When an unknown rock band from the Deep South took the stage at San Francisco’s Cow Palace on a cold November night in 1973, they were shaking their trembling was not from the bay fog rolling over the arena They were scared the seven-piece rock group was the sole opening act for the British behemoth The Who, on the first of their North American tour supporting Quadrophenia.
The longhaired Southern musicians had never faced an audience much larger then the rowdy crowds in the local juke joints. Now they were being pelted from all directions with quarters by 18,000 Who fans, screaming impatiently for their heroes. “We were so nervous we must have played all our five songs in about ten minutes, “lead singer Ronnie Van Zant later recalled. In spite of these long odds, by the end of their set even The Who’s fans were grudging converts to Skynyrd’s distinctly Southern brand of rock ‘n’ roll. When the band played their finale, a climactic nine-minute guitar opus called “Free Bird,” The Who’s guitarist Pete Townshend was heard to remark, “They’re really quite good, aren’t they?”
It’s been 30 years since that legendary night, and the Lynyrd Skynyrd band is still rocking against all odds. Their story is turbulent tale of adversity, triumph, heartbreak and redemption, which embodies the rock ‘n’ roll mythos. This is a band, which has picked itself up again and again from tragedies, which have finished lesser groups, and returned to the center stage spotlight to deliver knockout performances for new generations of fans, old and young. They are genuinely a legend in their own time.
The 1977 plane crash, which killed Skynyrd’s musical visionary Ronnie Van Zant, will always be at the core of the band’s history. It divides their story into two parts: before and after. At the time of the accident, Skynyrd was on the verge of breaking out of the Southern rock genre to reach a whole new level of mainstream success.
The band combined the autobiographical songwriting style of The Beatles with the rowdy stage presence of the Rolling Stones to become the most exciting and authentically American rock band of the ‘70s. The Skynyrd tragedy was as if The Beatles’ plane had crashed on the way to the Ed Sullivan show-it cut them down, as they were about to achieve unprecedented popularity.
Yet instead of Skynyrd’s music fading, it grew exponentially over the years. During the next decade, the band’s storied history was re-discovered through legacy of recorded music by a generation of fans who never saw then in concert, but learned their history and quietly bought their records in larger and larger numbers. And what a fascinating story it was.
It was the height of the mid-‘60s British Invasion. The English-accented rock of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and the Yardbirds crackled in the air. A group of working class teens from the Westside of Jacksonville Florida heard the sounds and instinctively grabbed their guitars. Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins and Gary Rossington called their first band the Noble Five. Welding the new rock sounds onto the authentic blues and country music that were already an ingrained part of their Southern musical heritage, this the new band began to create a new sound, which would eventually become greater then the sum of its musical parts. But it would take more then seven years and a little help from a few musical mentors along the road before Skynyrd would finally realize their dream of recording an album that would be released by a major record label.
In 1973, after “seven years of hard luck,” including recording more than a full album’s worth of songs in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Skynyrd finally got the break they were looking for: ace New York singer-songwriter-musician-producer Al Kooper signed them to his MCA-affiliated Sounds Of The South label and released their first album, Pronounced Leh-Nerd-Skin-Nyrd. The LP featured their signature song “Free Bird,” which received heavy “underground” FM airplay, but was considered too long for inclusion on mainstream pop radio. A year later the band addressed that question, when they cracked the AM Top 40 charts with their first hit single, “Sweet Home Alabama.” But in the vast, diverse universe of American popular music of the ‘70s, Skynyrd was still only on the cusp of success and best seen and heard live in concert.
As a touring band, Skynyrd was of one of the most popular and exciting American rock acts of the era. Their blistering three-guitar format went one better than their musical mentors the Allman Brothers, and in 1976, Skynyrd recorded their white-hot live album One More From The Road, which finally captured the group in their basic essence. The platinum double-live LP rivaled the Allman’s landmark Live At Fillmore East in popularity and critical acclaim. By 1977, with promising new third guitarist Steve Gains adding a fresh dimension and exciting new musical energy to Skynyrd’s sound, their next studio album, Street Survivors, was an eagerly anticipated effort which was expected to put the band into the musical stratosphere. The ensuing plane crash which occurred just three days after the album’s release in October 1977, killed Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gains and back-up singer Cassie Gains, and terribly injured the remaining band members and their entourage. The first part of the Skynyrd story had come to an abrupt conclusion… but their was much more to come.
In the wake of the plane crash, it would be a long road to recovery for the surviving Skynyrd band members. It took years for them convalesce from their physical and emotional wounds, and years as well for their fans to recover from the shock. Amazingly, by 1980 Collins, Rossington, bassist Leon Wilkeson, and pianist Billy Powell returned with a new band, The Rossington Collins Band, and a new album, which even boasted a hit single, “ Don’t Misunderstand Me.” But their return was again truncated by the unexpected death of Collins’ wife Kathy from pregnancy complications. The tragedy sent Collins spiraling downward, and took the new band member with it. It would be another five years before they would play together again.
It was on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the plane crash in 1987 that it did all come back together, as the various surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd finally decided to re-form for a one-shot tribute tour. With Van Zant’s brother Johnny sounding eerily like his older brother Ronnie on vocals, Ed King back as original third guitarist and Artimus Pyle still a powerhouse on the drums, the only thing missing was the lightning-fingered Collins, who was paralyzed in a 1986 car crash and able contribute only as musical arrangement consultant. In 1990, Collins would finally succumb to his accumulated physical and emotional injuries at the age 37.
What was announced as a single show on the anniversary of the crash quickly snowballed into a sold-out nationwide 35-city tour, which was met with the outpouring of ten years of pent-up emotions by fans who thought they might never see these boys together again on the same stage. The Tribute Tour was so overwhelming successful that Skynyrd felt they had no choice but to re-form for good and resume their career.
In 1991 marked Skynyrd’s first new studio album in fourteen years. It was the beginning of an explosive renaissance of the group’s legacy and popularity throughout the ‘90s. The group soon followed that success with “The Last Rebel in 1993 and a year later with Endangered Species, their first all-acoustic album.
1997 was the breakthrough year of Skynyrd’s ‘90s resurgence. Free Bird: The Movie, a concert film featuring vintage performances of the original band, was a surprise hit on VH-1, receiving repeated showings by the popular demand of fans that had never seen the original group perform. The film sparked renewed interest in Skynyrd’s history, which was vividly recounted in a wildly popular episode of VH-1’s biography series Behind The Music, which premiered on the 20th anniversary of the plane crash.
This watershed year saw the return of a couple of old friends to the Skynyrd fold. Guitarist Rickey Medlocke, a Jacksonville native who once played drums with the group during its formative years, and guitarist Hughie Thomasson, a founding member of the Outlaws, who toured extensively as an opening act for the original group, now joined Rossington to form the finest Skynyrd guitar trio since the ‘70s.
Propelled by this new energy, Skynyrd saw an unprecedented surge in concert attendance and record sales. The band continued to add to their recorded legacy with albums in 1997, ’98 and ’99, and marked the Millennium with a surprisingly popular holiday offering, “Christmas Time Again. Unfortunately, 2001 saw the passing of yet another original member, bassist Leon Wilkeson, whom the band memorializes in the song “ Mad Hatter” on their new 2003 album Vicious Cycle.
2003 also marks the fifth consecutive year that Skynyrd was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This band has always battled against difficult odds and eventually prevailed, so there’s no reason to think their election to the Hall of Fame will come sooner rather then later. In the meantime, Skynyrd will be found on the road that has become a second home, touring the four directions, playing their music for any audience who wants to hear them and forget troubles for a day-for Lynyrd Skynyrd was long ago inducted into the Rock Fans’ Hall of Fame.
Legendary rock band, Lynyrd Skynyrd has seen over 35 years of hits, triumphs and tragedies, and is still attracting fans of all ages. The group's 1999 release, Edge of Forever, marks more than twenty albums for the band.
Lynyrd Skynyrd formed in 1965 with sixteen-year-old Ronnie Van Zant, Bob Burns, Gary Rossington, Larry Junstrom and Allen Collins. Originally known as the Noble Five, the group got its name from a gym teacher, Leonard Skinnerd, who did not approve of the band's music.
In 1967, Lynyrd Skynyrd entered the battle of the bands and became the opening act for Strawberry Alarm Clock. By fall of 1970, the group had played nearly a thousand shows and hired Alan Walden as manager. The band recorded their first demos which included the song, "Free Bird." Walden shopped the demo tapes but didn't get any contract offers.
When producer Al Kooper decided to jump on the southern rock bandwagon, he formed the label Sounds of the South with four bands, including Lynyrd Skynyrd. After recording its first album, Smokes (re-released by MCA as Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd), the band was so inspired, it went on to write the now-indelible song, "Sweet Home Alabama." The band also wrote a song especially for the executives at MCA called, "Workin' For MCA," which impressed them so much, they immediately gave the group a contract. In 1973, Lynyrd Skynyrd opened for the Who during their fall tour. In 1974, "Sweet Home Alabama" was released and immediately hit gold, taking the album Second Helping along with it.
Constant touring began to take its toll on the band members. Founding member Bob Burns left in 1974 due to exhaustion, and in 1975 Ed King followed. During this turbulent time, the third Lynyrd Skynyrd album came out titled, Nuthin' Fancy. In 1976, the band added a background group made up of Jo Jo Billingley, Leslie Hawkins, and Cassie Gaines. Cassie's brother, Steve Gaines, also joined the group. Shortly after, One More From the Road was recorded as the band's first live album. The project entered the top 10 and hit platinum. Its next venture, Street Survivors, was released in October 1977, and was its first album to strike gold immediately. Lynyrd Skynyrd was at the top of the charts and scheduled the Tour of the Survivors to celebrate the album's success. The Tour included headlining at Madison Square Garden, a life-long dream of band leader, Ronnie Van Zant.
On October 20, 1977, tragedy struck. Lynyrd Skynyrd's private plane crashed in the woods of Mississippi, killing Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, and road manager, Dean Kilpatrick. With a twist of irony, the crash actually brought the band more national attention then it had ever received before.
After recovering from the tragedy, surviving members decided to lay the legendary band to rest. But, after only two years, the band reunited for a special appearance at the Charlie Daniel's Volunteer Jam V. Shortly thereafter, several members of the band formed spin off groups and recorded various projects. A reunion concert was planned for the 10th anniversary of the plane crash. Rossington, Powell, Wilkeson, and Artimus Pyle joined original guitarist, Ed King, and new guitar player, Randall Hall. Johnny Van Zant, brother of band leader Ronnie, took on the job of lead vocals.
The Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band debuted in September 1987 at the Charlie Daniels' Volunteer Jam XIII. The popularity of what had been planned as a single show led to an all-out tour followed by the live album, Southern By the Grace of God. The 1991 album, Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991, announced the band's full-fledged return. Several projects including The Last Rebel, Endangered Species, Freebird: The Movie, Southern Knights, Sweet Home Alabama, What's Your Name, and Twenty were released after the reformation of the band in 1991.
Throughout the 1990s, Lynyrd Skynyrd proved they were a band in demand. They appeared in numerous concerts and festivals. In 1999 they toured with ZZ Top in support of their Edge Of Forever album. Edge Of Forever would be followed by the 2000 release of Then And Now, a collection of live and studio recordings covering the history of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
While on tour in 2001, bassist Leon Wilkeson, who had been with group for 30 years, died of natural causes on July 27 at the age of 49. Another original member, guitarist Allen Collins, passed away in 1990 due to complications from a 1986 auto accident. In 2002, Turn It Up, a best of collection from the group's studio recordings since it reunited in the 1980s, was released. In 2003, Lynyrd Skynyrd marked its 30th anniversary, releasedáVicious Cycle (which debuted in the top 30 on the album chart) and toured.
Several world tours have come along with the return of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the promise to keep the soul of the legendary band alive.