Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the premier bands of the glorious guitar decade of the 1970s. Their high-powered, 3-guitar sound, great live shows and string of FM radio hits made them a rock arena favorite until the tragic plane crash of 1977 that took the lives of band singer/leader Ronnie VanZant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister, back-up singer Cassie Gaines and their long-time friend and tour manager, Dean Kirkpatrick. The other band members were scarred both physically and mentally for a long time afterwards and it effectively ended one of the most interesting 70s rock groups at a time when they looked to be on the brink of a promising new direction. Though they “reformed” in 1987 and continue to perform and record today, Gary Rossington is the only surviving member still playing with the band. Loud rock/Classic Rock doesn’t get much airplay in The Cave anymore, but Skynyrd was a formative influence and very important in my guitar development and I still break ‘em out when I’m in the mood. Because I was never able to see the original band I’ve totally dug all of the media — books, movies, YouTube performances that have come out in the last 10-15 years. All of these materials cast a new light on the Skynyrd story and have allowed people like me to see actual performances from the glory days and get more of a total picture of the musicians as people and see them outside of the hell-raising image that dominated for so many years.
Back in the 1970s, I was in high school and Skynyrd was a very popular band — with songs on the radio and stuff. While it was said later, especially in reference to the long delay in getting the band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s popularity was a “regional” thing, I can assure you that at the time, it was not. Not only did they have the reputation of being one of the hottest live acts of the day, they also had many songs on what was then the new “FM” radio format. Further down in this post there is a video of them playing at a Bill Graham-produced Day on the Green festival with Peter Frampton, who was about the hottest thing going in 1976-77. His Frampton Comes Alive album was voted the Number #1 record of 1976, yet this “regional” band was opening for him the following year. (On their first major tour they opened dates for The Who on the Quadrophenia tour. Pete Townsend thought they were “quite good”). Bill Graham, who was certainly a major figure in 60s and 70s concert promotion thought Lynyrd Skynyrd was “one of the great ones”. Wolfgang’s Vault, which I have already profiled, has really nice versions of Freebird and Sweet Home Alabama from that show and not only are the videos instructive for how great the band was, but they show a whole lot pretty young ladies in the front who are completely rocking out and are well acquainted with both songs. There were certainly more than a few lovely young ladies in my high school class who also enjoyed rocking out! and back in the 70s that didn’t carry with it all (or some) of the negative connotations that it does today. It was the thing to do — go to concerts and ROCK OUT! YEA!
Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History, by Lee Ballinger, is a very splendid read not only because it captures that time when the band was in their prime and very popular with The Kids but also because it contains many stories, quotes, and anecdotes directly from the band, family members, or people who were involved with the band. Some of the most interesting quotes come from Al Kooper, legendary player, producer, and ROCK guy (he plays the organ on Like A Rolling Stone for starters) and the man who got Lynyrd Skynyrd signed, and was their producer and session player for their first three albums. He is the Yankee Slicker from Skynyrd’s Working for MCA song, which they performed at their initial showcase in front of MCA execs and basically sealed the deal, according to Kooper. This book is great because it provides a bunch of these little factual nuggets. Kooper’s “taking it back to basic rock and roll” quote is enlightening because that is what everyone said about punk rock which began roughly about the same time (The New York Dolls) Skynyrd released their first album. Also, Ronnie VanZant himself said that the lyrics to songs like Sweet Home Alabama were deliberately written to provoke a (controversial) reaction, which was another element that would become a staple in punk rock lyrics and stage performances. While many don’t equate Lynyrd Skynyrd with punk rock, I’m not the only person who thinks that they were the American version of the Sex Pistols…with better music. So what did Al have to say?
At the time that they came around in the early seventies, there was a plethora of really advanced white progressive music that had taken over the charts and the American mind. Like Genesis, Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and bands like that. I was sitting and watching this and going, “You know, if some band came along that just played basic rock and roll, they would clean up now”… Then I heard Skynyrd in Atlanta and I said, “Well they’re doing exactly what I hear in my head. This is like the basic band that could win it all back.” (pp.32-33)
…By the third time I heard it, I said, “This is so good. Every kid in America wants to hear this. This is why I want to sign this band. Some little kid in the middle of the country wants to put this on in his bedroom and run head first into the wall. I understand the meaning of head-banging music now.” (p. 35)
…Of all the bands I ever worked with they were the best arranged band. Most bands don’t have it together with arrangements. Their arrangements were terrific. I even learned from them as an arranger…What they did with the guitar parts was truly amazing. They had the pulse of the street. They absolutely had it.” (p.44)
— Al Kooper Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History By Lee Ballinger
While the whole Skynyrd catalog is a treasure trove of guitar mania, Freebird is certainly the song probably they are associated with and in it’s own right is a top guitar-solo classic. Right up there with Stairway to Heaven, Crossroads, Eruption, Crazy Train, and All Along the Watchtower. I have a framed page of Freebird as the Number 3 guitar solo of all time as voted by readers/contributors to Guitar World Magazine on my wall…well just because. My 2nd year of high school, the first guy I saw picking an acoustic guitar well played most of the first Skynyrd Pronounced album! I still remember the day; a beautiful spring afternoon, the two of us sitting on a bench with his girlfriend while he played Tuesday’s Gone, Poison Whiskey, Mississippi Kid and the first part of Freebird. I had been fooling around with the guitar for a few years but I was amazed that anyone I knew could play stuff like that so well. He showed me a few things and then another friend a year or two later showed me parts to Rush’s Working Man and Fly By Night and I got some stuff by The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC down by myself and I was well on my way to getting the whole concept of rock guitar under my fingers.
If it sounds like I’m making a big deal out of this remember that in 1976-77 there was no internet, no tabs, no You tube, no instruction videos or tapes, 1 guitar magazine, and until you were 16 and had a driver’s license it was very hard to go see bands, unless you lived in the city, which I didn’t. There were music books but they were mostly written for piano and very rarely translated well to guitar. So watching somebody play up close like that was a revelation, and as I’ve said in other posts with regard to Gypsy Jazz culture, all of those masterful players STILL learn that way — by Watching and Doing. It’s the best form of instruction and years later any player will look back on those early experiences with the same misty affection as first love. Because Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the first bands whose songs I could play and the first one I began to see the connections involved in playing chords, leads and riffs all together, they will always be important to me.
Skynyrd was the epitome of a GUITAR band — they had three lead guitarists — and watching Freebird: The Movie and other stuff that has come out since then totally proves the band’s ability to pull off the 3-guitar attack and how well-integrated and balanced they worked live; three different guys, three different sounds, three different styles never getting in the way of the others while playing complimentary parts, or rhythms. Everything I’ve seen definitely underscores Al Kooper’s quote above about how intelligent they were about composing and performing their parts. While they had the reputation, one that Ronnie even admitted in the press, of sometimes being really, really drunk for live performances, I’ve yet to see one where they were as sloppy as some other bands from that period (Rolling Stones, Led Zep). Maybe they managed to always keep it together when the cameras were rolling or they were really good at covering up. It’s obvious and well-documented that these guys practiced their butts off and were all kept in line by Ronnie, who was James Brown on steroids when it came to enforcing band discipline; he didn’t fine players if they messed up, he got physical. He was able to do this because he, Allen Collins, Gary Rossington, Leon Wilkeson, and original drummer Bob Burns all grew up on the rough side of Jacksonville Florida and began playing together when they were in their early teens. RVZ, who was older, was an big brother/father figure to a few of the others who didn’t have fathers in their lives and was the man with the plan with regards to rock and roll stardom. Everyone in the band gave him credit for making them famous and having the vision to turn what was once a “Louie Louie” high school dance band into an internationally-known rock ensemble. Plus he was a rock and roll badass and a complicated guy; a “redneck” who wrote anti-hard drug and anti-handgun songs, a man who always walked that very fine line between the idealistic good vibes of the 1960s and the aggressive harder edge style of the meanest blues and honky-tonk music, and a guy who aspired to everyone having a good time but was jailed many times for drinking, fighting and other acts of mayhem. Listening to interviews from 1976, it’s obvious that this Double Trouble side of Ronnie and the reputation he’d earned because of it was something he had tired of and he was looking to move into a more mature direction. With the addition of the Honkettes (back-up singers Cassie Gaines, Jo Jo Billingsly, Leslie Hawkins), Steve Gaines, and the birth of his daughter, many people on the concert trail who had done business with the band noticed a huge difference in everyone’s attitude and behavior in 1976-77 and RVZ was once again, the guy who was leading them into this new direction.
Gary Rossington’s guitar sound is probably the one people most associate with the band; the Les Paul sustained vibrato voice that he got from influences like Paul Kossoff of Free (one of their favorite bands) decorate many of the songs and he used his hands to get all kinds of little feel things going. If you watch the above That Smell video, there is a sustained note he gets in his second solo that draws a smile of appreciation from RVZ. Allen Collins was very fleet-fingered and energetic (Freebird, I Ain’t the One) and held Eric Clapton as his number 1 influence. He usually played a Gibson Firebird, and later, a Gibson Explorer, but also played a Strat occasionally. Not only was his lead playing always tasteful, he had a really great rhythmic feel, especially with that chunky-funky Strat sound. The third guitar player was, up until mid-1975, Ed King, and from mid-76 until late-77, Steve Gaines. Both of these fellows were tremendous, tasteful players who were usually the “Stratocaster guys”. Steve Gaines might’ve become one of the biggest players ever had he survived the plane crash in 1977 because he could play anything and was just super good and a really great writer and singer. Ed King, though not recognized in the Freebird Movie, (and I don’t know why he wasn’t) was a very important contributor and to watch him play is to watch someone who doesn’t use “box” positions when soloing and his leads don’t sound like anything else. He did get a lot of solos on many songs and some of them almost sound like horn parts more than guitar solos, but that might just be me thinking that. All of these guys were capable of partnering up with Ronnie to write killer songs and sometimes, like on their big hit Sweet Home Alabama, or later, That Smell, it was combination of people creating the song almost spontaneously. Leon Wilkeson was also always a very underrated, one-of-a-kind bass player, and any of the videos in this post or anything off the original band discs demonstrate his very fluid and imaginative style.
My friend Jimmy R. gave me this mirror…he said someone gave it to him, but I think he was secretly trolling head shops back in the day. A few years ago I was trolling in a local Music and Sounds shop and I found a used video that turned out to be a bootleg performance of Skynyrd from 1975. It’s great — filmed at Winterland during what would become known as The Torture Tour — Ed King is still in the band and Billy Powell missed the performance because he had put his fist through a window or door. At the time I was a regular at the now defunct Ed King web forums and I asked if he or anyone else knew about the show and all I found out was what I’ve already related about Billy and the fact that it was just a month or so before Ed King left. [This whole concert is now lovingly restored and at Wolfgang's Vault!] But two people on the forum offered to trade me for copies of the bootleg and I got the complete Van Halen show at the US Festival in 1983 from one guy, and that was cool. The other person who offered a trade was Sharon Lawrence. She knew Lynyrd Skynyrd, photographed them and has written about them and others from the rock era, most notably, a book on Jimi Hendrix, who she also knew. I sent her a copy of the tape in exchange for a picture of Ronnie Van Zant cutting his birthday cake the year he turned 27. She also sent me a nice concert shot of Allen Collins. I promised they would never turn up on the internet, so I can’t show them to you. The birthday pic is from this same “session” but is a lot better quality and is one of my prized possessions. I don’t think anyone but Sharon has a copy of that photo and it is really awesome that I do. I also think it’s great Skynyrd used the Theme from The Magnificent Seven as intro music for the tour seen in the following video.
I found an interview with Sharon that I think is interesting. I don’t know where it originated but since she knew the band personally she provides a perspective similar to Al Kooper. The questions are in orange, her answers in green. (Go the link for the whole interview)
The Skynyrd members all knew each other for years, grew up together. How would you describe the relationships within the band? We’ve all heard about the inner fighting that went on from time to time, but I’ve always looked at it like the kind of fighting that brothers do. Would that describe their relationship, in your opinion?
I would describe the relationship this way: Ronnie was the leader, in capital letters. They all looked up to him, and his opinion meant a great deal. They were like their own little family in the early years, giving up relaxing, seeing, being with their own families to try and gain respect and success…
Knowing Jimi Hendrix as well as you did, what do you think he would have thought of Skynyrd’s music?
A fresh sound. An integrity all their own. Strong playing and writing.
There is a great story I read somewhere that you told, probably in an interview, about Allen Collins and some guitar strings of Jimi’s that you had kept and had given to Allen. Would you mind telling the story again?
The band was at my house in the Hollywood hills in the fall of 1973. They had no money yet. They were ready to leave the house to go to the Whisky-A-Go-Go where they were playing for several nights. Allen broke a string and it subtly became clear to me that they were afraid they didn’t have any string money and weren’t sure where to go. I remembered that I had some of Jimi’s, so I found them, asked Allen if one of those would work. Nothing more was said. They did the gig….seven years later I was at Allen and Kathy’s home and he showed me one of his Skynyrd scrapbooks. On a special page he had placed Jimi’s guitar string in its faded English package. A very touching moment…and one that Hendrix would have appreciated.
This is a pretty broad question as people have many sides to them, but what kind of man was Ronnie Van Zant? How would you describe your relationship with him?
We were great friends who had mutual respect for each other. One of the finest people I’ve ever met.
We’ve all read a little bit about the song writing process within the band. How would you describe it and is it true that Ronnie never wrote anything down? I personally find that “rumor” a little hard to believe, even with the gift that he had.
Of course, he wrote things down but he also said, “unless I can remember the words as I’m thinking them they may not be worth writing down.” Ronnie’s writing was deeply important to him. He had nice handwriting and printing and he was meticulous in correcting grammar and punctuation.
How did you feel about LS finally making it to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame? Did you attend the ceremony?
They should have been inducted earlier*…I was invited but preferred to watch on television, not in a huge ballroom….greatly disappointed that one of Skynyrd’s heroes — like Eric Clapton, Merle Haggard etc — were not asked to “induct” the band. “Kid Rock” would never have been Ronnie’s cup of tea.
* emphasis mine
It’s pretty amazing to find out all of these years later that Ronnie VanZant cared about penmanship and punctuation. That really doesn’t jibe with his “image” but that is the thing with image isn’t it? Usually the image has very little to do with the person behind the image. By the end of his career even Ronnie admitted that the band had let their image and behavior get away from them a bit, but that was the 70s and they certainly were not the only band who over-indulged. But Ronnie was smart enough to see that the image lifestyle was a dead-end and was in the process of making serious changes when he was killed. (Same was true of Stevie Ray Vaughan). While I agree with Sharon’s last sentiment on Kid Rock – I think the band deserved someone of higher stature as an inductor (inductor?) – it’s also important to remember how much has changed since 1977. It’s possible that Ronnie would’ve come round to being ok with Kid Rock. I think some of the other people in the band think he’s ok. In my post on Jim Croce I said that some of what he did could’ve happened only in the 1970s and the same is true of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd — every decade has it’s particulars that come together to make a certain sound and way of doing things possible and musicians are obviously very influenced by, and products of their times. So are their audiences. Lynryd Skynyrd helped influence musicians in later decades — Hank Williams III, Raging Slab, Nashville Pussy, Honky and many others including Kid Rock. But THE ROCK ain’t like it used to be and that is to be expected 30+ years later; the times have changed, the music has changed, the business has changed, and the environment the artists and audiences reside is also different. While it may be fun topic for speculation, it’s impossible to say how RVZ and the rest of band would’ve fared had the plane crash not happened. Because of that “tragedy” and Classic Rock Radio, the band took on a different life post-1977 and like The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan their presence was defined more by radio playlists and legend. Ronnie and the original band achieved a kind of rock and roll sainthood — they were killed in the prime of their career. They didn’t hang around so long that people got tired of them and they didn’t become a pale imitation of what they once were. Even though Skynyrd reformed in 1987 and continues to this day, it’s more of a tribute band/different band. I don’t mean to sell the current Skynyrd short because some great players have been in the line-up over the years, including Ed King, Leon Wilkeson, Gary Rossington, Artimus Pyle, Rick Medlocke (who played with the band in the very early days and then went on to front Blackfoot, a band I liked a lot), and the late Hughie Thomasson, who was founder, guitar great with the Outlaws back in the day. There is a lot to like about all of these musicians and all of the great music they have brought to the people over the last almost fifty years. But Lynyrd Skynyrd has not existed since 1977 just like Led Zeppelin was over when John Bonham died. Some people just can’t be replaced without the whole thing being completely different.
There is an overwhelming amount of great material in the original band’s catalog that you have never heard unless you are a total fan, and there is certainly many a tasty lick and trick that a guitar player can pick out from listening to, or watching the videos. I still enjoy picking on Skynyrd songs from time to time and some it is quite challenging as anyone who has really tried to cop the licks knows. It can also be a whole lot of fun. I think it is quite fitting that the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year as The Sex Pistols. Two very popular and influential outlaw bands finally getting some respect. I wish, as do many other people, that Ronnie, Steve, Allen, Leon and Cassie had lived to see the fruits of their labors, and to Skynyrd it was all about working to get the rewards and recognition. It’s possible, given their backgrounds (they actually had a lot in common), that Ronnie VanZant and Johnny Rotten could’ve shared a drink, some stories and few laughs at the ceremony… And that’s the kind of world we should live in.
Note: Al Kooper’s recollections and Dave Marsh’s quote are from Lee Ballinger’s excellent Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History. Lee is also the editor of Rockrap, a really cool online newsletter that you can sign up for free HERE.