Lynyrd Skynyrd Biography

Formed in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1964, this US boogie/hard rock band took their (slightly corrupted) name from their Physical Education teacher, Leonard Skinner. The line-up initially comprised Ronnie Van Zant (15 January 1948, Jacksonville, Florida, USA, d. 20 October 1977; vocals), Gary Rossington (b. 4 December 1951, Jacksonville, Florida, USA; guitar), Allen Collins (b. 19 July 1952, Jacksonville, Florida, USA, d. 23 January 1990; guitar, ex-Mods), Larry Jungstrom (bass) and Bob Burns (drums, ex-Me, You & Him), the quintet meeting through minor league baseball connections. They played together under various names, including Noble Five, Wildcats, Sons Of Satan and My Backyard, releasing one single, ‘Need All My Friends’, in 1968, before changing their name to Lynyrd Skynyrd. After playing the southern states during the late 60s they released a second single, ‘I’ve Been Your Fool’, in 1971, after recording demos in Sheffield, Alabama.

The band was discovered in Atlanta by Al Kooper in 1972 while he was scouting for new talent for his Sounds Of The South label. Signed for $9000, their ranks were swollen by the addition of Leon Wilkeson (b. 2 April 1952, USA, d. 27 July 2001, Florida, USA; bass), who replaced Jungstrom (who went on to work with Van Zant’s brother, Donnie, in .38 Special). Kooper produced the band’s debut album, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, which also featured former Strawberry Alarm Clock guitarist Ed King (originally standing in on bass for Wilkeson, who dropped out of the band for six months) and Billy Powell (b. 3 June 1952, Corpus Christi, Texas, USA; keyboards). Their three-guitar line-up attracted a great deal of attention, much of it generated through support slots with the Who, and the combination of blues, honky tonk and boogie proved invigorating. Their momentous anthem, ‘Free Bird’ (a tribute to Duane Allman), included a superb guitar finale, while its gravity and durability were indicated by frequent reappearances in the charts years later. In 1974 the band enjoyed their biggest US hit with ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, an amusing and heartfelt response to Neil Young who had criticized the south in his compositions ‘Southern Man’ and ‘Alabama’. After the release of parent album Second Helping, drummer Bob Burns was replaced by Artimus Pyle (b. Thomas Delmer Pyle, 15 July 1948, Kentucky, USA). The band was by now renowned as much for their hard living as their music, and Ed King became the first victim of excess when retiring from the band in May 1975 (Van Zant’s name was also regularly to be found in the newspapers, through reports of bar brawls and confrontations with the law). Gimme Back My Bullets arrived in March of the following year, with production expertise from Tom Dowd.

In September 1976 Rossington was injured in a car crash, while Steve Gaines (b. 14 September 1949, Seneca, Missouri, USA, d. 20 October 1977; guitar) became King’s replacement. With their tally of gold discs increasing each year and a series of sell-out tours, the band suffered an irrevocable setback in late 1977. On 20 October, Van Zant, Gaines, his sister Cassie (one of three backing singers) and personal manager Dean Kilpatrick were killed in a plane crash near McComb, Mississippi, en route from Greenville, South Carolina, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Rossington, Collins, Powell and Wilkeson were seriously injured, but all recovered. That same month the band’s new album, Street Survivors, was withdrawn as the sleeve featured an unintentionally macabre design of the members surrounded by flames. With their line-up devastated, the band dispersed and the remaining members went on to join the Rossington Collins band (with the exception of Pyle).

In 1987, the name Lynyrd Skynyrd was revived for a ‘reunion’ tour featuring Rossington, Powell, Pyle, Wilkeson and King, with Ronnie’s brother Johnny Van Zant (b. 27 February 1959, Jacksonville, Florida, USA; vocals) and Randell Hall (guitar). One of their performances was later issued as the live double set, Southern By The Grace Of God. Collins had earlier been paralyzed and his girlfriend killed during an automobile accident in 1986. When he died in 1990 from pneumonia, this only helped to confirm Lynyrd Skynyrd’s status as a ‘tragic’ band. However, members continued to perform and record after disentangling themselves from legal complications over the use of the name caused by objections from Van Zant’s widow. The most spectacular aspect of this was a 20th anniversary performance live on cable television in February 1993, with Rossington, Powell, Wilkeson, King and Johnny Van Zant joined by guests including Peter Frampton, Brett Michaels (Poison), Charlie Daniels and Tom Kiefer (Cinderella), the latter having also written new songs with Rossington. The Rossington led line-up, which has also featured Rick Medlocke (guitar/vocals; ex-Blackfoot), Hugh Thomasson (b. Hugh Edward Thomasson Jnr., 13 August 1952, USA, d. 9 September 2007, Brooksville, Florida, USA; guitar/vocals, also the Outlaws), and Michael Cartellone (drums; ex-Damn Yankees), has continued to release worthy recordings on the CMC International label into the new millennium, and remains a huge draw on the live circuit.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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