Free bird: The Historic Rise and Shocking Fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd


Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash

The classic rock that came out of the 1960s and 1970s provided the framework for all rock  ‘n that followed.  Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Kiss; that list alone is comprised of pure rock and roll hall of fame in and of itself. But, southern rock was also beginning to make it’s way into the music scene at that time and it was not just the Allman Brothers making waves in the category.

A band competing for that title was the infamous Lynyrd Skynyrd band that ultimately faced the tragic end that befell Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison; except the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd experienced the heartbreaking reality of losing three members of their band at the same time and without overdosing on heroin or other drugs.

The Lynyrd Skynyrd band was formed in Jacksonville, Florida in 1964 first as My Backyard, then as The Noble Five, and finally as Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Up until the 1970s the band played over a thousand local gigs until they were finally able to make their first demo at the Muscle Shoals in Alabama.

Following the recording of their demo album, Skynyrd moved to Atlanta where they recorded their first album, Lynyrd Skynyrd (1973). Three of Skynyrd’s most widely recognized songs are on this album, “Free Bird,” “Tuesday’s Gone,” and “Simple Man,”and in my humble opinion some of the most beautiful and magnificent music ever recorded.

The band then got their big break when they began opening for the Who in 1973, when their now most requested song “Free Bird,” started to spread through parts of the country.

After touring with the Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd went back into the studio to record their second album, Second Helping (1974). This album produced “Sweet Home Alabama,” the song that made them a household name that, ironically, was originally meant to be satirizing “Southern Man” by Neil Young. Regardless, the band was now one of the hottest acts in the United States.

The band’s next two album’s, Nuthin’ Fancy (1974) and Gimmie Back My Bullets (1976) did not afford Lynyrd Skynyrd the same success of their previous albums, but One More For The Road (1976) a live album recorded at the famous Fox Theater in Atlanta went triple platinum and Skynyrd was now one of the selling out amphitheaters nationwide.

In 1977 the Lynyrd Skynyrd would release, Street Survivors, their sixth and final album as the original band. After chartering a private plane, the band was flying between Greenville, South Carolina and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  The plane began to run out of gas and crashed in a heavily wooded area outside of Gillsburg, Mississippi killing band members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines (guitar), and Cassie Gaines (backup vocals); twenty other people survived the crash.

Lynyrd Skynyrd chartered a plane that  Aerosmith was originally interested in, but after they checked it out at the Addison Airport in Addison, Texas, they decided against it because they did not like the flight crew; which, incidentally, is who was officially blamed for the crash.

Losing Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines was an emotional blow to the band, as it would be to any band that lost two of their close friends, but losing Ronnie Van Zant was a back-breaker. Van Zant wrote most of the songs and was the voice of Lynyrd Skynyrd, he was the face of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and to many he was Lynyrd Skynyrd.  The band could did not want to move forward following the crash and disbanded in 1977.

Though, versions of The Lynyrd Skynyrd band have come together since that time, there will never be a replica of what once was the band that became legends during the 1970s.  If music great music is defined by it’s ability to be timeless, Lynyrd Skynyrd has more than a few songs that should help keep themselves relevant until the end of time.

Chris McDonald