>After several years of practicing, performing and personnel
changes, Skynyrd, like any group of fledgling rock stars, started
gigging the notorious one-nighters. Playing all over north Florida
and Georgia, the band quickly established itself as a hot club
Lynyrd Skynyrd formed around the nucleus of Allen Collins,
Gary Rossington and Ronnie VanZant in Jacksonville, Florida during
the summer of 1964. Throughout high school, the band learned what
they could from each other and by listening to the radio, being
influenced by country standards, classic Southern blues and the
new British rock sounds. Really impressed with the British sound
as well as the rock image, the longhaired students soon ran afoul
of the school authorities, namely one coach Leonard Skinner. By
1969, they all dropped out of school -- broke and unemployed --
but remained dedicated to their music. As one last dig at their
old gym coach, the band introduced themselves one night as Leonard
Skinner -- the name, after going through several versions, stuck
as Lynyrd Skynyrd.
This success led to playing opening act for the Strawberry
Alarm Clock, professional management from Alan Walden, and a chance
to record some demo tapes in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Although
Walden shopped the tapes extensively, the band had a hard time
landing a record deal. However, in 1971 legendary producer Jimmy
Johnson heard the tapes, and, largely on the strength of Ronnie's
unique voice, agreed to produce an album on speculation. Despite
several sessions that resulted in 17 recorded songs, the band
still missed that elusive big break and continued playing the
grueling Southern bar circuit. During these lean years, minor
personnel changes occurred from time to time, but the core of
Allen, Gary and Ronnie, along with Ed King, Billy Powell and Leon
Wilkeson held the band together.
In 1973, things finally started coming together for Lynyrd
Skynyrd. During a week-long stint at Funochio's in Atlanta, the
band was discovered by the reknowned Al Kooper. After signing
a record deal with Kooper's MCA subsidiary Sounds of the South,
Skynyrd entered the studio. With Kooper at the controls, the session's
result -- Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd -- started the band on
its rise to fame with standards like 'Gimme Three Steps', 'Simple
Man' and the incendiary, guitar-driven classic, 'Freebird'.
Following MCA's debut of the band, Skynyrd received the nod
as the opening act for the Who's 1973 American Tour. Skynyrd's
popularity spread across the country as they played the shows
of their lives and 'Freebird' received massive radio airplay.
The success of the first album led to almost constant touring,
which increased even more after the release of Second Helping.
Boosted by the success of the single, 'Sweet Home Alabama', Ronnie's
response to Neil Young's 'Southern Man', Skynyrd's star ros further
As the pressures of the road increased, heavy partying took
its toll, and as the press picked up on the image of the band
as bunch of crazy, drunk rednecks hell-bent on living the wildlife,
the band found their creative urges at an all-time low.
When the time came for recording the third album, drummer
Bob Burns had been replaced by Artimus Pyle. The band entered
the studio with only one song, 'Saturday Night Special' and spent
weeks trying to finish the Nuthin' Fancy album in between tour
dates. The hectic schedule soon grew too much for guitarist Ed
King who left in the middle of the '75 Torture Tour.
By the time the fourth album rolled around, Skynyrd realized
that things had to change to keep the band from completely self-destructing.
With earlier changes in management to Peter Rudge's Sir Productions
and now in production to Tom Dowd, Gimme Back My Bullets represented
a conscious effort to improve the band's sound and image. Also,
in early 1976 the Honkettes, a female backup vocal group consisting
of JoJo Billingsley, Cassie Gaines and Leslie Hawkins became part
of the Skynyrd entourage.
While the crowds were as big as ever, Skynyrd had lost some
of its biting edge. When, in 1976, the band restored their trademark
three guitar lineup with the addition of Steve Gaines, they also
restored a lot of the Skynyrd spark. Steve, the brother of vocalist
Cassie, rounded out the band's sound and radiated an infectious
enthusiasm that motivated everyone else in the band. Just a few
weeks after Steve joined the band, Skynyrd recorded its first
live album, One More From The Road, a 14 song, two-record set
that captured the intense power of the band onstage.
The excitement generated by the release of the live album
carried over to the new concert tours and the next studio album.
Street Survivors recaptured much of the raw power and freshness
of the first albums, but also refelcted a new maturity in the
song writing and playing. The album, released in October 1977,
sold a half million records immediately upon release and Skynyrd
was set to headline at some of the top venues in the country,
including Madison Square Garden -- a lifelong dream of Ronnie's.
Skynyrd stood on the edge of becoming America's favorite touring
band. They were on top of their world when it all fell away at
6000 feet above a Mississippi swamp.
At 6:42 PM on October 20, 1977, the pilot of Lynyrd Skynyrd's
chartered Convair 240 airplane radioed that the craft was dangerously
low on fuel. Less than ten minutes later, the plane crashed into
a densely wooded thicket in the middle of a swamp. The crash,
which killed Ronnie VanZant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines and road
manager Dean Kilpatrick and seriously injured the rest of the
band and crew, shattered Skynyrd's fast rising star as it cut
a 500 foot path through the swamp.
Lynyrd Skynyrd in the 1970s was more than just the leaders
of a wild pack of Southern rednecks singing about women and drinking;
they were a group of musicians who tried to remain faithful to
the spirit of rock and roll. Skynyrd left a true legacy of honest,
foot-stompin' music that still rings with power and purpose today.