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   ROBERT JOHNSON   ERIC CLAPTON   ALLMAN BROTHERS                                          LINKS PAGE     SITEMAP     
Ronnie Van Zant onstage
The late great Ronnie Van Zant
Photo: Patrick Mooney. Courtesy of Tribute Page
I was born a travelin' man and my feets do burn the ground
I don't care for fancy music if your shoes can't shuffle around
I got a hundred women or more and there's no place I call home
The only time I'm satisfied is when I'm on the road

"Whiskey Rock A Roller" - LYNYRD SKYNYRD

        As they were growing up in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Jacksonville, the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd were exposed to a broad spectrum of music. In addition to rock and country, they developed a love for the blues from an early age. Ronnie Van Zant was particularly fond of Robert Johnson. At first glance, it would seem as though this pair had little in common. Johnson was a sharecropper turned bluesman from the Depression era, while Van Zant was a hard drinking, brawling rock singer. However, there were actually some similarities between them. It's clear that they both had an enduring love for their music and were willing to sacrifice everything to live out their dreams. A closer examination also reveals that the two men shared a sense of fatalism. It appears frequently in Johnson's lyrics, as if he knew that his time was short. This may have also been true of Van Zant, since he had expressed his belief that he wouldn't live to be thirty. For this reason, it seems only fitting that Lynyrd Skynyrd would choose to record one of Johnson's songs.          Return to the TABLE OF CONTENTS

        In 1964, a group of acquaintances in Jacksonville, Florida were brought together by unforseen circumstances. During a Little League game, a young man named Ronnie Van Zant stepped up to the plate. Two more teenagers were sitting nearby, watching the game. Gary Rossington and Bob Burns attended high school with Van Zant, but didn't know him well. Ronnie swung on a pitch and hit a foul ball up the first base line. In a split-second, the baseball struck Burns in the head and knocked him unconscious. Van Zant was very upset by the mishap, fearing that he'd caused serious injury to the spectator. Luckily however, Bob was not badly hurt and he soon shook off the blow. The young men were all fledgling musicians, playing in various garage bands. So in the days after the game, they decided to hold some impromptu jam sessions. Little did they know it at the time, but this chance meeting would serve as a catalyst for the formation of a truly great American rock and roll band.          Return to the TABLE OF CONTENTS

        In the weeks and months that followed, Van Zant and the others continued to rehearse, adding guitarist Allen Collins and drummer Ricky Medlocke to their line-up. Nearly every night, they were playing at local clubs and parties, polishing their sound. But during the day, they struggled to stay awake in their classes at the local high school. Because of their disheveled appearance, they often found themselves at odds with the school's administrators. Long hair was a violation of the dress code, so they were frequently targeted for disciplinary action by one particular staff member. Coach Leonard Skinner harassed them on a daily basis, always finding new reasons to criticize them. Tiring of this constant irritation, the boys dropped out of school to pursue their musical ambitions. A few days later, they were playing a gig at a local venue when Ronnie half-jokingly suggested that they were going to change their name in honor of their old high school nemesis. Many of the people in the audience were aware of the band's long-running conflict with the coach, so they immediately roared their approval. From then on, the name stuck. Although the band changed some of the letters to avoid any disputes with their namesake, there was little doubt as to whom they were referring. But in time, all the old animosity was forgotten. In fact, Ronnie and the others eventually became friends with their former nemesis.          Return to the TABLE OF CONTENTS

        They eventually relocated to Green Cove Springs, just south of Jacksonville. Since they were always short on funds, they could only afford to rent a small cottage on the outskirts of town. In addition to serving as their practice space, most of the band also lived in this rundown dwelling. Their new home was little more than a tin shack with no air conditioning, so it became sweltering in the summer and they appropriately named it "Hell House". Despite the harsh conditions, the band was fiercely determined to succeed and they never lost sight of their dreams. Enduring these hardships forged them like steel and their distinctive sound began to evolve. It wasn't long before they began to attract notice from the recording industry.           Return to the TABLE OF CONTENTS

        In the autumn of 1970, they recorded some demos at Quinvy Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL. The original version of "Freebird" was recorded during these sessions, along with several other songs which would become enduring classics in the years ahead.
color group photo
Photo: Doug Forrester. Courtesy of Tribute Page
It was also during this period that two more members were added to the band's line-up. Leon Wilkeson was an accomplished musician and he became their new bass player in 1971. Billy Powell had been working as one of their roadies, but when Ronnie discovered that he could play the piano, he was also asked to join. Jimmy Johnson and Tim Smith worked at the studio and they provided invaluable assistance to the young musicians during the recording process. Ronnie nicknamed them "The Swampers" and he would later pay homage to them on "Sweet Home Alabama". Ed King switched from bass to guitar, joining Gary and Allen to create the distinctive triple guitar assault which became a key component in their sound. The band continued to work diligently, focused on their goals. Eventually, their perseverance would be rewarded. In July of 1973, they were signed by MCA Records for $9000. But rather than resting on their laurels, they spent the money on new equipment and maintained their rigorous touring schedule.          Return to the TABLE OF CONTENTS

        A few months after signing with MCA, they received another big break. Pete Townshend had been impressed by their first album and they were booked as the opening band on The Who's "Quadrophenia" tour. Fans of this thunderous English rock band were fiercely loyal to their heroes and were usually indifferent or outright hostile toward any other bands on the bill. In fact, it was not uncommon for the warm-up acts to be unceremoniously booed off the stage. However, Skynyrd held their own and were often called back for an encore.
          When the second album was released, they were hoping for a breakthrough hit. Sure enough, "Sweet Home Alabama" became a Top Ten single. Unfortunately, this indelibly marked Lynyrd Skynyrd as a Southern rock band. MCA decided that this image might be a useful marketing strategy, so they heightened the public's perception of Van Zant and the others as nothing more than brawling rednecks. This unfair label haunted the band for the rest of their career. But while the inaccurate portrayal of Skynyrd may have been hyped by record company P.R. men, the members of the band also contributed to their reputation. During the "Torture Tour" in 1975, they frequently indulged in drugs and alcohol, leaving a string of destroyed hotel rooms in their wake. Their lifestyle took a heavy toll on all of them, eventually leading to the departure of Bob Burns and Ed King.          Return to the TABLE OF CONTENTS

        In the summer of 1976, the band was preparing to record a live album and they concluded that they needed a third guitarist to fill out their sound. Cassie Gaines was one of their backup singers and she told them that her brother was an accomplished player. The band was rather dubious of her claims, but they reluctantly agreed to audition Steve Gaines, mostly as a favor to her. When he joined them on stage for a rendition of Blue Yodel #1 (T For Texas), they were awestruck by his prowess and he was immediately hired. They had decided to record a series of concerts at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, so several weeks of intense rehearsals followed as they prepared for these crucial gigs. The shows were triumphant, as hordes of fans packed the relatively small venue. One of the songs featured in the set list was Skynyrd's rendition of "Crossroads", harkening back to the blues which was an integral part of the band's sound. Their cover of the tune was reminiscent of Cream's earlier version, with a hard-driving beat and blazing guitars. Ronnie and his bandmates had always loved the raw passion of Robert Johnson and other musical pioneers, striving to capture this same energy in their own songs. Like the bluesmen from years past, Skynyrd had devoted their lives to their music. And just like these other artists, they had endured many trials and tribulations along the way. But at the start of 1977, they couldn't have known the cruel fate which lay in store for them.        Return to the TABLE OF CONTENTS

        Their live album, "One More From The Road", was a huge hit and soon achieved platinum status. With the addition of Steve Gaines, the entire band was reenergized and they were eager to record their next album.
b&w group photo
Promotional photo '76.
Courtesy of Tribute Page
They returned to the studio in April of 1977 and began laying down the basic tracks for what would become the "Street Survivors" LP. Then after a few weeks, they took a break from these sessions and launched another brief tour. To celebrate their newfound success, they had switched from their cramped tour bus to a chartered plane, which allowed them to travel more easily to their concerts. Inevitably, this aircraft was christened "The Freebird". Once these summer dates had been fulfilled, they returned to the studio and added the finishing touches to their new album. "Street Survivors" had already been certified gold even before its release on October 17th. By all estimations, it was going to be the most successful album in Lynyrd Skynyrd's illustrious career. Returning to the road immediately after the completion of the new album, the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd were very enthused about their prospects for the years that lay ahead. They had good reason to be excited, as their future seemed very bright indeed. But it was simply not to be.          Return to the TABLE OF CONTENTS

        On October 20th, 1977, the band was traveling from Greenville, SC to their next show on the campus of L.S.U. They had no reason to suspect that anything was amiss as they boarded the plane and strapped themselves in for the flight. The Convair 240 was an older, propeller-driven aircraft and the band had always been somewhat unnerved when they flew aboard it. In fact, they had already decided that this would be their last flight on the aging plane. They were planning to purchase a Lear Jet for themselves and a new bus for their roadies. Regrettably though, this decision came too late. When one of the engines stalled in mid-flight, the crew panicked and made a fatal error. While attempting to transfer the remaining fuel to the opposite wing tank, they inadvertently dumped it all. Seconds later, the aircraft began to rapidly descend. The pilot tried to land in a clearing, but the wings clipped some trees and the plane crashed down in a swamp near Gillsburg, MS. Both the pilot and co-pilot were killed instantly, as the aircraft broke apart. Ronnie Van Zant was not wearing a seatbelt, so he was thrown forward and buried amidst the mangled fuselage. Cassie Gaines had been so pleased when her brother Steve had joined the band because she was able to share the music that she loved. So perhaps in some tragic way, it is fitting that they died together. The crash also claimed the life of Dean Kilpatrick, Skynyrd's road manager. In the blink of an eye, the promising future of the band was snuffed out.          Return to the TABLE OF CONTENTS

        In the years that followed, Allen Collins experienced further misfortune. It almost seemed as though he was rushing headlong to follow his friends into the grave. In 1986, he was involved in a terrible drunk-driving accident. His girlfriend was killed and he was permanently paralyzed. Due to his decreased lung capacity, he developed pneumonia and was hospitalized in 1989. After several months, he succumbed to his illness and died on January 23, 1990.
          The other surviving members of the band have fared much better than Collins. In due time, they rediscovered their desire to make music together. Lynyrd Skynyrd reunited in 1987, now led by Ronnie's younger brother, Johnny Van Zant. With a series of new albums, they have continued to make great music. Nonetheless, their fans cannot help but lament all that was lost on that sad day in 1977. There is no way of knowing what they could have achieved, so the sharpest sorrow is for what might have been.          Return to the TABLE OF CONTENTS

The Van Zant family
Johnny, Donnie, Lacey, and Ronnie Van Zant in happier times.
Photo: Tyrone T. Vaughn. Courtesy of Tribute Page
Train roll on, many miles from my home
See, I'm riding my blues away
Tuesday, you see, she had to be free
But somehow I've got to carry on

"Tuesday's Gone" - LYNYRD SKYNYRD

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