"John Lennon's Been Shot": The Marshall Tucker Band's Ghosts of Christmas Past
When you stand on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, there’s a feeling that overcomes you. “Every country music artist has stood there,” Charlie Daniels once told me, his voice rising with emotion. “And when you look out, you say ‘This is the mother church of country music. This is what started it all.’”
When the Marshall Tucker band chose to hold their annual Christmas concert at the Ryman to benefit Christmas 4 Kids, it wasn't just another holiday show. Christmas for this band has a deeper significance.
To understand, you have to go back 35 years to another holiday concert when they were playing and just a few blocks away, one of the most historic events of our lifetime was unfolding.
The WNEW-FM Holiday Concert December 8, 1980
The temperature on Monday, December 8, 1980, was unusually warm in New York City, reaching 64 degrees -- 15 degrees higher than normal. The radio personalities and disc jockeys of New York's premier FM radio station gathered in Lincoln Center for their annual Christmas concert. The concert was a benefit for cerebral palsy. 102.7 FM was the pioneer of free form music that emerged in the 1960s and became album radio, and tonight, one of the bands they helped to break was onstage.
In many ways, New York City was a comfortable place for the Marshall Tucker Band, that emerged from Spartanburg, South Carolina with their self-titled debut album. Five years earlier at the Beacon Theater -- less than ten blocks away from Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center where I was this night -- they came of age during their Searchin’ for a Rainbow tour. A few years later, Capricorn Records hosted a lavish party to celebrate the release of what would be their biggest album, Carolina Dreams, and single, “Heard It in a Love Song.”
The night was festive with all of their hits, including “Take the Highway,” “Can’t You See,” and others that made them one of the most successful touring bands of the previous five years. Due to geography and being on the Allman Brothers' label, the band often got laden as a Southern rock band, but their sound was hardly conventional for that style. They employed flute, horns, and gyrating from jazz and Western swing to boogie, all built on Paul Riddle’s bedrock rhythms and time changes and the underlying melodies that were written by Toy Caldwell.
Rhythm guitarist George McCorkle once talked to me about the pride of having played 300 nights a year for four years and surpassing goals they hadn’t even dreamed about. One night the band walked onstage in front of 19,000 screaming fans in Minneapolis, in an arena that officially held 17,000. “We couldn’t say anything through the microphone for about ten minutes," he said. "I just had goose bumps all over me. I almost could have cried.”
But December 8, 1980 was special, not only with the holidays looming, but an unexpected guest by the name of Dan Aykroyd had approached the band to let them know he was a fan. The band’s road manager Joe McConnell was used to inviting others to drop in and play, and he knew Aykroyd could play.
Drummer Paul Riddle remembers sending the message back: “Tell him to come and play the whole set if he wants.” He says he’ll never forget Aykroyd’s introduction of the band: “The Marshall Tucker Band is to rock and roll what tires are to drag racing.”
Aykroyd mugged and jammed with lead singer Doug Gray and lead guitarist Toy Caldwell throughout and invited them to a party at a downtown club he owned with his business partner John Belushi -- together that duo was better known as the Blues Brothers.
I had seen and interviewed the band on numerous occasions the previous five years and as the show ended, it just seemed like part of the tradition to head backstage. People started milling about and it seemed like a typical post-show gathering. But something strange happened almost as soon as we got there.
A girl came in. She was in tears when she said the following words: “John Lennon's been shot.”
“John Lennon’s Been Shot and Killed”
Any suspicion that this was somebody’s idea of a sick joke quickly went away when Toy Caldwell came in and said, “John Lennon’s been shot and killed.”
Standing by Caldwell was concert promoter Ron Delsener. Delsener helped to start the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park, where Caldwell’s band had played over the years. Central Park was also the place John Lennon could often be seen walking with his wife Yoko Ono, directly across the street from their residence in the Dakota building on Central Park West, a mere six blocks from the concert.
It would be a few months until Delsener would approach Paul Simon about reuniting with Art Garfunkel for The Concert in Central Park. That performance would set a record and be the largest event ever held there, with over 500,000 attending. But right now he and Caldwell were trying to absorb what they had just heard.
The guitarist’s voice was rising. He was indignant about what had just happened. Delsener’s palpable anger rose as they both stood there in dismay. It looked like they were both in shock.
The news hadn’t been delivered to the band until they came offstage. Earlier, program director Scott Muni had gotten a call from Vin Scelsa from the WNEW studio. Scelsa had just started playing Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” when an Associated Press teletype came across the wire, saying a man identified as John Lennon had just been shot outside the Dakota hotel. Dennis Elsas, one of WNEW’s on-air personalities. who hosted Lennon’s guest deejay visit six years earlier, would later say that all of the staff instinctively headed back to the studio.
It was a short walk home for 16-year-old photographer David Plastik who lived across the street from Lincoln Center. Plastik had just taken up photography and was a huge Blues Brothers fan. Sitting somewhere in the first few rows at the Marshall Tucker Band show, Plastik was happy he had saved enough film to capture Aykroyd when he came onstage to jam. When Plastik left the concert, he saw ambulances jetting down the street and heard the sounds of sirens, which wasn’t unusual in the neighborhood.
It suddenly made sense when he got home. Like most of the country, Plastik’s mother learned of the tragedy from an unlikely source: Monday Night Football. It was late in the fourth quarter of a tied New England Patriots/Miami Dolphins football game. Howard Cosell, who had once been visited by Lennon in the television booth, was hesitant about announcing the news until his partner Frank Gifford inisisted he reveal what they both knew.
Gifford: Third down, four. [Chuck] Foreman. ... It'll be fourth down. [Matt] Cavanaugh will let it run down for one final attempt, he'll let the seconds tick off to give Miami no opportunity whatsoever. [Whistle blows.] Timeout is called with three seconds remaining, John Smith is on the line. And I don't care what's on the line, Howard, you have got to say what we know in the booth.
Cosell: Yes, we have to say it. Remember this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous perhaps, of all of the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival. Hard to go back to the game after that news flash, which, in duty bound, we have to take. Frank?
Gifford: [after a pause] Indeed, it is
The backstage rooms inside the Lincoln Center fortress seemed to provide temporary shelter -- a protection, a suspension of disbelief for what had happened in the world outside. Inevitably we would have to face it. As my best friend Don Principe and I made our way outside, the gold cushioned seats that had been full just an hour ago were suddenly empty and we embarked on what felt like the longest walk of my life. I saw a taxi waiting and dreaded opening the door for what I instinctively knew I was about to hear on the radio. And when “Dream #9” came blaring forth, reality started to hit. As the taxi circled by Roosevelt Hospital to make its way south to Grand Central Station, I looked at the letters on its front doors and think I just broke down inside.
The Sadness of ‘80
The Marshall Tucker Band never made it to the afterparty. The champagne was still warm the next morning and sadness was everywhere in New York City.
Drummer Paul Riddle woke up in his room with the sheer curtains blowing in the warm air at the Essex House hotel overlooking Central Park. From the room’s windows, Riddle could see the Wollman Rink where they’d played over the years at the Schaefer Music Festival. It also offered a vantage point for seeing the fans that were congregating outside the Dakota. For Riddle, it looked like a blanket of people. A friend once told me that a stage director who lived in the Dakota had to leave because the moaning and crying outside was so loud he couldn’t sleep.
On a recent afternoon when I spoke with Riddle, it was nearly 35 years after December 8, 1980. “I couldn’t believe what you wanted to talk about,” he tells me. “I was just talking about that the other day. Every time it’s brought up, I can go back to the gig, to Dan and to the next day.”
Riddle vividly remembers how he ordered room service and just sat in bed not wanting to get up. He just stared watching the sheer curtains blow as he listened to one Lennon & McCartney song after another.
“I couldn’t get over it,” he says, remembering as if it was yesterday. His voice slows and he is deliberate in choosing his words. “It was so odd being there in the city and not so far from where it happened. It just felt so sad and … surreal. Forgive me but I just can’t articulate how it felt. It was just so odd.”
He’d already been playing music for a while when he saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. He’d earned enough money cutting grass to buy the first Beatles album. Looking back, he could point to that being the night when he became interested in being a drummer.
When we spoke, Riddle had just finished teaching at the private Christ Church School where he now lives in Greenville, South Carolina. He’s been teaching there for the last 15 years, the same amount of time since he re-married to his wife Valerie. She was his best friend for the last 25 years and is an administrator at the school.
Riddle’s dream since the seventh grade was to go to Berkeley and study with the great drummer Alan Dawson. But then the Marshall Tucker Band was formed and Riddle was tied up for the next dozen or so years. Today he sticks to a ritual of getting up at 4:50 a.m. to work out and starts teaching by 7:00. He jokes that Chuck Leavell is the only musician friend he knows who is up that early, with whom he can talk.
The first year of that new decade, however, seemed so promising. That summer, a sailing trip in Bermuda seemed to spark a new creative spurt for John Lennon who began writing again, eventually recording his first album in five years, Double Fantasy. Coming home the night of December 8, he had a cassette in his pocket of a scorching new dance track called “Walking on Thin Ice,” which he and his wife had just mixed.
But for the Marshall Tucker Band, 1980 was proving to be their most difficult year. On April 28, bassist Tommy Caldwell died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident six days earlier. Caldwell’s passing was compounded by the tragedy that had struck the family just a month before when Toy and Tommy’s brother Tim died a month earlier.
Although he was Toy’s younger brother, Riddle said there was no doubt that Tommy was the band’s leader. Tommy was the musical equivalent of a basketball point guard running the offense, going back and forth to count down the beats, introduce the songs, and thank the audience. Caldwell’s down-home humility and deep gratitude came through in his signature line, uttered multiple times night after night and from city to city: “We appreciate it.”
Riddle says Toy and Tommy didn’t hang out but they were extremely close. The bond of playing music that was severed proved to be the most difficult cross for Toy to bear.
In a 1998 interview, Toy’s widow Abby talked about the toll it took on her husband. “Since Tommy’s death, he was there in body only,” she told Craig Cumberland. “In hindsight, Toy kept an awful lot inside of him. I cannot imagine the pain he was in after his brothers’ deaths. My father also died that year on Tim’s birthday and Toy had been extremely close to my daddy. Toy put up a good front for the others. But now I know he had to be torn apart inside.”
April 28 is a day that has special significance for Riddle. In addition to the anniversary of Tommy Caldwell’s death, it’s his wife’s birthday. It’s also the birthday of Chuck Leavell and another close friend. Riddle usually gets the call from his wife that day that goes like this: “I know you’re sad but get over it. Please call me and wish me a happy birthday.” Best friends, he says, can say that.
Riddle will tell you he, Toy Caldwell, and George McCorckle agreed to give permission to vocalist Doug Gray and Jerry Eubanks to continue to use the band’s name — but he regretted it as soon as he did. (Caldwell passed away in 1993 and McCorckle died in 2007.) "We didnt want to hurt them," he explained. "I just wished they had called it something else, because it’s not the [same] band."
Although he left over 30 years ago, Riddle talks about something special that exists to this day. He calls it “the Tommy Bond” and the connection that connects “all these grown men.” Like road manager Joe McConnell, who Riddle has known since he was nine and still talks to everyday. Or Arthur “Moon” Mullins, head of the crew who holds an annual get together for techs, roadies, and all the men that drove the band’s equipment.
“I was just so devastated for so long,” Riddle admits. “I miss Tommy everyday.”
Riddle believes it was detrimental to Toy that he didn’t talk about his brother’s death. “Toy was a man’s man, a marine, a tough guy. Unlike me, he didn’t go to the hotel room and shut his door and weep.”
Ultimately Riddle said he finally pushed on through it. “You know how we do with tragedies and people we love ... we move on and that’s all you can do.”
After Riddle left the band, he set-up a drum studio where he could teach. When Toy Caldwell Sr. came in from time to time, he’d look at the pictures Paul had plastered over the walls. It was Toy Sr. who taught Tommy and Toy how to pick with their thumbs. It was devastating for Riddle imagining the losses Toy Sr. suffered of his three sons. “I could not hardly handle it,” he admits. “He would come by, that sweet man and say ‘I need to give you some pictures I have of the boys.’ I don’t know how he got up in the morning.”
The last concert Tommy recorded was in that same April in Long Island, New York, about 40 miles from Manhattan. Franklin Wilkie, a former bass player in the Toy Factory, replaced Tommy but things were never the same. The original band made its last album in 1983.
Just seven months removed from Caldwell’s last show in New York, the Marshall Tucker Band found itself back in the city that had been so good to them.
On the morning of December 9, the band was on their tour bus when they heard a knock on the door. It was Dan Aykroyd who came to visit and reflect on the enormity of what had happened the night before. Riddle says Aykroyd was so humble and soft-spoken. They just sat and talked. Everyone was still in shock. Then they said goodbye.
The bus left the city but they couldn’t leave the sadness behind.
The Burden of Legacy
“Doesn’t that make you want to go home and confess,” Doug Gray asks the audience one night on the Take The Highway Tour 2014 at the famed Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Virginia just outside Washington, D.C.
The Marshall Tucker Band that played in the '70s and the night of the Christmas concert in 1980 doesn’t exist anymore. But there’s a good chance the Marshall Tucker Band is playing near where you live. And when Doug Gray takes the stage, he is the only original member onstage, and one of only three surviving members still alive from the original band.
As I listen to Gray , I think about the ghosts we carry with us. People we’ve loved. People we’ve lost along the way. The secrets we keep and things that haunt us, that we keep inside. So when Gray finishes singing “Asking Too Much of You,” it feels more like a religious experience led by someone I always felt was an underrated soul singer in a jam band, whose blues, jazz, boogie and country lexicon was impossible to classify.
He takes us back to the late '70s when he and the late guitarist Toy Caldwell were at Criteria Studios in Miami and the Bee Gees were recording in the next room. Toy showed him some words he’d written for a song exploring faithfulness. Gray remembers feeling it would be crazy if they didn’t cut it. “Toy always said he wrote it for me,” he says. “There was magic there that night and there’s been magic ever since.”
Gray’s narrative helps us connect past to present. Gray may be older but so were the rest of us gathered there for the Take the Highway Tour 2014, named after the opening song on the band’s self-titled debut released in 1973. The always garrulous South Carolinian may have slowed down a bit but it hasn’t affected his gift of gab. Given the show was in a club, Gray -- who once earned the nickname Hound or Dog -- quickly picked a woman at one of the first tables and began friendly banter before putting everyone in stiches when he said: “You look pretty good to me but honestly I can’t see you without my glasses.”
When Gray got ready to introduce “Take the Highway,” he put a stake in the ground and said it was time to put aside the three-minute song and jam. Keyboardist/flutist/saxophone player Marcus James Henderson was more than willing, coming out to do an infectious flute opening solo that one imagines Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull doing, except as a front porch stomp. A few minutes earlier, Gray admitted that after singing the song for more than 30 years, it was time to turn over the vocal reins. Chris Hicks, one of the band’s two guitarists, took the mike, singing the words that are ingrained in all of us, while Gray stood behind, ready to step up and join a verse here and there. Gray hung back like a player coach, who occasionally comes into the game while shaking his familiar tambourine.
Guitarist Rick Willis and Hicks traded dueling licks. The stoic Willis, who hung back with bassist Pat Elwood, bore an eerie resemblance to Caldwell, his eyes lurking beneath the brim of his cowboy hat, his beard reminiscent of Caldwell, especially when his fingers start flying on the frets and he evokes Caldwell’s signature riffs.
If Hicks looks like an Outlaw, it’s probably because he was once was a member of the Tampa band bearing that name. Hicks, a Macon, Georgia native, has a lot of Southern rock progeny and, like Henderson, anchors the present day band. He gave a gorgeous reading of “Georgia Moon” and a riveting performance of the funky R&B song “Dog Eat Dog,” from his solo album of the same name. But the highlight of the night was when he belted out “Midnight Promises,” a song Caldwell wrote for his daughter that first appeared on his only solo album and was later recorded by the band on the 2005 album Beyond the Horizon. The song, a rebuke to the lies of passion, is rooted in the soul dictionary and Hicks’ performance makes you think about Otis Redding.
What Gray missed in his vocal range, he made up for in phrasing. In “This Ol Cowboy,” he savored and massaged the syllables in a way that reminded me of someone who once cut an album of soul standards called Soul of the South. While the Marshall Tucker Band is a legacy band, they don’t seem burdened like their Southern rock compatriots Lynyrd Skynyrd. Skynyrd is also on a never-ending tour but chooses to play things note for note exactly the way they were heard on records, limiting the talents of their own musicians by their own choice. Gray has done the opposite, allowing Hicks and Henderson a lot of leeway. While it seemed odd that they didn’t play “Heard It in a Love Song,” their biggest single ever, the stomp of “Hillbilly Band” and the beauty of “Blue Ridge Mountain Skies” were both treats, with the latter evoking jams of Southern rock staples.
From what I can tell, the Marshall Tucker Band plays a core group of songs but their catalogue is rich with chestnuts that deserve their own moment in the sun. Going back and reinterpreting songs of yesteryear can bring rewards to both the band and audience. (Doug, I know you’re going to be booked through next year so if you’re reading this here are a few to consider: “Never Find Another You,” “Keeps Me From All Wrong,” “Am I The Kind of Man,” Walkin’ The Streets Alone” and “Holding On To You.” I am sure I can name others if you are interested.)
Gray mentioned that “Fire on the Mountain” was something the folks at Country Music Association Festival requested earlier in the year. But I had my own reasons for getting choked up and feeling intense emotion while hearing that song on that night. It was the song that George McCorkle wrote to begin Searchin’ for a Rainbow, their fourth album -- a breakthrough -- that quickly went gold. I can still see McCorkle’s sly smile and his expressive eyes under the brim of his cowboy hat as he anchored the band on rhythm guitar. That album was a major step forward for the band’s writing, as McCorkle and bassist Tommy Caldwell both stepped forward. Caldwell contributed “Keeps Me All Wrong,” which is a pure country song I could hear being someone’s big hit today.
That album showed the whole band coming to be, and I know Toy knew it and must have been really proud. Doug said Toy wrote the band’s songs but Tommy was the bandleader. Just listen to those archived recordings and count how many times you hear him say “We appreciate it.” I still get choked up thinking about it. Toy’s been gone too for 22 years -- he was much too young -- and George passed away from cancer. I know we all have to go sometime but don’t we always seemed shocked when it happens. I guess for me it will always be too soon. When I hear these songs and think of the men who played them, they never truly seem gone.
The highway is alive tonight. But there’s ghosts out there chasing it down. And sometimes when you’ve been out there long enough, you can feel them riding along beside you.
“Do You Remember the 8th of December?”
“Do you remember what happened that night?” It’s a question Dan Aykroyd asked photographer David Plastik some thirty years later, about the night of December 8, 1980. Aykroyd was sitting at a table doing a promotion for his Crystal Head vodka brand at Sam's Club when Plastik handed him a photo of him onstage with the Marshall Tucker Band that December night. Aykroyd said they weren’t informed until after the show and remembered how upsetting the news was. He told Plastik he had never seen a photo from that night.
We all remember where we were for historic events. They vary by generation, and they're typically the events that define each generation. They mark time that has passed and distort the time that has actually passed since. Each year when a new live Marshall Tucker Band album is released from the archives, we’re reminded of time’s passing. Over the years, memories surface of where I was on that December day, and they add to the canon.
A young and aspiring songwriter by the name of Jim Lauderdale moved from the Tucker Band’s home state of South Carolina to come to the city with dreams of playing music. In an outtake from Jeremy Dylan’s film Jim Lauderdale: The King of Broken Hearts, Lauderdale recounted how he was working for Rolling Stone, delivering camera equipment to Annie Leibovitz who was doing a cover session at the Dakota that December 8. Lauderdale waited outside with some other fans, thinking it might be a chance to meet his lifelong idol, but was exhausted and decided to head home for some sleep before playing a show that night. During his set, someone came onstage to make the announcement that Lennon had been shot.
It was only when Lauderdale got home that he had the somber recognition that one of the other fans standing outside was Lennon’s killer.
“I think about it often or something will come up that will remind me,” Paul Riddle says with the reflection of time. “It was a place in time and this event and these circumstances that we were in, that just happened.”
Meg Griffin, who had left WNEW but would return shortly after John Lennon’s murder, remembers how Vin Scelsa “got us all through that night.” Scelsa has said he still has all the tapes from that night but they’re too painful to hear.
Griffin was home in Greenwich, Connecticut, a 40-minute drive from the city. Her son Knoah was not even a year old. Her former husband was working in their studio when he turned on the radio to hear that Howard Cosell had made the announcement.
Like many, she first refused to believe it. That Sunday, they brought their baby and went to the gathering in Central Park. Yoko Ono had asked for ten minutes of silence around the world.
“As the crowd dispersed," she told me, "I will always remember how the sun was shining. Yet it was gently snowing at the same time. I like to think of it as PEACE ... maybe at John's doing.”
(Special thanks to David Plastik for sharing his photograph. Visit his website of classic rock photos.)