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"If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?" the singer asks in "Free Bird," Lynyrd Skynyrd's most famous song. It's been more than thirty years since the band as we first knew them left us, but Lynyrd Skynyrd continues to be remembered and revered. "Their three guitar lineup gave them an uncommon musical muscle," the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame noted following the band's belated 2005 induction, "while their down-to-earth songs spoke plainly and honestly from a working class Southerner's perspective."


Every great band needs a leader, a charismatic frontman who calls the shots, and in Lynyrd Skynyrd that was Ronnie Van Zant. The youngest of six children, he was born January 15, 1948 on the outskirts of Jacksonville, Florida. His father was a truck driver and his mother worked in a donut shop. He did well in school, even making the honor roll a few times, but quit toward the end of his senior year. It's a decision he came to regret. "I made a bad mistake," he said later. "You gotta have education." If he never had a high school diploma to hang on his wall, he made a name for himself in other ways. He had a passion for fishing and fighting. He was, as childhood buddy Gene Odom recalled, "always looking for a fight, and some people thought he was just plain mean." He was short (5'7") and scrappy, but had an attitude of a muscle-bound six footer.


Van Zant ran with a rough crowd, and some of the friends from his youth would do prison time. Like most of those who grew up on the working class dominated west side of Jacksonville, he was thought of as a "hood," someone destined for trouble, especially by many of his wealthier classmates at Robert E. Lee High School. He may not have related to the more affluent kids with whom he shared classrooms, but their lives made him examine his own more closely. "Man, I gotta be better than this," he told a friend. "I can't go to prison."


It may have been a fighter who inspired Van Zant to start writing lyrics. With his father, he followed the career of Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight boxer fond of spouting rhyme, often to taunt his opponents. Amused by Ali's seemingly impromptu verse, Van Zant began to write his own in a notebook he kept hidden under his bed. Van Zant wouldn't be the first world-renowned songwriter to emerge from Robert E. Lee High School. Mae Axton, who co-wrote "Heartbreak Hotel," the song that gave Elvis Presley his first number one hit, taught English at the school, and her son, Hoyt, a 1960 graduate, wrote such hits as "Joy to the World" and "Never Been to Spain" for Three Dog Night.


Any notions he had about making music a career didn't take hold until May 8, 1965 when he saw the Rolling Stones perform at the Jacksonville Coliseum. Still, while he enjoyed singing, and frequently roamed the school's hallways crooning "Little Red Rooster " or "Sloop John B," Van Zant had a disadvantage in that he neither read nor wrote music, and played no instrument. What he did have was attitude, and with that he walked into a practice session of a local band called the Squires and announced, "I'm your new lead singer."


The band that would come to be known as Lynyrd Skynyrd would revolve around lead singer and lyricist Van Zant, and guitarists Allen Collins and Gary Rossington. Other members would come and go, but these three would provide the nucleus of the original group.


The roots of the band's unusual name can actually be traced back to comedian Allan Sherman's 1964 novelty hit, "A Letter From Camp" ("Hello mudder, hello fodder/here I am at Camp Granada"). In one of the song's verses, a boy gets ptomaine poisoning. Sherman named the boy Leonard Skinner, no doubt because "Skinner" rhymed with "dinner." Allen Collins often sang the song in jest, particularly amused that Leonard Skinner was also the name of Lee High School's Physical Education teacher who roamed the halls enforcing the dress code, and sent kids to the office for having long hair. The teacher became the basis of a running gag in the band. If there was a knock on the door while they rehearsed their music, or maybe when they were smoking pot, they'd joke that it was Skinner coming to bust them.


As their musical abilities grew and deepened, the band recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, but a contract with a major label eluded them. They were, however, landing gigs at some of the South's hottest nightclubs, including Funochio's in Atlanta. It was there that they were seen by Al Kooper who had written "This Diamond Ring," a number one hit for Gary Lewis and the Playboys in 1965, the same year he had conned his way into a recording session to play organ on Bob Dylan's fabled "Like a Rolling Stone." Kooper had also been part of the Blues Project and founded Blood, Sweat and Tears. Now he was offering to produce Lynyrd Skynyrd's first album.


The band was fully prepared to seize their moment. Under Van Zant's strict leadership, the band whose sound would be influenced by the presence of three guitarists was in the habit of practicing as early as 6 a.m., determined to play every note exactly right. The first album, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, was released on MCA on August 16, 1973. A month later, the band that Kooper had dubbed "America's Rolling Stones" were opening for the likes of B.B. King, Dr. John, and Muddy Waters on a tour that centered on the South but also included a stop in New York City. A critic for Cashbox alerted his readers to "Watch for this band. Tight, mean and rough, they're one of the few rock acts in the business that really get it on."


By the time the tour concluded, producer Kooper had met with Pete Townshend of the Who, the legendary British quartet about to embark on a U.S. tour to promote Quadrophenia. Lynyrd Skynyrd would reach its biggest and most challenging audience to date as the Who's opening act in cities such as Los Angeles, Cleveland, Chicago, and Boston. The first stop was a sold out performance at San Francisco's Cow Palace on November 20, 1973 where the band that had previously played to no more than a thousand people in one night, faced 18,000 diehard Who fans. They were understandably nervous, and the band consumed plenty of liquor beforehand, but Van Zant was confident. That night, Lynyrd Skynyrd became the first opening act for the Who to be invited back to the stage for an encore. When it was time for the Who to take the stage, they asked Skynyrd's drummer, Bob Burns, to fill in for an inebriated Keith Moon, but Burns was too drunk himself and a drummer from the audience volunteered in his place.


Their next album, Second Helping, was recorded at the Record Plant in Los Angeles in early 1974. In between sessions, they opened for Dave Mason at the Whisky a Go Go and played a stadium show in San Diego with Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles. By the time their sophomore album hit the shelves in April, Lynyrd Skynyrd was a headliner, selling out the Memphis Stadium the month before. "Sweet Home Alabama" would become a top 10 single that summer, becoming one of the songs that any young person listening to the radio that summer could not avoid.


The album had some competition from their debut offering which was selling steadily as the band gained momentum, and would earn "gold" status on the strength of its constant airplay on FM radio. The closing track, "Free Bird," which the band had first performed on May 9, 1970 at the opening of the Jacksonville Art Museum, was beginning its ascent, soon to challenge Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" as rock radio's most requested and, perhaps, overplayed song.


Success meant more travel, more parties, more groupies, more drugs and booze, but Van Zant remained, like the title of one of the band's most famous songs, a "Simple Man" who told a friend, "I can't let a dollar burn a hole in a seventeen-dollar pair of jeans."


They were also courting controversy, or rather their record label did by suggesting the band fly a Confederate flag on stage as a marketing gimmick. Soon, they were also opening their concerts with an instrumental of "Dixie." This led some observers to believe that this was a band of unrepentant racist rednecks, an image that was furthered by "Sweet Home Alabama," whose lyrics were tongue-in-cheek, but which some listeners misheard as a challenge to Neil Young's "Southern Man," a song that attacked racism and some of the attitudes that lingered following the Civil War. But like Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," which in 1985 was thought to be a flag-waving anthem to those, like then President Reagan, who missed the song's irony, "Sweet Home Alabama" was misinterpreted. Neil Young was himself an admirer of both the band and the song in which he was mentioned.  


Following a charity show in Jacksonville in August 1974, a journalist who had known the band since high school noticed how success had given them more poise and confidence. "Gone is the precarious cockiness of vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, He now speaks with his audience rather than to them. No longer does Gary Rossington stand insecurely on stage with his eyes fixed to the floor, his face hidden by a cascade of dark hair. Nor does Allen Collins go flashing about the stage, staring at Van Zant as if waiting for a cue to continue. Each man has developed into a self-assured musician, confident of the group's music and aware of his position within the band."


Their third album, Nothin' Fancy, was released in 1975 to lower than expected sales, but it included the anti-handgun classic, "Saturday Night Special," a song, like the earlier "Sweet Home Alabama," that could be misinterpreted by those who fail to listen closely to the lyrics. In a review of a February 1975 concert at the Academy of Music in New York City, The New York Times called Lynyrd Skynyrd "a common denominator of Southern rock groups, a little Allman Brothers sound, some Chicago black blues riffs and relentlessly rolling rhythms built around simple phrases. It was simplistic music, a perfect reaction to the heavy metal rocking currently in vogue."


A fourth album, Gimme Back My Bullets, followed in 1976 along with another lengthy tour and the live album, One More for the Road.


A two night stand at New York's Beacon Theater received a rave from revered rock critic John Rockwell. Lynyrd Skynyrd's songs and Ronnie Van Zant's approach to singing them, he wrote, "are really first rate. (Van Zant's) visual image and the import of the words are of a tough yet sensitive white populist, one who sometimes espouses liberal views but never forsakes his heritage. And the music sweeps along in the manner of all the best rock - cumulatively exciting and fresh enough to escape the obvious." Critic Robert Palmer was less complimentary about in his review of a show from October that year, but made a prescient observation: "It is difficult to imagine where Lynyrd Skynyrd can go from here, musically speaking," he wrote.


One year later, in the midst of what was ironically called "The Tour of the Survivors," the band would join the list of rock 'n roll casualties who perished in plane crashes. "If it's your time to go, it's your time to go," a philosophical Van Zant said before boarding a plane that many of the passengers had concluded was unsafe. Flames had been seen emerging from one of the engines as the plane flew from Lakeland, Florida to Greensville, South Carolina but, as Gene Odom, the band's security manager, recalled, the pilots ignored the warnings. "There's nothing wrong," they told him. "Go back to your seat and stay put 'til we're in the air."


The plane crashed in a forest in Gillsburg, Mississippi on October 20, 1977 killing Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray. The other passengers all suffered serious injuries. Ironically, the cover of their final album, Street Survivors, released only three days before and already certified "gold," had pictured the band engulfed in flames. This image was replaced on future pressings, with the original cover restored only when a deluxe edition of the album was released on compact disc three decades later. Not surprisingly, the tragedy boosted sales, and Street Survivors became the band's second album to reach platinum status, signaling sales of more than one million copies. A final single, "What's Your Name," reached number 13 on the Billboard chart early in the next year.


Lynyrd Skynyrd disbanded, but only two months before the tragedy that brought about the band's demise, Elvis Presley proved that death need not hinder a successful showbiz career. Like the King, and like the Who and other musical brand names that continued to perform on multiple "farewell tours" even as its members died or just gave up, Lynyrd Skynyrd would rise from the ashes and make a comeback. In 1987, crash survivors Gary Rossington, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson, and Artemus Pyle, as well as Ed King, a guitarist who had left the band in 1975, joined Ronnie Van Zant's younger brother, Johnny, and hit the road on a world tour, but not without attracting lawsuits for exploiting the Lynyrd Skynyrd name.


The lineup has changed through the years, enough so that it's difficult to know what, if any, connection this band has to the one from which they take their name, but they play on regardless. One survivor of the original lineup, Gary Rossington, defends the decision to continue performing as Lynyrd Skynyrd.


"It's about the legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd," he says, "and what it stands for, what the fans are all about. There's nothing like getting out there playing a great show with Skynyrd and seeing people love this music."


The original Lynyrd Skynyrd lives on, as all great musical artists do, through the music they left behind. In 2005, after seven nominations, the band was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A year earlier, Rolling Stone ranked the band at 95 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. "In matters of unpretentiousness, power and invention," the mag wrote, "the best hard-rock band in America during the first half of the 1970s might well have been Lynyrd Skynyrd." It's a statement that would be difficult to challenge.

by Brian W. Fairbanks

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