30 Years Ago, Marshall Tucker Band’s Toy Caldwell Dies

photo: Jim Summaria

Toy Talmadge Caldwell Jr. is the name his parents gave him when he was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina on November 13th, 1947. Little did Toy Talmadge Caldwell Sr. or anyone else know at that time that they had brought one hell of a spitfire guitar player, singer, and lyricist into the world who would significantly reshape the destiny of Southern rock, and country music by proxy.

For many, The Marshall Tucker Band is right up there with The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd as one of the top most important and influential Southern rock bands of all time. According to who you speak to, this mostly has to do with Toy Caldwell, who if nothing else, wrote and sang the band’s most landmark song “Can’t You See,” which was so anthemic, it exploded into the country scene as well.

“Can’t You See” originally appeared on The Marshall Tucker Band’s 1973 self-titled debut album. But in 1975, Hank Williams Jr. recorded the song for his album Hank Williams Jr. and Friends. Then in 1976, Waylon Jennings cut the song for his album Are You Ready For the Country and made it the lead single, with the song hitting #4 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Decades later in 2010, the song was still relevant in country, with the Zac Brown Band cutting their own version.

The kind of pluck a determination that Toy Caldwell had is perhaps best illustrated by telling the story of his military service. Even though Toy was already showing incredible promise as a musician in South Carolina, he decided to trek down to the local recruiting office and enlist in the United States Marine Corps in 1966, eventually attending recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina before being shipped off to Vietnam.

Toy Caldwell fought in the field in Vietnam, and was wounded in September of 1968. After being evacuated for two weeks and getting a Purple Heart pinned on his chest, he didn’t return home, he returned to duty. To this day, the Spartanburg chapter of the Marine Corps League is named the Hutchings-Caldwells Detachment in honor of Toy Caldwell and his brother Tommy who also served in the Marines, along with Nolan Ryan Hutchings, who died during the Iraq War in 2003.

But Toy Caldwell isn’t well-known for being a war hero. After being discharged from the Marines, Caldwell picked up right where he left off in South Carolina, which was playing music with his old high school buddies George McCorkle, Jerry Eubanks, and Doug Gray. They first called themselves the Toy Factory band.

Right around the time Toy’s younger brother Tommy joined the band in 1972, they rented an old warehouse as a rehearsal space. One of the band members noticed that the key to the warehouse had the name “Marshall Tucker” inscribed on it since a blind man named Marshall Tucker had rented the space previously for his piano tuning business. Thinking that the name was cool and catchy, the band decided to name themselves The Marshall Tucker Band right then and there. (Marshall Tucker recently passed away, READ HERE).

Toy Caldwell was the lead guitarist and primary songwriter for The Marshall Tucker Band. And though Doug Gray was officially the lead singer (and is currently the only original member), Toy Caldwell sang numerous songs too, including “Can’t You See.” What also made Toy Caldwell significant beyond the Southern rock world is that he also played steel guitar, and quite well.

But perhaps Toy Caldwell’s most lasting influence was how he played lead guitar. Refusing to use a pick, Caldwell instead plucked the guitar with his thumb, resulting in many of the short, staccato notes leading into the primary melody of a song, and giving his tone a more rounded sound indicative of “Can’t You See” and other landmark Marshall Tucker Songs.

Though “Can’t You See” might be the band’s most recognizable track, they had major success throughout the ’70s recording for Capricorn Records, minting five Gold records, and a Platinum record for 1977’s Carolina Dreams featuring the hit “Heard It in a Love Song.” It was sung by Doug Gray, but written by Toy like so many of the band’s songs.

Toy Caldwell remained with The Marshall Tucker Band before parting ways in 1983. The band was failing to find the same kind of success they had in the ’70s. Brother Tommy Caldwell was killed at the age of 30 in an automobile accident on April 28th, 1980. Not only was he the bass player of the band, Tommy was also considered the de facto leader of Marshall Tucker, and the driving force behind the band. Incidentally, Toy’s other brother Tim had died just a month before at the age of 25 in another automobile accident. Some cite this as a moment when Toy started to lean more heavily into alcohol and drugs.

Toy Caldwell kept performing though. He formed the Toy Caldwell Band in 1992 and released a self-titled album that was later renamed Son of the South by friend and Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie Daniels. But a solo career wasn’t meant for Toy Caldwell.

On February 25th, 1993, Toy Caldwell was found dead in bed by his long-time wife Abbie at his home in Moore, South Carolina. Though the initial cause of death was reported as cardio-respiratory failure due to viral myocarditis, a toxicology report determined the cause of death to be cardiac arrest due to cocaine use. Toy Caldwell was 45 years old.

Toy Caldwell passed away 30 years ago today, buy his memory, music, and influence lives on in Southern rock and country music. Similar to The Allman Brothers, The Marshall Tucker Band were more than just a rock group. Utilizing jazz influences, extended jams, and more complex compositions and instrumentation elevated the standing of Southern American music as being something beyond just reminiscent nostalgia and Southern harmony. It was considered substantive art to be taken seriously worldwide.

Without the appeal that Toy Caldwell brought to the music of The Marshall Tucker Band, it may have never resonated beyond South Carolina, and deep into country music like it did.

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