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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: The Day Lynyrd Skynyrd Died

A moving Sounds piece by Pete Makowski on the "Sweet Home Alabama" band that changed Southern rock forever.--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

The day Lynyrd Skynyrd died I met the woman who eventually became my ex-wife. I had also just made what could be described as a horizontal departure from Sounds and entered the Dole-drums.

Having consumed my regular liquid lunch, a handful of this and a nose full o' dat, walking aimlessly down Ealing's monochrome High Street, head full of disillusion, I suddenly caught sight of the evening paper headlines: "Rock Stars Die In Plane Crash".

Picking up a copy, I didn't expect the shock that would confront me. I mean, Fleet Street's definition of a "rock star" is tenuous and stretches from the Batley's to the Bingley's. But Skynyrd, no way. Rock'n'rollers--a hundred percent, but "stars"?

What happens when you're faced with news of the death of people you know? Initial thoughts lead to the "why couldn't it happen to someone else" syndrome, you sort of lose your faith in the big guy in the sky. So many other people deserved to snuff it, not these guys who were about to scale a new peak in their successful career. They were great guys, they didn't deserve to die. There's a hundred useless people walking down every street that deserve it more than Van Zandt, Steve and Cassie Gaines and Dean Kilpatrick.

Damn you, Lord, why did you have to take our fun away?

Apart from being wonderful people (which sounds like the regular sycophantic journalistic bullshit) they enjoyed the life they were leading, which made it fun to go on the road with them. I did, and survived, many times.

There was a genuine rapport with their audience who were a loyal bunch of people. Although I wasn't in love with everything they put on record, a good percentage could knock spots off anything else I'd heard in that genre.

Skynyrd were a true rock and roll band: we'll never see the likes of them again.

So now while I try and pick up the shreds of my career, remaining members Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, Leon Wilkeson and Billy Powell are also pulling the pieces together again (drummer Artimus Pyle was also involved until very recently) and will be known simply as the Rossington/Collins Band. They say the new band is not intended as a Skynyrd revival, but a step forward. They might include an instrumental version of "Freebird" in their set, but that's as far as the ressurection goes.

This piece is designed to make you aware of the existence of one helluva band (with maybe a few new facts thrown in).

We all have memories, those useless little compartments in our brain that often hinder progress and continually distort perspective. In this case I'm glad I've retained my pictures of On The Road chaos, Van Zandt's paternal concern, fist fights and boozin'. They were headstrong, don't knock 'em, they never hurt me or you (most of the damage they incurred was on each other).

I remember seeing Rossington after one of his many automobile accidents, no front teeth, scarred face held together by wires and a set of walking sticks; he played most of the set leaning against Van Zandt and Collins, showing a loyalty, strength and spirit not evident in many so called 'hard working' bands.

Where were you the day Southern rock and roll died?

*

The story of what was to become Lynyrd Skynyrd begins at High School in the mid-'60s where two guys, Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, find they share the same enthusiasm for sports and music. Initially the field play came to the fore, Pop Warner Baseball being their particular brand of athletic poison. A year later they met Ronnie Van Zandt who joins up with these aspiring pros, in fact he was the most likely candidate to make a career of it although he once recalled that: "Gary was pretty good too, but he gave it up when he got to like the Rolling Stones."

In fact it was after seeing the Stones on an Ed Sullivan show that the three began to stray from school and commenced their unholy matrimony with rock and roll.

They initially picked up their instruments by watching other people until eventually they got enough proverbial chops together to play the party circuit. They derived their musical influences from the heavier zones of Radio City citing Cream, Yardbirds and the Blue Magoos as main influences.

Although their set material consisted of fairly respectable portions of the Stones and Beatles (numbers like "Day Tripper" and "Satisfaction") they were still regarded a little too, uh, "psychedelic" for the Top 40 hungry hicks.

Gradually perseverance shone through and club work filtered in and under the homely moniker of My Backyard they studied during the day and boogied through the night. At this period they were still so young they needed to obtain permits to allow them to play shows outside their hometown.

As time passed the group went through various permutations, retaining the nucleus of Rossington, Collins and Van Zandt. They also went through a caboodle of names including Noble Five, Wildcats, Sons Of Satan, Pretty Ones, Conqueror Worm (derived from the title of a Vincent Price Ham Horror), the Wild Things and eventually settled for One Per Cent (which for the unenlightened is what the Hell's Angels refer to themselves as).

Soon after the change of name the group won a Battle Of The Bands competition which gave them the opportunity to record a session in the studio with Joe South (of "Hush" fame) at the production helm. It is reported they cut some tracks including, if legend can be believed, a version of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" which is reported to have preceded Cream's.

The next big break occurred when they were chosen to warm up for Strawberry Alarm Clock on a three-week tour. The Alarm Clock were enjoying the success of a million selling hit single "Incense And Peppermints" and the group featured Ed King who was later to join the ranks of Skynyrd.

The name which the band finally settled on is a bastardization on the moniker of the boys high school gym coach, Leonard Skinner, who suspended Rossington, Collins and Van Zandt until they cut their long locks...the boys never returned, but as time passed it seems that both parties benefitted from such an unlikely incident as Rossington revealed in an interview with Creem.

"Well, Leonard no longer teaches at school. He divorced his wife and got long hair and side burns and goes out with chicks. You know we made him really popular. He's in real estate now and is doing real good. People call him up and say they know us and buy homes from him."

The first LS incarnation featured Ronnie (vocals), Gary and Alan (guitars) Larry Junstrom (bass) and Bob Burns (drums). The band spent the next few months rehearsing solidly with an album in mind. The opportunity came up when Jimmy Johnson and Barry Beckett, session men at the famous Muscle Shoals studio, heard some demos and liked the sound enough to offer some cheap studio time.

At this point Burns quit and the group quickly pulled in the services of Ricky Medlocke who was essentially a vocalist/guitarist and mandolin player, but managed to settle in on drums. Out of six sessions they produced what was subsequently released as The First And Last album with a couple of other tracks including the original versions of "I Ain't The One" and the immortal "Freebird" which finally appeared on the official debut.

Further line up changes occurred when Junstrom left the group to move with his parents to Miami. He was replaced by Greg Walker. Junstrom returned to playing when he joined .38 Special, a band led by Van Zandt's brother, Donnie. A year later Medlocke and Walker left, Leon Wilkeson (who had also been playing with Donnie) appeared to fill bass space and Bob Burns rejoined. Floridian keyboardsman Billy Powell was the final addition.

*

Until the Allmans, no record company ever looked to the South...The Brothers drew attention to the South and lucky for us it bought Al Kooper down looking for bands to his Sounds of the South label which was a part of MCA. We were really the only group that sold, so MCA dropped the label and kept us." --Van Zandt.

"Actually that was quite an amazing time in Georgia. Up any street you could find Skynyrd, Wet Willie, Mose Jones and Eric Quincy Tate all playing without labels or shoes. All those that were worth a damn and some that weren't--were eventually snapped up." --Al Kooper.

Al Kooper, the man renowned for his ties with Bob Dylan during El Zim's electrical transformation that had so many corn cob pipe purists choking into their scrumpy at the Albert Hall, first saw Skynyrd when he was out on the road supporting Badfinger. He recalled the event later:

"I happened to stop in a bar called Finnochios. Well, there was Lynyrd Skynyrd playing what was later to become their first album. Hell, they didn't even have shoes, and such lousy amps. Yet they knocked me out."

Kooper resumed his flirtation with the South when he returned on a tour to promote his solo album, Naked Songs. After playing a series of dates he came across Buddy Buie's Studio One (which apart from having a fascinating past that stretches across the history of early Southern rock and roll is also largely known for its connection with the highly successful Atlanta Rhythm Section).

Kooper decided to record an album with his backing band, Meatball (which due to contractual reasons had to be released under a pseudonym) and during his stay became aware of all the talent brewing in the area, especially Skynyrd.

"I was amazed. I mean can you imagine walking into a real funky bar, some place where you can get shot, you know, in Atlanta, Georgia, and hearing the Rolling Stones? And then finding out they weren't signed to anybody?" --Al Kooper, Melody Maker.

It was then that Kooper decided to persuade MCA to finance him in a little independent venture that was to become Sounds Of The South of which after a short period Skynyrd were to become the sole survivors, leaving behind such outfits as Mose Jones, Elijah and a re-united Blues Project. There was no doubt that Kooper was disillusioned:

"I learned I had no business being a record company. I would have reaped more detriments if I'd stayed in, so it's not frustrating to me. I don't mind commenting about my dissolution with MCA. The company and I just didn't get along." Still, out of this chaos came one of the finest debut albums of the decade, produced by Kooper, simply titled (Pronounced 'L_h-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd) which was greeted with ecstatic reviews.

"The shock of hearing this music is comparable to that of first listening to Chuck Berry ten years ago" --Martin Hayman (Sounds)

Al Kooper was undoubtedly the catalyst for Skynyrd's success but it was patently obvious the talent was already blazing, it just needed to be swung in the right direction.

And a crack was slowly beginning to emerge in the relationship between Skynyrd and Kooper which was not going to become totally apparent until the recording of the third album.

The next big break for the band came when Skynyrd supported The Who on their November '73 Quadrophenia tour. This billing was at the request of the Who, prompted by manager Peter Rudge on the strength of hearing the first album.

The next album, Second Helping, brought forth the talents of Ed King who had previously only filled in on bass for the first album during a short interim when Wilkeson left and rejoined the band. He was always the outsider, the California kid, whose more fluent, catholic style of playing pulled back the reins on the music and added a sparkle to the group's already hard-edged sound. He once told me:

"Allen and Gary are influenced by Eric Clapton. Their bag is mainly English music derived from America. James Burton was the guy that made me get up and learn guitar."

It was during the recording of Second Helping that a rift became apparent between Kooper and the boys. It started when he decided to take the group away from their insular Georgia recording studio surroundings and put them in L.A. so he could be closer to the business.

It proved to be an unnerving experience for the group and many of them admitted to not listening to the record, as it gave them uncomfortable memories.

Even so it boosted their chart popularity and from it came "Sweet Home Alabama," which created a minor furore as their reply to Neil Young's condemnation of the "Southern Man" and their attitudes towards staunch redneck Governor George Wallace.

But as Ronnie said later: "We're not into politics, we don't have no education and Wallace don't know anything about rock and roll".

As the band continued to tour at an exhausting pace, more seams started to split. While they were continually breaking new territory--Britain welcomed them with open arms--the pressure started to build up and it was evident by the indifference that came over in their third album Nuthin' Fancy that it was to be the termination of their marriage to Kooper.

Then came the departure of Ed King, 60 days into one of their grueling treks. It was reported that: 'Ed wanted to cancel the rest of the tour but Ronnie Van Zandt says the group wouldn't get caught running back home with their tails between their legs. They rehearsed for four hours with only two guitarists and played that night.'

Ed King's departure was also prompted by his father's death which left him with a handsome inheritance and he is reportedly now running a health food venture.

Next to leave was Bob Burns who had suffered a serious physical and mental breakdown and seemed to be permanently under the doctor's care during the last days of his touring life.

After numerous auditions the group decided to remain a two axe concern, and found a new drummer through their friends the Marshall Tucker Band, in the form of that gangly Rip Van Winkle merchant Artimus Pyle.

They went out and found themselves a new producer, the legendary Atlantic "staff man" Tom Dowd who was only allowed to produce two artists outside his label roster each year.

This union produced Gimme Back My Bullets and put the band back on top.

"Wow man, it's so good not to have Kooper breathing down your neck all the time, Tom gives you room to breathe. It's so much easier to come up with ideas, and he'll listen to them too. Kooper wouldn't even piss on nine out of ten suggestions you'd give him." --Allen Collins.

After Ed King's departure in '75, Skynyrd battled on regardless and the loss of one guitar did not seem to have much of a dent on their spiraling success. But after many tryouts which included the possibility of Wayne Perkins joining the line up they finally found their man in Steve Gaines, brother of Cassie, one of the three girls who did the Skyn's back up vocals (known as "Puss In Boots").

Gaines, from Missouri, initially worked his way through the circuits around Illinois and Michigan, playing in bands like Smokehouse and Detroit which featured the legendary car mechanic Mitch Ryder. Gaines kicked off with Skynyrd on their '76 tour and was first heard on vinyl when the band released their inevitable live double One More For The Road album, which by then had the group in platinum status. His full potential wasn't revealed until the last and undoubtedly most fulfilling effort, Street Survivors.

At this Point Skynyrd were on the way to becoming one of the top grossing live acts and undoubtedly entering superstar status, something they'd long worked hard for.

*

Street Survivors was recorded during the summer at three studios--Criteria Sound in Miami, Studio One in Doraville, Georgia, and Muscle Shoals in Alabama. It is released simultaneously in both Britain and America, where Lynyrd Skynyrd have embarked on one of their famed four month "torture" tours.' --MCA PRESS RELEASE.

"POP STARS KILLED IN PLANE CRASH" --Bolton Evening News 21/10/77.

When the group's chartered twin-engined Corvair crashed into the swamps near McCombe, Mississippi not only did it rob us of some fine people and players--Van Zandt, Steve and Cassie Gaines and road manager Dean Kilpatrick--but it also extinguished the furious flame that was once Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Even though the remaining members were still unsure whether to continue it was one hundred per cent it wouldn't be under the same banner.

"When the crash happened, that was the end of Skynyrd. The band is finished and that name is finished. Some people are telling us we should keep the name because it obviously has value since people recognize it. To hell with them." --Allen Collins, quoted in the L.A. Times

"It took a lot of time for me to recoup mentally and physically", Leon Wilkeson told me from his home in Florida. "There was a time when I had to question myself if I'd be able to perform as a musician again...I guess someone up there smiled at me."

The Rossington/Collins band are Gary Rossington and Allen Collins (guitars), Leon Wilkeson (bass), Billy Powell and newcomers Derek Hess (drums), Dale Krantz (vocals) and Barry Harwood (vocals/guitar). They are in Leon's words a "prime time rock and roll band." They have already kicked into action and if Leon's enthusiasm is anything to go by they can't wait to come over.

"Can you imagine someone asking 'What was it like crashing in an airplane?' How insensitive can you get? How do you think that makes us feel? Talking about it just makes us feel bad all over again." --Garry Rossington, L.A. Times

When I think about Skynyrd now, I hardly ever think about the plane crash. I think about being stuck in a car with Leon and two speed-crazed Hells Angels clutching guns threatening to rape, shoot, steal and meaning it. I wonder if Styx could have got me out of that situation, huh?

When I forget about how good they were live I simply grab my twelve inch copy of "Freebird" slap it on the deck and remember one of the guitars' finer moments.

"Sweet Home Alabama, Play that dead band's songs Turn those speakers up full blast Play it all night long" --"Play It All Night Long" --Warren Zeron

Take a scan at the album charts and you'll find that Skynyrd's Gold And Platinum album is making its way up the charts. Lynyrd Skynyrd will never die if you have a good memory and can tap your feet.

Read more classic Skynyrd articles at www.rocksbackpages.com. Over 17,000 articles by the greatest writers from the finest rock publications of the last 40 years.

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