Lynyrd Skynyrd

Origin: Jacksonville, Florida

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Genres: Blues-Rock, Hard Rock, Southern Rock

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Lynyrd Skynyrd is an American rock band formed in Jacksonville, Florida in 1964 by Ronnie Van Zant (vocals), Gary Rossington (guitar), Allen Collins (guitar), Larry Junstrom (bass guitar) and Bob Burns (drums).  The band is best known for popularizing the Southern Rock genre during the 1970’s.  Originally known as the Noble Five and One Percent before deciding on Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1969.  The band gained worldwide acclaim for its live performances and signature songs “Freebird,” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”  Van Zant, along with guitarist Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines were killed in an airplane crash on October 20, 1977, abruptly ending the 1970’s era of the band.  In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked the group No. 95 on their list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.”  Lynyrd Skynyrd has sold more than 28 million albums worldwide and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

Lynyrd Skynyrd reunited in 1987 with Ronnie’s brother Johnny Van Zant as its lead vocalist.  The band continues to tour and record with co-founder Gary Rossington as the band’s sole continuous member.  In January 2018 the band announced their farewell tour and an upcoming a final studio album.

During the summer of 1964 Jacksonville, Florida acquaintances Ronnie Van Zant, Bob Burns and Gary Rossington decided to jam together to the Rolling Stones’ then current hit “Time is on My Side” in the carport of Burn’s parent’s house.  Liking what they heard they immediately decided to form a band.  They soon approached guitarist Allen Collins and rounded out the quartet with bassist Larry Junstrom.

Performing at the One Percent Van Zant grew weary of audience taunts that the band had “1% talent.”  At Burns’ suggestion the group settled on Leonard Skinnerd, a mocking tribute to P.E. teacher Leonard Skinner at Robert E. Lee High School.  Skinner was notorious for strictly enforcing the school’s policy against boys having long hair.  The more distinctive spelling “Lynyrd Skynyrd’ was being used as early as 1970.  Despite their high school acrimony, the band developed a friendly relationship with Skinner in later years, and invited him to introduce them at a concert in the Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum.  Skinner also allowed the band to use a photo of his Leonard Skinner Reality sign for the inside of their third album.

By 1970, Lynyrd Skynyrd had become a top band in Jacksonville headlining local concerts and opening for national acts.  The band continued to develop its hard-driving blues rock sound and image, experimenting with recording their sound in a studio.  Skynyrd crafted their distinctively “southern” sound through a creative blend of country, blues and a slight British rock influence.

It was during this time that the band experienced some lineup changes.  Junstrom left and was replaced by new bassist Leon Wilkerson, while Rickey Medlocke briefly joined as second guitarist before leaving to form the band Blackfoot.  By 1972 roadie Billy Powell had joined the band as keyboardist.

In 1972, the band now comprising Van Zant, Collins, Rossington, Burns, Wilkerson and Powell were discovered by musician and songwriter Al Kooper of Blood, Sweat & Tears and who signed them to his record label and produced their first album.

Wilkerson citing nervousness about fame temporarily left the band during the early recording sessions for the album only playing on two tracks.  To replace him Strawberry Alarm Clock guitarist Ed King joined the band and played bass.  Wilkerson rejoined the band and King remained switching to guitar allowing the band to replicate its three-guitar studio mix in live performances.  Released in August 1973, the self-titled album with the subtitle Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd sold more than a million copies.  The album featured the hit single “Freebird,” which became a top twenty chart hit.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s fan base continued to grow helped in part to their opening for the Who’s 1973 Quadrophenia tour of America.  Their second album, 1974’s Second Helping featured King, Collins and Rossington collaborating with Van Zant on the songwriting.  The album’s breakthrough single “Sweet Home Alabama,” written in response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” became a top ten hit.  Young and Van Zant were not rivals, but fans of each other’s music and good friends.  The Second Helping album eventually went multi platinum.

By 1975 personal issues began to impact the band.  Drummer Burns left after suffering a mental breakdown during the European tour to be replaced by Kentucky native Artimus Pyle.  The band’s third album Nuthin’ Fancy was recorded in 17 days.  Unhappy with the band’s lack of preparation Kooper mutually parted ways with the band prior to its release.  Though the album fared well it failed to match the sales of its predecessor.  Guitarist King left the band midway through the Nuthin’ Fancy tour after a disagreement with Van Zant.  The band continued with two guitarists for the rest of the tour.

In 1976 the band added a trio of female backup singers that included Cassie Gaines that were known as The Honkettes.

The band released their fourth album, Gimme Back My Bullets which once again failed to meet the sale’s expectations of its predecessors.  Skynyrd felt they were missing their three-guitar attack and despite auditioning several high profile names including Leslie West continued to search for a replacement for King.  The search ended when Cassie Gaines began touting the guitar and songwriting prowess of her younger brother Steve.

Steve Gaines had led his own band Crawdad, which occasionally performed Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special” auditioned.  Liking what they heard he was invited to join Skynyrd.  With Gaines on board the newly reconstituted band recorded the double  live album One More from the Road at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, Georgia.

Both Collins and Rossington had serious car accidents over Labor Day weekend in 1976, which slowed the recording of their next album.  Rossington’s accident inspired the ominous Van Zant/Collins composition “That Smell,” which told of the “Prince Charming,” (Rossington) who crashed his car into an oak tree while drunk and on drugs.  While Van Zant after the birth of his daughter Melody in 1976 had begun to curtail the brawling and boozing that was part of the band’s reputation.

Street Survivors (1977) turned out to be a showcase for guitarist/vocalist Steve Gaines who was making his studio debut with the band.  Publicly and privately Van Zant marveled at the multiple talents of Skynyrd’s newest member.  Gaines’ contributions included his co-lead vocal with Van Zant on the co-written “You Got That Right” and the rousing guitar boogie “I Know a Little,” which Gaines had written prior to joining Skynyrd.  So confident was Van Zant in Gaines’ talent that the album (and some concerts) featured Gaines delivering the self-penned bluesy “Ain’t No Good Life,” the only song in the pre-crash Skynyrd to feature a vocal other than Ronnie Van Zant.  Street Survivors spun off the hit singles “What’s Your Name,” and “That Smell” paving the way for the band’s biggest tour yet and the realization of Van Zant’s life long dream of headlining New York’s Madison Square Garden in November of that year.

On October 20, 1977 following a performance in Greenville, South Carolina the band boarded a charter plane bound for Baton Rouge, Louisiana where they were scheduled to perform at LSU the following night.  After running out of fuel an emergency landing was attempted before the plane crashed in a heavily forested area five miles northeast of Ginsburg, Mississippi.  Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines, along with backup singer Cassie Gaines (Steve’s older sister), their assistant road manager and the pilots were killed on impact with the rest of the surviving band members suffering serious injuries.

The accident came just three days after the release of Street Survivors.  Following the crash and ensuing press the album became the band’s second platinum record.  The original cover sleeve for Street Survivors had featured a photograph of the band engulfed in flames, with Steve Gaines nearly obscured by fire.  Out of respect for the deceased (and at the request of Teresa Gaines, Steve’s widow), MCA Records withdrew the original cover and replaced it with the album’s back photo, a similar image of the band against a simple black background.  Thirty years later, for the deluxe CD version of Street Survivors, the original “flames” cover was restored.

Lynyrd Skynyrd disbanded after the tragedy, reuniting only once to perform an instrumental version of “Freebird” at Charlie Daniels’ Volunteer Jam V in January 1979.  Collins, Rossington, Powell, and Pyle were joined by Daniels and members of his band.  Leon Wilkerson, still undergoing physical therapy for his badly broken left arm, was in attendance.

In 1980 Rossington, Collins, Wilkerson and Powell formed the Rossington-Collins Band which released two albums.  Deliberately eschewing the idea that this was Lynyrd Skynyrd redux the band chose a woman, Dale Krantz as lead vocalist.  However, as an acknowledgement of their past, the band’s concert encore would always be an instrumental version of “Free Bird.”  The other former Skynyrd members also continued to make music during this era in various solo bands.

In 1980, Allen Collins’ then wife Kathy died of a massive hemorrhage while miscarrying their third child.  The visibly devastated Collins began drinking excessively and consuming drugs.  On January 29, 1986, Collins then 33 crashed his Ford Thunderbird into a ditch near his home in Jacksonville, killing his girlfriend and leaving himself permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

In 1987, Lynyrd Skynyrd reunited for a full-scale tour with five major members of the pre-crash band; crash survivors Gary Rossington, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson and Artimus Pyle, along with guitarist Ed King, who had left the band two years before the crash.  Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny took over as the new lead singer and primary songwriter.  Due to founding member Allen Collins’ paralysis he was only able to participate as the musical director, choosing Randall Hall, his former bandmate in the Allen Collins Band, as his stand-in.  In return for avoiding prison following his guilty plea to DUI manslaughter Collins would be wheeled out onstage each night to explain to the audience why he could no longer perform (usually before the performance of “That Smell,” which had been partially directed at him).  Collins was stricken with pneumonia in 1989 and died on January 23, 1990.

The reunited band was to be a one-time tribute to the original lineup, captured on the double-live album Southern by the Grace of God: Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Tour 1987.  That the band chose to continue caused legal problems for the survivors, as the Van Zant and Gaines’ widows sued that they had violated an agreement no to exploit the Skynyrd name for profit.  As a settlement the women received 30% of the band’s touring revenues, representing the shares that their husbands would have earned had they lived.

As the 1990’s dawned Lynyrd Skynyrd released its first post-reunion album Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991 followed by two more albums throughout the rest of the decade.

Ed King required a break from the band in 1996 due to heart complications and never returned.  Ed King passed away after a battle with cancer in 2018.  Early member Rickey Medlocke returned to the band.

Despite the growing number of post-reunion albums that band had released up to this time, concert setlists contained mostly 1970’s-era material.

In 2000, Lynyrd Skynyrd released the album Christmas Time Again.  The year after bassist Leon Wilkerson died of emphysema and chronic liver disease.  In 2009 Keyboardist Billy Powell died of a heart attack at 56 years of age.

Lynyrd Skynyrd had used a Confederate flag since the 1970’s on stage, but after growing criticism the band discussed discontinuing the imagery to its ties to racism.  When the flag was missing at several shows protesting fans convinced the band to reinstate the flag citing it as part of their Southern heritage.

In January 2018, Lynyrd Skynyrd announced their Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour and one last album.

Lynyrd Skynyrd reference

Lynyrd Skynyrd discography

Sacramento’s K-ZAP 93.3 FM plays Lynyrd Skynyrd.  All part of 50 years of Rock, Blues and More, 24-7 on our station’s stream at K-ZAP.ORG/LISTEN/

Check out Lynyrd Skynyrd performing “Freebird.”