On the night of October 20, 1977, the news broke, “The southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd have died in a plane crash in Mississippi, more details to follow.” We later learned that there were survivors. We look back ‘70s recordings from the group and their influence on other musicians.
By Warren Kurtz
Flip side: I Know a Little
A side: What’s Your Name
Top 100 debut: December 3, 1977
Peak position: 13
Vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins formed Lynard Skynard, named after their gym teacher Leonard Skinner, while they were still in school in Jacksonville, Florida. There was also a spelling of Lynnard Skynnard until ultimately settling on the spelling of Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1971. The group grew to have three lead guitarists to replicate the three guitar studio sound, created by Al Kooper as their producer. Their 1973 debut album included a parenthetical sub-title on its cover, with the pronunciation of the band, and included the songs “Tuesday’s Gone,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man” and the nine minute finale “Free Bird.”
Their second album in 1974, “Second Helping,” brought Lynyrd Skynyrd their first hit single “Sweet Home Alabama.” The Florida band sang about Alabama at a recording studio in Georgia. The album also included “Don’t Ask Me No Questions,” “Working for MCA,” “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” and “Call Me the Breeze.” After the AM radio success of “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Free Bird” was released as a single and finally became a hit single after well over a year of FM radio album rock airplay.
In 1975, their third album, “Nuthin’ Fancy,” brought the septet their third Top 40 hit “Saturday Night Special.” Later that year, guitarist and former member of the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Ed King, left the group. By the end of the year, three female background vocalists were added to the final recording of their fourth album, “Gimme Back My Bullets.” Producer Tom Dowd brought in Cassie Gaines, Jo Jo Billingsley and Leslie Hawkins and they were known as the Honkettes. They were heard on the album’s first single “Double Trouble.” Its flip side, “Roll Gypsy Roll,” dealt with the growing touring life of the band, and shared the moody southern charm of an early Allman Brothers Band flip side, “Melissa.”
Heavy touring in 1976 led to a double live album, “One More from the Road,” recorded at the historic Fox Theatre in Atlanta, and a mid-January 1977 return to the Top 40 with a live version of “Free Bird,” edited from the 11:30 album finale.
The third full week of October 1977 was planned to be a very full week for the band. On Monday, the album “Street Survivors” was released. The Honkettes were back. Cassie Gaines recommended her brother Steve as the band’s new guitarist, who wrote or co-wrote half of the album’s tracks. The album’s longest song, “That Smell,” dealt with substance abuse, and provided a warning, “The smell of death surrounds you.” The group was on tour promoting the album. The southern duo LeBlanc & Carr was the opening act. Their hit single “Falling” had debuted in the Top 100 the prior week.
On Thursday of that week, LeBlanc & Carr boarded one plane and Lynyrd Skynyrd rode on a charter plane as they headed to the next city on the tour. The charter plane ran out of fuel and crash landed, severely injuring many and killing the pilot, co-pilot, the group’s assistant road manager, band lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, new guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister Cassie. The original “Street Survivors” album artwork showed the band surrounded by flames. Out of respect to the band and their families, the album was pulled from record shelves, and as quickly as possible, replacement albums were shipped using a non-flames photo.
FM radio played tributes to the band, but were leery to play the new song “That Smell” about death. “What’s Your Name” was released as the album’s first single. Ronnie Van Zant sang the tale of meeting a girl, while on tour in Boise, Idaho. The single’s flip side, also from the album, was a rollicking, boogie guitar driven number that Steve Gaines brought into the band called “I Know a Little.” Fellow Jacksonville band friends Molly Hatchet would later capture a similar excitement with “Flirtin’ With Disaster,” their highest charting single, which debuted in the Top 100 in the first week of the ‘80s.
Most of the surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd appeared in the Top 40 in the summer of 1980 as the Rossington Collins Band with the single “Don’t Misunderstand Me.” Ronnie Van Zant’s brother Donnie Van Zant became the vocalist for Jacksonville’s 38 Special and had their Top 100 debut in 1980 with “Rockin’ Into the Night” and their Top 40 debut the following year with “Hold On Loosely.”
Throughout the years there have been many tributes to Lynyrd Skynyrd. In 2004, country singer Gretchen Wilson had a Top 40 crossover hit with “Redneck Woman,” with references to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kid Rock and George Strait in the couplet, “I want a four wheel drive tailgate, I’ve got posters on my wall of Skynyrd, Kid and Strait.” Kid Rock followed in 2008 with “All Summer Long,” a tale of growing up, “Singing ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ all summer long.” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Billy Powell reprised his piano part as a guest on Kid Rock’s recording.
Surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd reunited in 1987 with Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny on lead vocals and continue to be a strong concert draw. The current lineup includes Johnny Van Zant, original member Gary Rossington on guitar and early Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Rickey Medlocke, along with drummer Michael Cartellone, guitarist Mark Matejka, keyboardist Peter Keys and bassist Keith Christopher.
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, known for “Fabulous Flip Sides” along with interviews, CD, DVD and book reviews. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, on WVCR radio as part of “Moments to Remember.”