More than twenty years ago my career in print media began. After starting a music newsletter six months previously, I took advantage of an entry-level opportunity to work in the sales department of a music magazine. It was interesting for me because of my background working in various musical genres, but I was now thrust into an organization that primarily focused on alternative music. At the time I was not familiar with the musical style or the local scene. Nevertheless, I trudged forward into the belly of the South Florida alternative music scene, looking for advertisers. With my territory hundreds of miles from the main office, I was isolated from other magazine employees with the exception of occasional visits from my sales manager. In order to help me feel closer to the office, he would relate some of the office discussions, usually about favorite bands and/or albums. In preparation for this week I was reminded about Andy, my sales manager, because his favorite band is the one I am featuring this week. Therefore, wherever you are Andy, this week the post is dedicated to you. The featured band is the legendary Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Thinking back to those years working with Andy, I am reminded about times when the magazine staff would formulate individual lists of the top bands of all time. It might sound easy, but as you try to name five bands there is always that band that you forgot to include, then your list goes to ten, then twenty, and so on. At the time Andy listed Lynyrd Skynyrd at the top of his list, but I was not familiar with Southern Rock bands or music. I was relatively new to the south, just a few years removed from Chicago. Could Andy be right about Lynyrd Skynyrd occupying a top spot among legends? Let’s see.
In the summer of 1964, teenage friends Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins, and Gary Rossington formed the earliest incarnation of the band in Jacksonville, Florida as My Backyard. The band then changed its name to The Noble Five. The band used different names before using One Percent during 1968. In 1969, Van Zant sought a new name. The group settled on Leonard Skinnerd, a mocking tribute to a physical-education teacher at Robert E. Lee High School, Leonard Skinner, who was notorious for strictly enforcing the school’s policy against boys having long hair. By 1970, Lynyrd Skynyrd had become a top band in Jacksonville, headlining at some local concerts, and opening for several national acts. After several lineup changes, in 1972 the band was discovered by musician, songwriter, and producer Al Kooper of Blood, Sweat & Tears, who had attended one of their shows at Funocchio’s in Atlanta. Kooper signed them to his Sounds of the South label that was to be distributed and supported by MCA Records, and produced their first album.
The next five years would mark the best period of time by arguably any band in history. Lynyrd Skynyrd went on to release some of the biggest hits at the time, and those songs continue to be the backdrop of modern American Music. Recognizable hit songs like “Freebird”, “Sweet Home Alabama”, “That Smell” and “What’s Your Name” pushed Lynyrd Skynyrd to superstar status, and thus they were on their way to large sold-out concerts in arenas throughout the US.
Following a performance at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium in Greenville, South Carolina, on October 20, 1977 the band boarded a chartered Convair CV-300 to Baton Rouge, Louisiana where they were scheduled to appear at LSU the following night. Due to a faulty engine, the airplane ran low on fuel and the pilots were diverted to the McComb-Pike County Airport. After running out of fuel they attempted an emergency landing before crashing in a heavily forested area five miles northeast of Gillsburg, Mississippi. Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray were killed on impact; the other band members (Collins, Rossington, Leon Wilkeson, Billy Powell, Artimus Pyle, and Leslie Hawkins), tour manager Ron Eckerman, and road crew suffered serious injuries.
At the plateau of success, the band members of Lynyrd Skynyrd would suffer this unbelievable tragedy. The accident came just three days after the release of Street Survivors, which became the band’s second platinum album and reached No. 5 on the U.S. album chart. The single “What’s Your Name” reached No. 13 on the single airplay charts in January 1978. Lynyrd Skynyrd disbanded after the tragedy, with surviving members performing and recording with various music groups.
Then in 1987, Lynyrd Skynyrd reunited for a full-scale tour with five major members of the pre-crash band: crash survivors Gary Rossington, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson and Artimus Pyle, along with guitarist Ed King, who had left the band two years before the crash. Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny, took over as the new lead singer and primary songwriter. The reconstituted Lynyrd Skynyrd has gone through a large number of lineup changes and continues to record and tour today. One by one, most members of the pre-crash band have left, been forced out, or have died. However, the music is still very much alive.
Two days before the publication of this post, Lynyrd Skynyrd again left the gift of music for their fans around the world. They released a two CD/DVD set titled Lynyrd Skynyrd – One More For The Fans on Loud & Proud Records in partnership with Blackbird Presents. One More For The Fansfeatures performances by Lynyrd Skynyrd as well as music legends and young talent, culled from multiple genres including Classic Rock, Country and Americana with Trace Adkins, Alabama, Gregg Allman, Blackberry Smoke, Cheap Trick, Charlie Daniels, Peter Frampton, Gov’t Mule, Warren Haynes, John Hiatt, Randy Houser, Jason Isbell, Jamey Johnson, Aaron Lewis, moe., O.A.R., Robert Randolph and Donnie Van Zant all coming together to perform songs from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s extensive catalog of music.
“Hearing all of these incredible musicians sing our songs was unforgettable,” says Rossington. “It was a really special night and I’m so happy our fans will now get to enjoy the show at home.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s musical legacy proves they belong in the conversation considering the top bands of all time. I think you might be right Andy.
* photo by Clay Patrick McBride