The early 70’s belonged to Lynyrd Skynyrd, a rowdy group of piss cutters from the Westside of Jacksonville that punched a hole clean through the southern rock scene. The group made history alongside .38 Special, Molly Hatchett and the Allman Brothers for busting out of Florida and into the big time, pinning Jacksonville as the birthplace of the unofficial founding fathers of the movement.
Hometown fans will welcome Lynyrd Skynyrd back to where it all began Sept. 2 as the Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour with guests Jason Aldean and Kid Rock. Original member Gary Rossington will be joined by Johnny Van Zant, Rickey Medlocke, Mark “Sparky” Matejka, Michael Cartellone, Keith Christopher, Peter Keys, Dale Krantz Rossington and Carol Chase for the Labor Day weekend concert which wraps up at the home stadium.
Originally formed in 1964 as My Backyard, the band was also known by names such as The Noble Five and One Percent, before finally deciding on “Lynyrd Skynyrd” in 1969. The name was a backhanded tribute to the band’s gym teacher Leonard Skinner at Lee High School, known for busting their balls over having long hair.
The music was more than a regional dialect set to the thumping honky tonk rhythm of a three-guitar army. It was a statement, a middle finger to the establishment and a double dog dare to anyone who tried to out drink, out fight or out play Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“Some of the stuff that came out the 70’s was really layered and very orchestrated and in some ways, a bit overblown. And southern rock was sophisticated music but it was also accessible music. It was guys with guitars who were onstage wearing jeans and t-shirts rather than some outlandish stage persona. They were very relatable to kids in their bedrooms learning how to play guitar,” according to Scott B. Bomar, author of “Southbound: An Illustrated History of Southern Rock.”
“One of the interesting things about southern rock is that 90 percent of the musicians that are considered part of the southern rock genre do not embrace the label. I think that many of the musicians feel that it was kind of an industry term and that was put upon them in ways that was limiting. They thought ‘we’re from the south but we’re rockers. We’re for everybody, the whole world, not just one specific region’.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd was always true to its roots but Ronnie Van Zant rejected the southern rock label. The band earned a local following playing parties and small clubs like the Comic Book Club. Skynyrd got its first taste of touring when it landed the opening slot on a tour with the psychedelic band Strawberry Alarm Clock, featuring future Skynyrd bassist Ed King, in 1970 with only two original songs. Alan Walden, a former record executive with Capricorn Records, signed Lynyrd Skynyrd as the first act at his new music publishing and management firm and was instrumental in helping the band with the discipline needed to hone in on its sound.
The band members pooled their money together and rented a cabin in Green Cove Springs that would serve as the hub for the writing and rehearsal sessions that eventually produced Lynyrd Skynyrd’s biggest hits.
Lynyrd Skynyrd continued building its southern fanbase, especially in Atlanta in the wake of the Allman Brothers’ concerts at Piedmont Park. Paul Abraham remembers the first heard them play at Funnochio’s – known as “Atlanta’s original House of Rock” – on the road. It was the first time he’d seen them since 1973 soon after the release of “Sweet Home Alabama.” Abraham had never seen or heard anything that resembled the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“The singer was barefoot and the band was tearing up the stage. I was just blown away,” says Abraham, who called up his brother and convinced him that they should try and bring the band out to the Mississippi Delta where they’re from. Surprisingly, the band was in. Abraham showed them around his hometown, stopping by a couple local bars and hitting up a greasy dive for burgers and fries. He recalls when Billy Powell tried to snatch a fry from Allen Collins’ plate and wound up with a fork jabbed through the top of his hand, just wobbling back and forth.
“When you look at Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, rock ‘n roll was almost exclusively a southern phenomenon in its infancy. You have these traditions of country and blues music coming together to form rock ‘n roll,” says Bomar. “The roots of southern rock, as a genre, begin with the Allman Brothers in 1969 but as an idea, it goes back to the very genesis of rock n roll, of how deep the roots and the history goes.”
That southern, good ‘ol boy persona was used heavily to market the band’s debut album It’s Pronounced ‘Leh-’nerd ‘Skin-’nerd. Officially released on Aug. 13, 1973, the album included the classics “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man” and the band’s signature anthem “Freebird.” Lynyrd Skynyrd spread their wings, opening for The Who on the Quadrophenia tour and becoming the first opening act for The Who to ever get an encore.
The single “Sweet Home Alabama” – the song Ronnie Van Zant likened as the band’s “Ramblin’ Man” – was released on the heels of the Quadrophenia tour and became the band’s first chart-topping hit, marking a momentum that would propel Lynyrd Skynyrd forward at a warp speed over the next four years and four albums.
Things were only getting bigger when history changed forever. Skynyrd’s fifth studio album Street Survivors was certified gold and the band was only five days into a nationwide tour in support of the record when on October 20, 1977, a twin-engine plane carrying Lynyrd Skynyrd from Greenville, S.C. to their next tour stop in Baton Rouge went down in heavily wooded terrain outside Mississippi. Details of the twilight crash were grim. The crash claimed the lives of charismatic frontman Ronnie Van Zant, road manager Dean Kilpatrick, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister and backup singer Cassie Gaines as well as two pilots. The 20 other passengers suffered a litany of injuries in the twisted wreckage.
A report filed by the National Transportation Safety Board listed “fuel exhaustion and total loss of power on both engines due to crew inattention to the fuel supply” as the official cause of the crash. According to the report, the nightmarish descent into a dense forest of pine trees “as high as 80 feet and as large as three feet in diameter” took 10 minutes, giving the terrified passengers time to brace for impact and pray for survival. As news of the loss swept through the city like a brush fire, Jacksonville fans wept for their fallen son. To what heights the man who gave us “Freebird” might have soared is the great unknown.
A decade later, remaining members Billy Powell, Leon Wilkinson, and Gary Rossington glued the broken pieces of Lynyrd Skynyrd together for a short tribute tour. Paul Abraham was living out in Colorado in 1987 when he agreed to join the band on the road for 32 dates.
Staging a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute tour required a consensus and Abraham says everyone was on board except for Rossington who worried that fans would blame them for trying to cash in on the name. Abraham says a meeting with Leon Wilkinson and Billy Powell finally convinced Rossington that the shows would sell out if the tour was done right.
“He said ‘I tell you what. If you come out and do this tour with me, I’ll go do it’,” says Abraham. “I said ‘Gary, I’ve never done anything like that before’. He said ‘we’re just going to do 32 shows’. I went out with them as security and within a year and a half, I was made tour manager because there was a lot more to what I did than security. Ten years later, I was still out there doing it with them.” Abraham details his experiences with Lynyrd Skynyrd as part of his book “The Gospel According to Abraham: From Delta Boy to Tour Manager” released in October 2017.
Abraham says when the band first got together to play, it brought back a lot of the same magic with Johnny Van Zant stepping in to fill his older brother’s shoes. He knew then that the tour would be a success.
“The first night I heard that band in rehearsals I thought ‘oh my God. This is going to be way better than I thought it was going to be’. I didn’t have any idea was to expect. I said ‘this is going to be phenomenal’, and it was,” he says. “The first two legs of the tour was one big happy family. After that, some of those devils started to reappear. It was my job to try and keep things in order.”
As tour manager, it was up to Abraham to ensure all the I’s were dotted and T’s crossed. “The worst thing that can happen out on the road is that you’re not prepared [from] booking hotels, taking care of the media, setting up meet and greets, making sure everybody got from point A to point B on time and making sure the rider contained everything that everybody wanted, the Jack Daniels, the Budweiser, that whole bit. Any tour manager worth his salt knows exactly what to do.”
As hard as it was for Johnny Van Zant to live up to the gold star standard set by Ronnie, he knew the music inside and out and he was the only one who deserved the opportunity to play it. For years after, the only song he refused to perform was “Free Bird.”
“We were in Sacramento, California. Leon and I were walking around the venue and Leon finds this little bird that’s tangled up in fishing line. Leon had the biggest heart of anybody you’d ever seen and he picked that little bird up and for five minutes, he unwrapped that line.” We went inside and told everybody about it. To me, it was a wonderful story and it tells the kind of person Leon was. He was the absolute salt of the earth.”
That night, Johnny Van Zant would sing “Free Bird” for the first time on stage, no doubt releasing something within himself that had been tangled up in so much pain and letting it go. “It was the most natural thing for him to do. He’d always been scared to do it because he was afraid he’d get too emotional. He pulled it off and sang it every night after that,” Abraham says. “It was so incredible to go out to these venues every night and see these bikers and guys with tattoos and some of them would be crying and singing every word. The songs that Ronnie wrote are timeless.”
Years later, Ed King would go on to leave the band for the second time. The deaths of Leon Wilkinson and Billy Powell would leave Gary Rossington as the last remaining original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Today, the band continues touring and selling out shows worldwide.
“In the 70’s, Lynyrd Skynyrd was making records that were as good as the Rolling Stones,” Bomar says. “I look at the Allman Brothers Band and over time they have just sort of endured. They have reached a really wide fan base, obviously far beyond the south and all over the world. And Lynyrd Skynyrd has, too.
When a band like Lynyrd Skynyrd is cut down in its prime, it’s impossible to keep from wondering what might have been had the circumstances of that fateful night been different. Music critics for years have hypothesized a turn toward country music. Abraham, who moved on from Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1997 and went on to work with such artists as Billy Ray Cyrus, Bad Company, the Marshall Tucker Band, 38 Special, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Paul Rodgers, the Barefoot Servants and Michael Peterson, imagines Ronnie center stage where he belonged.
“I think Ronnie would still be out there doing it. They would have toured, made a bunch more records. I think it would’ve been a beautiful thing,” he says. “They were opening for people like The Who and they would blow them completely off the stage. It got to the point where people didn’t want to tour within them because they were very hard to follow. You can’t follow “Free Bird” on stage. I don’t care who you are.”