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Lynyrd Skynyrd

+ {Rossington Collins Band} + {Rossington} + {The Rossington Band} + {Allen Collins Band}

Can there be any other track that has defined a music genre than Southern rock’s flag-bearing power-ballad `Free Bird’, whether it be the 9-minute studio version or the full-blown extended live wig-out, the hairy 3-pronged axe-attack of LYNYRD SKYNYRD’s originals Gary Rossington, Allen Collins and Ed King (/or Steve Gaines), turned the amps up to 11. The ALLMAN BROTHERS invented Southern rock (a hybrid of country, blues and hard rock), but LYNYRD SKYNYRD were the archetype. No black drummers or musical miscegenation for frontman Ronnie Van Zant and his tribe, just a barrel-load of white, countrified “blooze” and anti-glamour. When they weren’t firing off defiant fusillades at NEIL YOUNG (via deputy-in-chief song `Sweet Home Alabama’), ‘Skynyrd were being touted as the new ROLLING STONES, being as they were to Jagger, Richards and Co what Wild Turkey is to Famous Grouse. Tragically, their world came down around them, quite literally, when the band’s tour plane crashed on October 20, 1977, killing Van Zant, Steve Gaines, his sister Cassie Gaines (a backing singer) and Dean Kilpatrick (their assistant road manager); the other group members recovered from their injuries, recovering enough to re-form several years later to keep on trucking forever.
Formed 1964 in Jacksonville, Florida, initially as The Noble Five (then in ’65, as My Backyard), schoolboy chums Ronnie, Gary and Allen roped in bassist Larry Junstrom and drummer Bob Burns to try and realise the singer’s boyhood dream of creating an American equivalent to The ROLLING STONES. The band were blown away after witnessing an early incarnation of The ALLMAN BROTHERS, vowing to conquer the world with their own unique take on the roots music of the South. Continually brought to task for having long hair by gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, Van Zant and Co packed in school at the earliest opportunity, spending up to 16 hours a day honing the sound of the band they’d eventually dub LYNYRD SKYNYRD after their aforementioned schoolhouse nemesis (moniker slightly changed to protect themselves from enforced circuit training). Their inaugural release came courtesy of `Need All My Friends’, through Shade Tree records. At the time, the band’s home town of Jacksonville boasted a thriving and eclectic music scene that saw the likes of future ALLMANs Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley paying their dues, as well as a young TOM PETTY, amongst a slew of others.
Skynyrd’s first victory in their campaign to resurrect the glory of the South was winning a support slot to psychedelic one-hit wonders, STRAWBERRY ALARM CLOCK. By 1970, the 6-piece band (Junstrom superseded by Greg T. Walker) had almost notched up a mind-boggling 1,000 gigs and the real touring hadn’t even started. Rickey Medlocke (drums & vocals) briefly joined in 1971/72 before he bailed for BLACKFOOT, duly taking with him, Walker, whose berth was now occupied by Leon Wilkeson. The subsequent addition of former roadie Billy Powell (on keys) and ex-STRAWBERRY ALARM CLOCK guitarist Ed King (who played bass parts while Wilkeson was absent), brought the group up to six members; seven when Wilkeson claimed back his bass spot as the group took shape a little later.
Manager Alan Walden touted demos around various companies to no avail, opportunity eventually knocking in the form of industry mover and shaker extraordinaire, AL KOOPER, a solo star in his own right who was in the process of setting up the Atlanta-based Sounds Of The South label with the backing of M.C.A. The purpose of this venture was to capitalise on the booming Southern music scene and, in ‘Skynyrd, Al knew he’d found a band to take the genre to a new plateau. As intense and driven as the band themselves, KOOPER constantly clashed with the band during the recording of their acclaimed (PRONOUNCED LEH-NERD SKIN-NERD) (1973) {*10}, which he’d taken upon himself to produce. Nevertheless, Koop functioned like an extra member of the group, playing and singing on many of the tracks, his input pivotal in creating one of rock’s great debut albums. A simmering gumbo stew that drew influences from the likes of The ROLLING STONES, FREE and CREAM, yet was also haunted by the spectre of raw country blues, the album’s flag-bearer and breath-taking finale was the aforementioned `Free Bird’, the song most people think of at the mention of Skynyrd’s name.
From Powell’s piano-led intro, the song led into a gorgeously melancholy DUANE ALLMAN-style slide guitar part (to whom the band would dedicate the song after he was killed in a motorcycle crash), eventually building up to a blistering triple guitar climax. The band achieved the latter by overdubbing an extra guitar part by Collins, authentically replicating the song live when King duly became a permanent fixture.
Alongside `Free Bird’, the album contained some of the finest songs of the band’s career in the mournful `Tuesday’s Gone’, Van Zant’s normally commanding voice sounding as forlorn as heroes MERLE HAGGARD and WAYLON JENNINGS. `Simple Man’ and `I Ain’t The One’ were other earthy ballads; Ronnie’s lyrics as succinct and unpretentious as ever. `Things Goin’ On’, meanwhile, was a biting criticism of underhand political dealings set to a rollicking honky-tonk backing. KOOPER secured the band a support slot on The WHO’s 1973 American tour, and immediately the band were thrown in at the deep end, playing to stadium-sized audiences.
Incredibly, at almost every show, the band had won the normally fiercely partisan WHO crowd over by the end of their set, and when `Sweet Home Alabama’ (a rousing, tongue-in-cheek rebuke to NEIL YOUNG’s Southern Man) made the Top 10 the following year, the band were well on their way to becoming major league stars. Featuring also, a rollicking re-tread of J.J. CALE’s `Call Me The Breeze’, the attendant SECOND HELPING (1974) {*9} almost matched the power of the debut; the vicious sting of `Workin’ For MCA’ and `The Needle And The Spoon’ – “the damage done” had been done already – contrasting with the strum and slide of `The Ballad Of Curtis Loew’, a tribute to a black bluesman. And thus lay the contradiction with LYNYRD SKYNYRD; denounced as reactionary rednecks, their sounds haunted by the music of black immigrants. As many commentators had noted, ‘Skynyrd didn’t have any defined politics; Van Zant was fiercely proud of his upbringing, attempting in his own blunt way to speak out for a part of America that had been discredited after the Civil War; charges of racism, however, were way off the mark.
Similarly, an anti-firearms song, `Saturday Night Special’, didn’t exactly fit with the archetype of the rifle-toting redneck. The song formed the centerpiece of the band’s third effort, NUTHIN’ FANCY (1975) {*6}, a harder rockin’ affair that nonetheless failed to break any new ground or capture the excitement of the band’s live concerts. Showcasing the FREE-esque `On The Hunt’ and `Whiskey Rock-A-Roller’, the album also marked the first of ‘Skynyrd’s many casualties as Burns was replaced with Artimus Pyle after freaking out on tour. The band had been on the road almost constantly from their inception and things began coming to a head; the promotional trek that followed to be dubbed the “Torture Tour”. The tales of sex, drugs, violence and madness were legendary; Ronnie’s infamous violent outbreaks particularly nauseating. While Ed departed, the rest of the band soldiered on under the auspices of the notoriously unpredictable Van Zant, his dedication winning unfaltering loyalty despite his temper. Featuring a classy title track and another J.J. CALE cover, `I Got The Same Old Blues’, the Tom Dowd-produced GIMME BACK MY BULLETS (1976) {*6} was another Top 20 success, although one couldn’t help that after the spine-tingling `All I Can Do Is Write About It’ (as revealing a song as to what drove Van Zant), ideas were beginning to wane.
Though newbie axeman Steve Gaines was only featured on a handful of the tracks for the live double-set ONE MORE FROM THE ROAD (1976) {*7}, his visceral playing re-energised a flagging ‘Skynyrd. Sister Cassie Gaines, and other backing singers Leslie Hawkins and Jo Jo Billingsley helped provide a softer touch to their “best bits”. Overall, the sound was all over place but Ronnie was one who had his bare feet planted firmly on the stage, drawling out his disillusion with the music business (`Workin’ For MCA’), American gun culture (`Saturday Night Special’) and, most hauntingly, a rendition of ROBERT JOHNSON’s `Crossroads’. RVZ was no black bluesman but – like VAN MORRISON – his taciturn stage presence had all the pressure cooker menace of a prison ballad. And, unavoidably in the knowledge of his plane crash demise just over a year later, the performances of `Sweet Home Alabama’ and the finale `Free Bird’, were poignantly, fatally loaded, even the air-guitar anthems and a pan-handle cover of JIMMIE RODGERS’ `T For Texas’.
Inspired by the “Outlaw” movement that saw country stars like WILLIE NELSON and TOMPALL GLASER moving away from the polished Nashville sound, STREET SURVIVORS (October 17, 1977) {*8}, was more countrified than any previous release, right down to a cover of MERLE HAGGARD’s `Honky Tonk Night Time Man’. It also included Ronnie’s heartfelt anti-heroin track, `That Smell’. The song’s lyrics and the album’s original cover art – featuring the band surrounded by flames – were to take on a chilling new resonance when, on October 20, en route to Baton Rouge, the aircraft carrying the band and crew plummeted from the sky after both its engines failed. Van Zant was killed on impact, as were Steve and Cassie Gaines, their assistant road manager, the pilot and co-pilot. The remaining passengers (including the rest of ‘Skynyrd) were all seriously injured. The details of the crash were horrific; the effects of the tragedy still resonating to this day. If one acknowledges that Steve provided a good deal of the songs on the set (including his own `I Know A Little’ and `Ain’t No Good Life’), the loss of what might’ve been added to their passing.
When it was thought at the time LYNYRD SKYNYRD should cease to be, the remnants of the group splintered with the ROSSINGTON COLLINS BAND; Gary being joined by his wife-to-be Dale Krantz (on vocals), Allen, Billy, Leon, Barry Harwood (guitars, including slide) and Derek Hass (drums/percussion). Artimus Pyle had chosen a solo route. Interesting by way of morbid curiosity or simply staunch in their post-‘Skynyrd support, fans forked out the readies for group’s rather average Top 20 debut, ANYTIME, ANYPLACE, ANYWHERE (1980) {*6}. Sounding very JOPLIN, BENATAR or HEART, sole hit `Don’t Misunderstand Me’ was more or less the highlight among other goodies `One Good Man’, `Getaway’ and `Prime Time’. Their never-say-die ethos continued when sophomore set, THIS IS THE WAY (1981) {*5} entered the Top 30; many of the tracks on board – Gary & Dale’s `Tashauna’ and Harwood’s `Pine Box’ for instance – dedicated to the sadly missed Ronnie VZ.
Duly branching out with his own combo, the ALLEN COLLINS BAND after the death of his wife Kathy, AC stretched the post-‘Skynyrd identity crisis beyond its sell-by-date with HERE, THERE & BACK (1983) {*4}. Augmented by usual suspects, Powell, Harwood and Wilkeson, plus singer Jimmy Dougherty, third guitarist Randall Hall and drummer Derek Hess, the set didn’t even reach the Top 200. This wasn’t the end to Collins’ strife; he was involved in a serious car accident in ’86 which killed his girlfriend and left him paralysed from the waist down, culminating in his own death on January 23, 1990, of pneumonia. Meanwhile, Collins wasn’t the only one to suffer in the aftermath of the band’s tragedy; suicide, drug addiction and even alleged child abuse dogged the survivors of the plane crash for years to come.
Meanwhile, on the rocky road back to sanity and survival, Gary and Dale (as ROSSINGTON) completed their third album together: RETURNED TO THE SCENE OF THE CRIME (1986) {*4}. As emotion-packed and slick as any mid-to-late-80s set should be (and showcasing his band: guitarist Jay Jay Johnson, bassist Tim Lindsey, saxophonist Ronnie Eades and sticksman Derek Hass), records such as the BONNIE TYLER-meets-HEART-esque `Turn It Up’ and `Goodluck To You’ were a million miles from ye olde ‘Skynyrd.
Hoping to cash-in on his old band’s live-in-concert (10th anniversary) memorial re-formation, the gleam and gloss of The ROSSINGTON BAND’s LOVE YOUR MAN (1988) {*4}, was almost ALLMAN and Woman/CHER-like in its schmaltzy cover shot of an embracing Dale and Gary. Still, with simplistic titles and tunes, the disc dented the Top 200 for 4 weeks.
LYNYRD SKYNYRD’s call-to-arms of the previous autumn had already emerged that April as SOUTHERN BY THE GRACE OF GOD/LYNYRD SKYNYRD TRIBUTE TOUR 1987 {*6} – phew! Roping in Ronnie’s kid brother Johnny Van Zant (of .38 SPECIAL) to front the band; and a guest list that featured Donnie Van Zant helping out, alongside guitarists Steve Morse (of DIXIE DREGS) and Toy Caldwell (MARSHALL TUCKER BAND), plus fiddler CHARLIE DANIELS, the main players (Rossington, Pyle, Powell, Wilkeson, King, Hall; not forgetting Dale KR and Carol Bristow on backing vox), might well’ve been overshadowed – but they were not. Add to that a 15-minute jam encore of `Free Bird’, and the nod to the sadly-missed Ronnie was truly worthwhile.
Retaining much of the main core of the previous incarnation, and adding drummer Kurt Custer, a fully-fledged post-80s re-formation resulted in the aptly-titled LYNYRD SKYNYRD 1991 {*4}, a credible if not essential attempt at recreating something old, new, borrowed and bluesy for a new generation of boogie groovers. While Johnny had all the right credentials to fill the berth of his long-missed brother, for many older fans (and that of his own Southern rock combo, 38 SPECIAL), they were not fully enamoured by such songs as `Pure & Simple’, `Smokestack Lightning’ (not the HOWLIN’ WOLF gem!) and `I’ve Seen Enough’.
Just to prove that Skynyrd were back in the saddle (although without Artimus once again), a further three sets appeared in relatively quick succession: THE LAST REBEL (1993) {*6}, the unplugged ENDANGERED SPECIES (1994) {*6} – featuring a version of Elvis’s `Heartbreak Hotel’ – and the “live in the USA” SOUTHERN KNIGHTS (1996) {*5}. Yes, a pattern was emerging, and that was that fans might have to deal with tit-for-tat live-in-concert packages to take on the raft of exploitation CDs littering the market.
Guaranteeing a Southern gene-pull from the magnetic lassoing of former LYNYRD and BLACKFOOT star, Rickey Medlocke (guitars/vocals), plus The OUTLAWS’ Hughie Thomasson (guitars/vocals) and newbie Owen Hale (drums/percussion), the “anniversary” feel of 1997’s TWENTY {*4} took precedence over its contents. The onslaught continued with the double LYVE FROM STEEL TOWN (1998) {*5} – complete with lengthy interviews, the tenth studio set EDGE OF FOREVER (1999) {*4} and the ill-advised CHRISTMAS TIME AGAIN (2000) {*3}.
Further into the millennium, with the band taking a sabbatical after the death of yet another long-time member, Leon Wilkeson (who passed away as a result of emphysema and chronic liver disease on 27 July 2001), a depleted, war-torn Skynyrd battled on regardless. With Ean Evans coming in as a replacement, the LYNYRD ensemble bounced back with one of their better latter day releases: VICIOUS CYCLE (2003) {*6}. With KID ROCK even turning up for a raucous “bonus track” run through of `Gimme Back My Bullets’, and a nod to Leon’s efforts courtesy of `The Way’ and `Lucky Man’ (alongside poignant piece `Red White & Blue (Love It Or Leave)’), the mighty band were back in the Top 30. To complement these recordings and commemorate 30 odd years in the business, Skynyrd delivered the double concert set, LYVE: THE VICIOUS CYCLE TOUR {*6}, the following June. Johnny Van Zant would undergo throat surgery to remove a polyp, which curtailed lengthy tours for a while.
Like some Spinal Tap-like, pre-rock’n’roll heaven purgatory, Skynyrd’s recurring nightmare of deaths continued three-fold when it was announced that Thomasson (who’d already reunited with The OUTLAWS) passed away in his sleep on September 9, 2007; country-rock guitarist Mark “Sparky” Matejka (ex-Hot Apple Pie) was already in place. Then, on January 28, 2009, after laying down some tracks for the band’s next studio venture, original member Powell died of a suspected heart attack; Peter Keys took over. To add to all this turmoil, Ean Evans died of cancer on May 6, 2009; Robert Kearns (ex-CRY OF LOVE, ex-BOTTLE ROCKETS) filled in on some of his absent bass lines for “comeback” set, GODS & GUNS {*6}.
Released toward the fall of the decade, the Top 20 record – their first for Roadrunner – showcased bonus guitar work by John 5 (ex-ROCKET FROM THE CRYPT), while the “Saturday Night Special” aspect of the album was not in direct contraction to its outsider-penned title track. A guest appearance by ROB ZOMBIE on `Floyd’, sat side-saddle with the likes of jukin’ boogie tracks like `Southern Ways’ and `Still Unbroken’. The obligatory CD/DVD-package – from June 15, 2007! – LIVE FROM FREEDOM HALL (2010) {*5}, was one for the connoisseur with long pockets, but that was the legacy of such an exciting band as LYNYRD SKYNYRD.
With no casualties this time around, except in the revolving-door personnel department (Johnny Colt, formerly of The BLACK CROWES, replaced Kearns), the legend that was Skynyrd was still flying high by the time of 2012’s LAST OF A DYIN’ BREED {*6}.
Raising the bar and their chart profile a few notches (to #14), folks in wait for some “second coming Free Bird”, were always going to be disappointed (for now), but in street-smart tracks such as `Nothing Comes Easy’, `Homegrown’ and the poignant `Something To Live For’, LYNYRD SKYNYRD’s DNA continued with grace and a little bit of danger.
Cashing in on the megaton country market sweeping the nation, the par-for-the-course star-studded double-CD/DVD package ONE MORE FOR THE FANS (2015) {*6} – recorded live at the Fox Theatre, Atlanta GA on November 12, 2014 – was exactly what it said on the tin. Featuring no stone unturned in a variety of y’all disguises, LYNYRD SKYNYRD and a plethora of big names from “country” and “rock” reeled off their classics; CHEAP TRICK, PETER FRAMPTON, GREGG ALLMAN, CHARLIE DANIELS, JOHN HIATT, GOV’T MULE, TRACE ADKINS, RANDY HOUSER, BLACKBERRY SMOKE and JASON ISBELL were just some them on show, while Johnny Van Zant duetted on big screen footage with brother Ronnie on the climactic `Free Bird’. Sadly, original drummer Bob Burns had been laid to rest in Cartersville on April 3, 2015.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG/MCS-LCS // rev-up MCS Mar2014-Aug2015

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