Southern Rock Is Pronounced Lynyrd Skynyrd
“Well every time that I come home nobody wants to let me be
It seems that all the friends I got just got to come interrogate me
Well, I appreciate your feelings and I don’t want to pass you by
But I don’t ask you about your business, don’t ask me about mine”
~Gary Rossington/Ronnie VanZant
Don’t Ask Me No Questions
The iconic band that is Lynyrd Skynyrd is at once an ever changing amalgam of talent as well as a indestructible thread holding together the roots of American rock. From their auspicious beginnings, practicing in a carport in the summer of ’64 in Alabama, to their recent Rowdy Frynds tour with Hank Williams Jr., Lynyrd Skynyrd has remained true to their origins, playing the type of music that has made their name synonymous with “southern rock”. The history of Lynyrd Skynyrd is one of tragedy, turmoil and triumph. Yet, throughout it all, their music plays a testament to the undying appeal of their sound and words.
The original line up of what was to become Lynyrd Skynyd was formed in 1964 with Bob Burns, Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins and Larry Junstrom. They practiced in the carport at Bob’s house, which gave inspiration for their original band name, “My Backyard”. “The Noble Five” quickly supplanted that name as the boys melded their Southern blues sound with the prevalent country influences that resonated throughout the south at that time. With the introduction into the mix of British invaders such as Free, The Beatles, Beck and Clapton, their sound was all but complete. There was an ever-changing roster of names that the group called themselves while they honed their sound; The Wildcats, The Sons of Satan, Conqueror Worm, The Pretty Ones and The One Percent. Then, one night at the Forrest Inn, Ronnie called out to the crowd, ‘Hey, we’re Leonard Skinner and we’re gonna play for y’all tonight’. Leonard Skinner, it should be noted, was the name of the gym teacher whom Gary and Ronnie had problems with on a regular basis. Most of the people in the crowd had had problems as well, so the new name was met with a thunderous applause. Later, the band would change the vowels in the name to y’s to “protect the guilty”.
By 1970, having honed their musicianship in countless bars and taverns, Lynyrd Skynyrd cut some demos of the originals that they had accumulated, using Quin Ivy’s studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, returning in ’71 to make a full album at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. Skynyrd was finally signed in 1972 by Al Kooper, who also produced their first three albums: pronounced leh-nerd skin-nerd (1973), Second Helping (1974) and Nuthin’ Fancy (1975). They immediately caught the eye of Pete Townshend who signed them up as an opening act for The Who’s Quadrophenia Tour.
Skynyrd was promptly propelled into a world of fame that they may have yearned for, but were perhaps not wholly prepared to deal with. Various changes in the band’s line-up, exhaustive touring and an accelerated drug and alcohol intake served to create fissures in the once impervious Southern rock band. Tom Dowd stepped in as producer on the Gimme Back My Bullets album, bringing with him a discipline and focus the band desperately needed.
Steve Gaines filled the void that Ed King left during the Torture Tour, bringing the band back to it’s original three lead guitars. They once again became a tight performance group, as captured in the 1976 live album One More From The Road. The revived Skynyrd next created Street Survivors, arguably the band’s best since Second Helping. The album cover showed the group engulfed in flames and one of the songs held the lyric “The smell of death surrounds you” which ominously alluded to an impending tragedy that loomed on the horizon.
On October 20, 1977, just three days after the release of Street Survivors, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s tour plane, nicknamed “Freebird”, ran out of gas due to a mechanical failure, crashing into a marshy bog on Johnny Mote’s farm in Magnolia, Mississippi, killing band members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, back-up vocalist and Steve’s sister Cassie Gaines. Skynyrd’s road manager, Dean Kilpatrick and the two pilots also died from the crash, as all of the deceased were in the front section that broke apart on impact. The other twenty or so passengers were injured to some degree or another. Powell’s nose had been utterly mangled, Gary Rossington suffered numerous broken bones and contusions, and Allen Collins had a hefty piece of metal embedded in his arm. Artimus Pyle, the drummer, managed to walk to get assistance, but suffered a shotgun blast by a person mistaking him for an intruder.
With only two of the original members surviving the crash, the days of Lynyrd Skynyrd seemed to have come to a fiery end. The label quickly pulled all the copies of “Street Survivors” depicting the band surrounded by flames. The following year, MCA records released the Muscle Shoals sessions and titled it Skynyrd’s First…and Last. Some of the members played with bands like Molly Hatchet, Alias and .38 Special. Gary Rossington and Allen Collins went on to form The Rossington Collins band in the early eighties after Rossington had undergone extensive surgeries to regain the use of his arm.
Tragedy still stalked the musicians when Artimus Pyle suffered a leg injury in a motorcycle accident, Allen Collins’ pregnant wife suddenly died and a 1984 car crash paralyzed both of Collins’ legs and killed his girlfriend. Collins died in 1990 after succumbing to pneumonia.
A 1987 concert commemorating the 1977 plane crash found Ronnie’s brother, Johnny Van Zant stepping into the spotlight as lead singer, showing the world that the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd was far from forgotten. Through many permutations over the years, Skynyrd has recorded several new albums, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, performed innumerable concerts and held onto the sound that has made the freebird a phoenix of American rock and roll culture.