First Flight Of The Free Bird

August 13, 2013

Forty years ago today, a rock & roll anthem was issued upon an inspecting nation.  On August 13, 1973, Lynyrd Skynyrd released its debut album, Pronounced Len-nerd Skin-nerd, on which the closing track featured a 9:18 version of Free Bird, unleashing upon the world the three guitar attack of Allen Collins, Gary Rossington and Ed King.  I must admit however, that over the years, I have grown tired of hearing the radio play not only this song, but other classics such as Stairway To Heaven and Layla.  Because radio tends to play the same few songs over and over again and again every hour, I stopped listening to their repeated play lists and seemingly endless commercials around 1980, choosing instead to listen to entire albums by the artists I like, commercial free.

Formed in 1964 in Jacksonville, Florida by childhood friends Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins and Gary Rossington as The Noble Five, the band eventually choose the name Lynyrd Skynyrd in a sardonic tribute to their high school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, who was infamous for enforcing their high school’s ban on male student’s long hair.  Tragically, as the band was reaching the height of its popularity, on October 20, 1977, during a charter plane flight after a show at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium in Greenville, South Carolina, on its way to the campus of LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the plane ran out of fuel, crashing into woods near Gillsburg, Mississippi.  The crash resulted in the deaths of lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister Cassie who sang backup vocals, road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray, and also resulted in serious injuries to the other surviving band members.  The accident occurred just three days after the release of the band’s then latest album, Street Survivors, which ironically featured the band standing engulfed in flames.  The album was recalled and the cover replaced without the flames.  However, on the thirtieth anniversary re-release, the original cover was once again in place.

I first saw Lynyrd Skynyrd in concert at Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium in Columbus, Ohio, having choice seats in row six, while they were touring to promote their second album, Second Helping.  The show’s opening act was the British band T-Rex.  My cousin Rick was to attend the show with me, however, at the last minute he sold his ticket to a friend and was going to buy two tickets at the door to take his then girlfriend, Judy.  However, when we got to Vet’s, we found out the show was sold out and he and Judy missed out seeing the show, waiting in the car for me and the fortunate person who bought Rick’s ticket.  Who knows how they spent the evening out in the parking lot.  Ok, knowing those two very well, I can probably guess what they did to idle away the night.

At the time of the show, I owned the band’s second album, and the only song being played on WCOL-FM (the only rock & roll station in town at that time, and now which has a country format) in Columbus was Sweet Home Alabama.  Throughout their set, many patrons had been yelling out Free Bird, which meant nothing to me.  Music has always soothed the savage beast within me, and as such I have always been very knowledgable about it.  However, nothing prepared me for Skynyrd’s encore, which turned out to be Free Bird.  Needless to say, I was floored.

The next day, after school, my buddy and I drove over to the Lazarus store at the then Westland Mall where I purchased Pronounced Len-nerd Skin-nerd.  I have told this story many times to friends, but when we went back to his house, his comment after hearing most of the album was something like this is country music.  This album may be heavily influence by country music, but Free Bird sure ain’t country music.  It is one of the greatest songs in the long history of rock & roll music.

I believe you judge an album’s greatness by the length of time that you can listen to it.  If you can pull out an album from your collection after forty years and still enjoy it, it most likely is good music.  Consequently, if you grow tired of hearing something after only a few months, it probably is crap.  I can listen to any of Skynyrd’s first five studio albums any day of the week.  Call it country or call it rock & roll, but most definitely call it great American music.

The track listing for the album is as follows:

1.   I Ain’t The One  (Ronnie Van Zant & Gary Rossington)  3:53
2.   Tuesday’s Gone  (Ronnie Van Zant & Allen Collins)   7:32
3.   Gimme Three Steps  (Ronnie Van Zant & Allen Collins)   4:30
4.   Simple Man  (Ronnie Van Zant & Gary Rossington)  5:57
5.   Things Goin’ On  (Ronnie Van Zant & Gary Rossington)  5:00
6.   Mississippi Kid   (Ronnie Van Zant, Al Kooper & Robert Burns   3:56
7.   Poison Whiskey   (Ronnie Van Zant & Ed King)   3:13
8.   Free Bird  (Ronnie Van Zant & Allen Collins)   9:18

Recorded at Studio One in Doraville, Georgia and produced by Al Kooper, the band’s lineup for their debut album was:

Ronnie Van Zant: Lead Vocals
Gary Rossington: Lead & Rhythm Guitar
Allen Collins: Lead & Rhythm Guitar
Ed King: Lead Guitar, Bass
Billy Powell: Keyboards
Robert Burns: Drums

Over the years, tragedy continued to plagued the band.  During 1980, Allen Collins’ wife Kathy died from a miscarriage while pregnant with his third child.  In 1986, he was involved in a car accident which result in the death of his girlfriend and him being paralyzed from the waist down.  He died on January 23, 1990 from chronic pneumonia.  Long time bass player Leon Wilkeson died on July 27, 2001, from natural causes, having suffered from chronic live and lung diseases.  Wilkeson had been a member of the band prior to the recording of its first album, however just as the sessions were to begin, quit.  Soon after, he rejoined the group.  Billy Powell died on January 28, 2009, from a heart attack.

In 1979, Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, Billy Powell and Leon Wilkeson formed the Rossington-Collins Band.  In an attempt to remain independent of their former band’s sound, hired .38 Special female backing vocalist Dale Krantz as its lead singer.  Ironically, .38 Special is fronted by Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother, Donnie.  Rossington-Collins released two albums and toured before disbanding in 1983.  In 1987, Gary Rossington, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson, drummer Artimus Pyle (who was on the tragic flight) and Ed King regrouped and toured as the Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Band, hiring Ronnie and Donnie’s younger brother Johnny as lead vocalist.  Although the band still continues to record and tour to this day, the only original remaining member is Gary Rossington.

In addition to seeing the original band twice, I saw the Rossington-Collins Band twice and the reformed Skynyrd band on its tribute tour twice.  I have photos from one of the Rossington-Collins Band show, and was going to post a few of them along with this article.  However, I am not able to locate them at this time.  I take great pride in knowing where all my photographs and negatives are, and not being able to find not only these pictures but several other concerts as well is very disturbing.  I hate to think that somehow I have misplaced them.  Hopefully, they are in storage from when I moved from my enormous old farmhouse into my very small apartment twelve years ago.

Long live the memories of Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines.  Fly on Free Bird!

Steven H. Spring

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