Lynyrd Skynyrd (Contemporary Musicians)
In the mid-1960s the nucleus of what would become one of the most popular southern boogie bands of the 1970s, Lynyrd Skynyrd, were students at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida. Impressed by the sounds of the Yardbirds and Blues Magoos, buddies Ronnie Van Zant, Gary Rossington, and Allen Collins formed a band and played dances under a variety of names, including My Backyard and later, One Per Cent. By the early 1970s the group had begun attracting regional attention and settled on the name Lynyrd Skynyrd, immortalizing a high school gym teacher named Leonard Skinner who had persecuted Van Zant and others for their long hair. This gentle revenge must have satisfied the band, for in later years they invited Mr. Skinner to introduce them in concert.
Lynyrd Skynyrd reached national prominence in 1973 opening for the Who's Quadrophenia tour and issuing their debut album, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd. The release featured Van Zant's grainy-voiced rendering of the band's trademark and somewhat mournful "Freebird." Performer/producer Al Kooper, best known for his work with Blood, Sweat and Tears, produced the album on his Sounds of the South label for MCA, and it went gold. Later Skynyrd hits included 1974's "Sweet Home Alabama" and 1977's "That Smell." The former, a retort to Neil Young's southerner-bashing in his hit "Southern Man," appeared on the band's second album, Second Helping, and reached the Top Ten. In recognition of the song, Alabama governor George Wallace sent the group plaques conferring on them the status of honorary lieutenants in the state militia, a conscription the band regarded with marked ambivalence.
During most of its tenure, Lynyrd Skynyrd boasted three lead guitarsettering the two guitars of their fellow southerners, the more-popular Allman Brothers Band. Piling the third guitar atop those of Rossington and Collins, beginning in 1973, was Ed King, formerly of the Strawberry Alarm Clock and co-writer of that band's Number One hit "Incense and Peppermints." Billy Powell played keyboards, Bob Burns drums, and Leon Wilkeson bass. King left in late 1974 amid the band's inveterate use of drugs and alcohol and because of interpersonal tensionst the end of the infamous "Torture Tour," some 64 dates in 83 days, Van Zant had knocked out the keyboardist's two front teeth. King was replaced by Steve Gaines. Artimus Pyle replaced Burns on drums in 1975 and fired away on the band's 1976 album Gimme Back My Bullets. This offering featured three female backup singers, among them Steve Gaines's sister, Cassie. By the time Bullets was released Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the largest concert draws in the U.S.
Critics persistently characterized the group as the voice of the southland's working class. Rolling Stone's John Swenson asserted in December of 1977 that the Skynyrd tune "Things Goin' On," from the album Skynyrd's First and... Last, which begins "They're gonna ruin the air that we breath/They're gonna ruin us all by and by," represented "the characteristic cry of the broken post-Reconstructionist South against the technological imperialism of the industrial North." Lynyrd Skynyrd certainly tried to play the southern rebel, routinely unfurling the confederate flag as a stage backdrop. How deep musical southernness actually ran is open to question. Dave Marsh, in his book of criticism Fortunate Son, noted the group's redneck bent but found in their music's "brash vulgarity" and lack of discipline the very definition of "male belligerence"ertainly not a quality limited to the South.
In fact, the band's belligerence was no stage act. Van Zant was arrested five times for drunkenness-related offenses in 1975 alone. In this he was in tune with his followers. As the singer noted in a 1976 Time profile, the band attracted "mostly drunk people and rowdy kids who come to shake." The Time piece went on to chronicle various Skynyrd exploits, among them the band's destruction of half the exercise machines in a Nashville hotel and Van Zant's heaving of an oak table out a fifth floor window in a British hostelry. If explaining to hotel management that the boys' behavior was merely "the characteristic cry of the broken post-Reconstructionist South" failed to appease, reparations were made by the band's road manager, who found himself paying damage bills averaging $1,000 a month. Eventually, hotels in many cities refused to accommodate Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The hard partying and hitmaking came to a horrifying end on October 20,1977, when the Convair 240 propeller plane carrying the band to a performance in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, crashed in swampy ground in Gillsburg, Mississippi. Killed were Ronnie Van Zant, Steve and Cassie Gaines, and road manager Dean Kilpatrick. The pilot and co-pilot were also killed, and the rest of the band sustained serious injuries. Apparently the plane, which had exhibited mechanical problems and was due for retirement, ran out of fuel. The aircraft was a Dallas-based charter similar to the one that had crashed four years earlier, killing singer Jim Croce in Louisiana.
Southern man Ronnie Van Zant was buried in Florida with his favorite fishing pole. A memorial service was attended by, among others, Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers Band, country-rock bandleader Charley Daniels, Al Kooper, and members of the Atlanta Rhythm Section. Shortly before the crash, MCA had released the Skynyrd album Street Survivors, which featured cover art depicting the band standing amid flames. This sleeve was replaced promptly after the accident. The album contained the song "That Smell," co-written by Van Zant and Collins, a reference to the "smell of death" and essentially a plea for less self-destructive behavior. The song was written partly in reaction to the events of the 1976 Labor Day weekend during which both Rossington and Collins injured themselves in separate car accidents.
In the emotional devastation following the plane crash, the surviving members of the band swore a "blood oath" not to capitalize on the death of Van Zant and the others by continued use of the name Lynyrd Skynyrd. After a year of grieving, the remaining bandmembers, except for drummer Artimus Pyle, formed a new entity called "The Rossington-Collins Band," taking a female vocalist, Dale Krantz, from the band .38 Special, an outfit fronted by Van Zant brother Donnie. Rossington-Collins concerts featured the by now anthemic "Freebird," performed without vocals as a tribute to Ronnie Van Zant. This was the second such duty for the song, which was originally written in tribute to Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band after the 24-year-old guitar hero was killed in a 1971 motorcycle accident. The Rossington-Collins Band produced an album entitled Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere, which reached Number Thirteen on the charts in 1980. But the band broke up within a couple of years. Artimus Pyle went his own way, emerging with the Artimus Pyle Band in 1982.
The Phoenix Rises
In 1986 keyboardist Billy Powell, following his release from a 30-day jail stint, joined a Christian rock group called Vision. Powell quickly realized that the band's covers of Lynyrd Skynyrd tunes consistently proved more popular than Vision's born-again fare and quit to join Rossington, Pyle, Wilkeson, King, and Ronnie's brother Johnny Van Zant in forming a new Lynyrd Skynyrd. Collins did not join, owing to an auto accident the previous year that had left him paralyzed from the waist down and had killed his girlfriend. Ronnie Van Zant's widow sued the new bandmembers for violation of the blood oath proscribing the use of the name Lynyrd Skynyrd. In settlement of the case, the new band appended to their name the distinguishing phrase "Tribute Tour." The Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Tour hit the road in 1987.
The group attracted renewed attention in 1991 when they embarked on a world tour, kicking off the expedition at the venue to which the band had been flying 14 years earlier. Anyone still holding a ticket to the unperformed October, 1977, Baton Rouge concert was admitted free, along with a guest, and presented with the tour record Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991. A hundred people produced such tickets and attended along with some nine thousand others to hear an incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd that consisted of Johnny Van Zant, Gary Rossington, Ed King, Randall Hall on guitar, Billy Powell, and Artimus Pyle, who split percussion duties with a co-drummer known simply as "Custer." A Rolling Stone reviewer attending a concert that year reported that the performance seemed largely an oldies show for southern rockers, an impression duly reinforced by the superiority of the old songs to the new. Nonetheless, a quarter-century after its inception and 14 years since the band's seeming demise, the guitar-heavy bombast of Lynyrd Skynyrd was making the 1990s safe for southern rock.
Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd (includes "Freebird"), MCA, 1973.
Second Helping (includes "Sweet Home Alabama"), MCA, 1974.
Nuthin'Fancy, MCA, 1975.
Gimme Back My Bullets, MCA, 1976.
One More for the Road, MCA, 1976.
Street Survivors (includes "That Smell"), MCA, 1977.
Skynyrd's First... and Last (includes "Things Goin' On"), MCA, 1978.
Gold and Platinum, MCA, 1979.
The Best of the Rest, MCA, 1985.
Legends. MCA, 1987.
Southern by the Grace of God: The Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Tour, 1987, MCA, 1987.
Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991, Atlantic, 1991.
Last Rebel, Atlantic, 1993.
Marsh, Dave, Fortunate Son, Random House, 1985.
Páreles, Jon and Patricia Romanowski, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Rees, Dafydd and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard Books, 1991.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin's, 1989.
Walker, Dave, American Rock & Roll Tour, Thunder's Mouth, 1992.
Amusement Business, July 29,1991.
Creem, August 1975; March 1976.
Rolling Stone, October 9, 1975; April 22, 1976; December 1, 1977.
Time, October 18,1976.
Joseph M. Reiner