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Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Inspiration is a Free Bird at Last

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Leonard Skinner, the high school gym teacher who inspired the band name Lynyrd Skynyrd, has died at age 77 in a Riverside, Florida nursing home.

Skinner, born Forby Leonard Skinner, never intended to become a piece of rock-and-roll history. He was simply enforcing a dress code at Robert E. Lee High School in the late 1960s when he fatefully sent a few teenagers to the principal's office for violating new rules about hair length. "The hair had to be two fingers above the eyebrows, couldn't touch the collar," Skinner explained in an interview several years ago. "One of the ones I sent down was in this band ... called the One Percent," he recalled, referring to the band that would later become Lynyrd Skynyrd.

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The student, threatened with suspension, brought his father in to school to argue that the band was helping contribute to his household income -- and that long hair was a requirement for that quintessential rock-and-roll look. The principal, unmoved, had a solution: a haircut and a wig. The young musician (the band hasn't identified which one of them it was, but Skinner counted guitarist Gary Rossington and singer Ronnie Van Zant among his pupils) wound up tucking his hair up in a hairnet. The band renamed itself after Skinner in 1970 and swapped out the vowels for the letter Y before the release of their 1973 debut "Lynyrd Skynyrd." Despite its creative spelling, the band's name is phonetically pronounced "Leonard Skinnerd" (though most often mispronounced "Lih-nerd Skinerd").

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Skinner was unaware of his connection to the southern rock heroes until he heard a radio DJ say, " 'Here's a song by Lynyrd Skynyrd.' That's the first time I had an idea something might be happening," he later recalled in an interview with Van Zant's former bodyguard, Gene Odom.

Though he claimed to dislike rock music, Skinner gave the band permission to use a snapshot of his Leonard Skinner Realty sign on the inside album artwork for their 1975 LP "Nuthin' Fancy." Because his real work phone number was included on the placard, he wound up fielding many calls from curious fans over the years.

[Photos: Recent images of Lynyrd Skynyrd]

Though the relationship between the band and its former gym teacher was often painted as strained, Skinner always stressed he was just enforcing the school's rules and never had any bad blood with Lynyrd Skynyrd. The group even paid their former coach $100 to introduce them at a Jacksonville show, and Skinner became close with Odom. After a 1977 plane crash killed three of the band's members -- including Van Zant-- Odom became a regular at a lounge owned by Skinner.

"To make a long story short, we kind of adopted one another over the years," Skinner said.

Lynyrd Skynyrd, known for their hits "Freebird" and "Sweet Home Alabama," went on to release 12 studio albums, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March of 2006. When asked about the young rebels he inadvertently inspired, Skinner gave a suitably rock-and-roll response: "They worked hard, lived hard and boozed hard."

[Photo: The late Leonard Skinner, via NowPublic.com]

[Photo: AP: Skynyrd guitarist Steven Gaines and singer Ronnie Van Zant at a 1977 concert in Asbury Park, New Jersey]

 

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