you’re kidding.’ He never cared about money or anything like that, and we were just glad that we had the opportunity to use his name that way.”
Despite the ordeal with his voice, and some other personal ordeals he has gone through recently, Gray says he is happy with his place in the world. Being on the road is great, he says, but it also makes him want to come home that much more.
“When I sit here and look around this room,” he says, “and I see these gold and platinum records hanging here, it’s got everything I need, I think about how many thousands of people have seen us, and how many millions have thought enough of us to spend their money to buy our music. Our people have always been very loyal, like homecoming week in every city we go to. The reason I come back home, back to Spartanburg, South Carolina, is that it helps me always touch with reality.”
Gray will continue to tour with the band until he is no longer able. He thinks his voice will hold up indefinitely.
“There’s a reason I’m here,” he says. “I’m here to make people smile, and have memories of the great times they had, be they good memories or even weird ones.”
Marshall Tucker Band, Stockton Inn, 1 Main Street, Stockton. Sunday, May 30, 12:30 p.m. Opening bands include J.B. Kline Band based in Lambertville. $35 and $40. 609-397-1250 or www.stocktoninn.com.