It all began in Jacksonville, Florida, where a teenaged Ronnie Van Zant got turned on to several kinds of music: black country blues, which he learned from a neighbor; Merle Haggard-style hard country, which would play on the radio in his father’s truck; and the rocking sounds of the British Invasion that were in the air. He was floored by the Rolling Stones, vowing to form a group that would be their American equivalent. From the start Lynyrd Skynyrd has been a standard-bearer for Southern rock, but their biggest early influences were British - the Stones, the Yardbirds, Cream, Free and Led Zeppelin - and some of those bands’ controlled frenzy seeped into even their most Dixie-fied material.
In 1965 Van Zant assembled the Noble Five, which included guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, drummer Bob Burns and bassist Larry Junstrom (later of .38 Special). Having grown their hair long, they were given school suspensions and endless grief by a high-school gym teacher named Leonard Skinner. They solved the problem by dropping out and moving to a cabin in Green Cove Springs, south of Jacksonville. There they wrote songs, learned how to play together, and changed their name to Lynyrd Skynyrd - an intentionally misspelled reference to their old nemesis.
By 1970, Lynyrd Skynyrd was a veteran bar band with a pile of original songs but had no recording contract. They cut some demos at producer Quin Ivy’s studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and returned in 1971 to make a proper album at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. By this time, bassist Leon Wilkeson had replaced Junstrom in the group. The album was rejected by numerous labels. By then they’d begun playing regularly in Atlanta, where producer Al Kooper signed them to his Sounds of the South label (an MCA subsidiary) in 1972. Some personnel shuffles ensued: Wilkeson left for a half-year and was replaced by Ed King (late of Strawberry Alarm Clark), who moved from bass back to guitar when Wilkeson rejoined. Billy Powell, their piano-playing roadie, had become a full-fledged member, too. Now Lynyrd Skynyrd was a seven-man monster with three guitarists.
Kooper produced their first three albums: “pronounced leh-nerd skin-nerd” (1973), Second Helping (1974) and Nuthin’ Fancy (1975). Kooper’s innate musicality and studio know-how helped capture the seemingly incongruous elements in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s sound. They were raucous but tight, rowdy but smart, and down-home Southern with a twist of bluesy British rock. Having cut their teeth in rough Jacksonville bars, they were a red-hot, jukin’ rock band. Pete Townshend was sufficiently impressed to offer Lynyrd Skynyrd the opening slot on the Who’s Quadrophenia tour.
Though their debut album had just been released, Lynyrd Skynyrd was a veteran band ready for bigger stages. Fame came quickly, propelling them to the status of headliners and establishing Southern rock as the Seventies’ hottest musical trend. The movement also included such fellow travelers as Wet Willie, the Marshall Tucker Band, the Charlie Daniels Band, the Outlaws and Molly Hatchet.
Each of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first three albums contains its share of classics. From “pronounced leh-nerd skin-nerd” came “Down South Jukin’,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man,” “Tuesday’s Gone” and the immortal “Free Bird.” The last of these had been a fixture of Skynyrd’s live repertoire, and they’d recorded a demo version as far back as October 1970. The song was initially conceived as a tribute to Duane Allman, and onstage they would dedicate it to the late guitarist. After the death of Ronnie Van Zant, the song served as an homage to Van Zant himself.
Second Helping, an album that was every bit as solid as the debut, yielded “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Workin’ for MCA,” “Call Me the Breeze,” “Swamp Music,” “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” and “The Ballad of Curtis Lowe.” Nuthin’ Fancy, the third album in a row produced by Kooper, contained the classics “Saturday Night Special” and “Whiskey Rock-A-Roller.”
In its own way, the uncompromising lyrical stance of vocalist Van Zant was as much a band signature as their three-guitar attack. As John Swenson wrote, “Many of Van Zant’s lyrics were about betrayal, paranoia and the certainty of evil. He articulated the never-forgotten rage of a beaten South. Violence and death walked constantly through his writing.” What redeemed it all was the unified show of power by the band, who rivaled rock’s very best in concert. As Rolling Stone would observe some years later, “In matters of unpretentiousness, power and invention, the best hard-rock band in America during the first half of the 1970s might well have been Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
And yet some chinks were appearing in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s seemingly impenetrable armor. Exhausted by touring, drummer Bob Burns dropped out prior to Nuthin’ Fancy, replaced by Artimus Pyle. This lineup embarked on the “Torture Tour,” a grueling three-month outing during which the band members’ drug and alcohol intake accelerated. bolstering their reputation as the rowdiest of all Southern rockers. Ed King left midway through the tour, and he was not initially replaced, as guitarists Rossington and Collins divided up his parts. Gimme Back My Bullets (1976), Lynyrd Skynyrd’s fourth album, was cut as a six-piece. It also found them working with producer Tom Dowd, whose disciplined approach helped the band regain its focus.
The addition of guitarist Steve Gaines restored Lynyrd Skynyrd to a three-guitar lineup and lit a fire under the band. They played some of their hottest shows on the 1976 tour, which was documented on the live double album One More from the Road. This revitalized lineup cut Street Survivors (1977), which was their strongest studio album since Second Helping. It contained a brace of instant classics: “What’s Your Name,” “You Got That Right,” “I Know a Little” and the eerily prescient “That Smell.” The last of these was a cautionary song about fast living, hard drugs and the aura of death, hinging on the line “The smell of death surrounds you.”
Three days after the release of Street Survivors, on October 20, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s tour plane - a 1947 Convair 240 turbo-prop plane that they’d nicknamed Free Bird - ran out of gas due to an engine malfunction and crashed in rural Mississippi. Three band members (Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and backup vocalist Cassie Gaines) were killed, as was their road manager and the two pilots. Twenty others on the plane survived with injuries of varying severity. After the survivors recovered, a number of them regrouped as the Rossington-Collins Band.
The surviving members came together for a one-time performance at Charlie Daniels’ Volunteer Jam in 1979. In 1987, on the tenth anniversary of the plane crash, they reunited again for a full tour, calling themselves the Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Band. Ronnie Van Zant’s place was taken by brother Johnny, and Ed King rejoined on guitar. Randall Hall replaced a disabled Allen Collins, who was confined to a wheelchair after a car wreck the previous year. (Collins died in 1990.) The tribute tour did so well that they reprised it the next two years. Then came a studio album, Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991, their first set of new material since Street Survivors. Released on Atlantic Records, the album reunited Lynyrd Skynyrd with producer Tom Dowd and mixer Kevin Olsen, who’d been the group’s soundman on tour in the Seventies.
Having returned to active duty, Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded prolifically in the Nineties. Their output included The Last Rebel (1993) and the all-acoustic Endangered Species (1994). The latter appeared on the Capricorn label, which had been home to the Allman Brothers and other Southern rock groups in the Seventies. Twenty (1997) and Edge of Forever (1999), along with the concert album Lyve from Steel Town, were released on CMC International. Along with their new works came a flood of compilations and reissues, including a box set, a single-disc of greatest hits, a two-CD set of rarities, expanded editions of several of the classic early albums, a Christmas album, and the double disc Thyrty: The Thirtieth Anniversary Collection.
By 2001 only two original members, Gary Rossington and Billy Powell, were left in Lynyrd Skynyrd. However, they’d become a virtual Southern-rock supergroup with the addition of guitarists Ricky Medlocke (Blackfoot) and Hughie Thomason (Outlaws). Medlocke had been a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd back in the beginning (albeit as a drummer), while Thomason’s Outlaws had frequently opened for Skynyrd in the Seventies. Johnny Van Zant’s continued involvement kept it all in the family. Still waving the rebel flag, Lynyrd Skynyrd released Vicious Cycle in 2003. Thirty years had passed since the release of their debut album, and Lynyrd Skynyrd was, despite incalculable setbacks, still making music.