Lynyrd Skynyrd

The band that evolved into Lynyrd Skynyrd and would prove to be one of the greatest bands in rock and roll history started out as “My Backyard”. Formed by three teenage friends, Ronnie Van Zant (Vocals), Gary Rossington (guitar), Bob Burns (drums) and Allen Collins (guitar), in Jacksonville, Florida.

The trio would practice their southern rock blues anywhere and anytime they could and started getting gigs playing at a lot of clubs and dances. In 1968 the band enters a Battle of the Bands contest and wins.

The winnings are used to recorded “Michelle” and “Need All My Friends” which was released on Shade Tree Records. They then got to appear as the opening band for  some southeast shows for the California based band, Strawberry Alarm Clock.

Before a gig in 1970, Van Zant jokingly introduces the band as Leonard Skinner! Mr. Skinner was the high school gym teacher, he was very strict on enforcing the dress codes and had suspended them several times for their long hair! Mr. Skinner had said, “You boys ain’t never gonna amount to nothin'”! He would later be asked to introduce the band before a concert!

The name stuck and later became “Lynyrd Skynyrd”! They continued to perform throughout the south, developing their talents as a hard driving, hard rocking band. Bass player Leon Wilkinson joined the band in 73′, but before their first album was recorded he’d left and was replaced by Ed King.

At a performance at a Atlanta club in 1972, called Funocchio’s, the band impressed producer Al Kooper so much that he signed them to MCA Record’s! Kooper produced the band’s first album in 1973, the album name was “Lynyrd Skynyrd Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd” and included the song “Free Bird”.

“Free Bird” was a tribute to the late Duane Allman, of the Allman Brother’s Band. The song was receiving a lot of national radio time and eventually reached #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

Once the album was complete, Van Zant told King that he was the worst bass player he’d ever heard. He suggested King switch to a guitar, thus began the legendary triple guitar sound that became the band’s signature.

The number of Skynyrd fans grew rapidly in 1973, opening for The Who and touring the U.S. the band’s music reached a lot more people. And, by 1974 the band had a hit with their second album “1974’s Second Helping”. The album included “Sweet Home Alabama” that quickly became their most popular single and the album eventually went multi-platinum!.

In 1975 they toured the U.K. with “Golden Earring” and again in 1976 with “The Rolling Stones”. Artimus Pyle joined the band in 75′ to replace Burns, after King and Burns both quit. “Nuthin’ Fancy” was then released and became their first top ten album.

Yet another new member joined in 76′ when guitarist Steve Gaines was brought in to replace King. Steve was the brother of Cassie Gaines, a backup singer for the band. Right after he joined them, the band recorded the double live album “One More From the Road” which became their second top ten!

“Lynyrd Skynyrd” wasn’t only a hard rocking southern rebel band, they were also a hard partying group! The band became well known for their excessive use of both drugs and alcohol, their image tilted more toward a redneck band.

Several members had been in alcohol and drug related wrecks and Van Zant alone had racked up five arrests for offenses related to drunkenness in 1975. The bands exploits included such things as destroying half of the exercise machines at a Nashville hotel. And, at a British hotel, Van Zant had thrown a oak table out of a fifth floor window!

Their redneck antics had began to cost the band at least a thousand dollars a month in repairs. And, had gotten so out of hand that hotels in many cities had refused accommodations for the superstars!

The band had been trying to clean up their act and began to settle down a little and curb their redneck image. The drugs and alcohol was straining the relationships and they’d also realized that they couldn’t go on stage drunk and give a good performance.

In October of 1977, the band would release their sixth album. “Street Survivor’s” was already a gold album for “Lynyrd Skynyrd” when it was released, selling over 500,000 copies.

“Street Survivors” also became the last album released by the original members. Three days after the albums release on October 20th, several of the members and team were killed when their plane crashed.

Ronnie Van Zant
Born January 15, 1948
Steve Gaines
Born September 14, 1949
Cassie Gaines
Born July 5, 1948

Van Zant had told some of the members, that he didn’t think he’d live to see the age of 30! And, his last prophetic words as he boarded the plane was, “If it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go”!

The bands assistant road manager, Dean Kilpatrick was also killed along with the pilot and co-pilot. All of the other band members were seriously injured. The pilot had radioed that he was having fuel problems and minutes later the plane went down in a wooded swamp near Gillsburg, Mississippi.

Due to the location of the plane, it took rescuers about three hours to get to the plane and remove everyone from the scene. Survivors and bodies had to be carried across a twenty foot creek and through muddy marshes to the ambulances that had to park a mile away!

The plane gave the band a scare when the week before six foot flames had shot out of a engine! Many of the members didn’t want to continue using the plane they felt was unsafe. One of the backup singers had even had a dream of the plane crashing! Some members had made arrangements for other transportation to the concert, but the flight was discussed and most of the members decided to travel together.

Just months before the Conair 240 crashed, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith had wanted to lease the plane. The plane had been inspected by Aerosmith’s assistant chief of flight operations Zunk Buker, he’d concluded that neither the plane or the crew met safety standards. While Buker had been inspecting the plane with his father, they’d watched as the pilot and co-pilot passed a bottle of Jack Daniels back and forth nearby!

The prior problem that caused the engine to catch fire, was suppose to have been fixed, when the engine started stuttering and showing problems the night of the flight, the crew may have panicked and released fuel to avoid an explosion. The 1947 Conair 240 turbo prop plane they’d nicknamed “Free Bird” had been scheduled for retirement!

The original cover for their last album “Street Survivors” had eerily shown the band engulfed in flames, although the plane hadn’t exploded or burned, some of the members did suffer burns. Before any more of the albums were released MCA Records withdrew the cover out of respect to those lost in the crash. The new cover showed the band against a plain background. “Street Survivors” became “Lynyrd Skynyrd’s” second album to platinum!

The crash marked tragic end of “Lynyrd Skynyrd” when members signed a written agreement to never reform or even use the bands name. But, in January of 1979, the remaining members reunited for a special performance at a Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam. The band performed “Free Bird” for the first time without Van Zant, to a teary eyed audience!

The remaining members would then go on to form bands of their own and release recordings. The popularity of “Lynyrd Skynyrd” continued to grow with the release of several albums with pre-recorded music.

It would be another ten years before they would perform together again. In 1987, the members started working on a reunion to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the crash. A six week tour was planned and to debut the reunion they once again appeared at a Charlie Daniel’s Volunteer Jam in September of 1987.

The band faced several problems, without the heart of the group, Ronnie Van Zant, they needed a lead vocalist. Ronnie’s younger brother, Johnny, joined the band and undertook the task of filling the shoes of a rock and roll legend.

The agreement to never reform or use the bands name also became a problem. Judy Van Zant and Teresa Gaines sued the band. They demanded that the band adhere to the agreement and not use the same name, or cut them in for their husband’s share of the bands profits. The widows won with an out of court settlement.

The world quickly took the band into their hearts and the original mini-tour that was planned became such a wide success they decided to continue. They’ve became a lasting tribute to the heart and soul of the band.

On October 5, 2002, the band performed a very emotional concert at the site of the 1977 plane crash. The Southern Tribute concert lineup included Travis Tritt. A lot of respect was lost for Tritt, who had told the properties owner and the concert promoter, that “Lynyrd Skynyrd” nor any of the other bands scheduled to play could perform on the professional stage that was set up.

Tritt had said none of the other bands were professional enough to use the stage.  And, in total disrespect, Tritt’s band members even threw “Lynyrd Skynyrd’s” equipment off the stage and the band was forced to set up and perform on the back of a flat bed trailer!

The new lineup of the band has suffered a lot of controversy and internal problems. Members were getting let go and replaced on a regular basis, resulting in several law suits. But, with numerous records released and awards won, the band’s popularity has seemed to withstand it all. And, they remain today one of the greatest rock bands of our time!

The original band’s last album included “That Smell”, part of the song is “The smell of death surrounds you”. The group had no way of knowing that soon the smell of death would surround them in a thirty year old plane!

Finally appreciated for their legendary music and phenomenal talents, the original “Lynyrd Skynyrd” band was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 13, 2006.

Written by Connie Corder, Copyright 2010

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