The story of Lynyrd Skynyrd is one full of its share of triumphs and tragedies. The roots of this seminal Southern rock act can be traced back to 1965 when Jacksonville, Florida high school chums Ronnie Van Zant (vocals), Gary Rossington (guitar), Allen Collins (guitar), Larry Junstrum (bass), and Bob Burns (drums) came together under the name, My Backyard. By 1968, the band had signed with the independent Shade Tree Records and took on the name Lynyrd Skynyrd, immortalizing their antagonistic gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, who enjoyed busting their long-haired chops on a regular basis.
Skynyrd’s big break came in 1972, when they were discovered by legendary producer Al Kooper. The band signed with MCA’s Sounds of the South and underwent a lineup change adding Leon Wilkeson (bass), Billy Powell (keyboards) and former Strawberry Alarm Clock guitarist Ed King. For MCA, Lynyrd Skynyrd would provide four gold and platinum albums, pronounced ‘leh-‘nerd ‘skin-‘nerd (1973), Second Helping (1974), Gimme Back My Bullets (1976) with new drummer Artemis Pyle, and Street Survivors (1977) with new guitarist Steve Gaines. On October 20, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd was en route to a performance at Louisiana State University when their private plane ran out of fuel and crashed into a swamp in Gillsburg, Mississippi killing Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, back up singer Cassie Gaines and manager Dean Kilpatrick, as well as seriously injuring the rest of the band. This tragic accident occurred just three days after the release of Street Survivors.
So it is perhaps ironic that the two recently remastered Lynyrd Skynyrd albums pronounced ‘leh-‘nerd ‘skin-‘nerd and Street Survivors represent the beginning and the end of the original lineup’s recorded output. Both of these newly remastered classics feature five bonus tracks that include previously unreleased demos and alternate versions.
Their debut album, pronounced ‘leh-‘nerd ‘skin-‘nerd, introduced would-be Skynyrd fans to their raucous southern boogie, blues-rock sound with its gritty three guitar attack and Ronnie Van Zant’s blue-collar vocals—a sound that would be heard worldwide on the Who’s 1973 Quadraphenia tour, on which Lynyrd Skynyrd was the opening act. More than half of this great record is comprised of instantly recognizable classics like “I Ain’t the One”, “Tuesday’s Gone”, “Gimme Three Steps”, “Simple Man” and “Mississippi Kid”. Also present is the band’s tour-de-force, “Free Bird”, a song originally written as a tribute to the late Allman Brothers guitarist Duane Allman, but which took an entirely different meaning after the tragic event of 1977. Bonus tracks include demo versions of “Freebird”, “Gimme Three Steps”, the bluesy “Mr. Banker”, “Down South Jukin’” and “Tuesday’s Gone”. If you’re expecting to hear pre-evolutionary, totally stripped-down, early-stage takes of these songs, you will be disappointed as they hardly deviate from their original versions. The only notable exceptions are “Freebird”, which gives just the basic rhythm parts during what is supposed to be the song’s lead-riddled finale, and “Tuesday’s Gone”, which features a beautiful piano introduction courtesy of Billy Powell that will undoubtably leave the listener wondering why they didn’t leave it in to start with.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s last studio offering, Street Survivors, was the first for guitarist Steve Gaines. It was Gaines’ sister Cassie, a Skynyrd backup singer, who recommended Steve for the guitar spot vacated by Ed King. His impressive audition immediately garnered him the slot. Gaines’ influence on this record cannot be understated. His enthusiasm and creativity reinvigorated Skynyrd. Songs like “You Got That Right”, “I Ain’t the One”, “I Never Dreamed”, “I Know a Little”, and “Ain’t No Good Life” are all Steve Gaines compositions. Like their debut, Street Survivors has its share of classics as well, like “That Smell”, “What’s Your Name” and “One More Time”. This newly remastered gem features the original cover art which depicts the band engulfed in flames (the cover was withdrawn at the insistence of the families after the plane crash). The bonus tracks feature alternate versions of “You Got That Right” and “I Never Dreamed”. But like the bonus tracks of pronounced, these tracks do not vary at all from their original versions, which leads one to wonder why they just didn’t insert One More From the Road type live performances instead. The previously unreleased numbers include the raunchy, R&B styled “Georgia Peaches”, “Sweet Little Missy” and “Jacksonville Kid”.
Since the crash, the surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd have had to deal with more emotional pain and sadness than anyone should ever have to bear. Guitarist Allen Collins’ wife passed away in the early ‘80s. A 1986 car crash left him paralyzed from the waist down. He eventually succumbed to pneumonia in 1990. Bassist Leon Wilkeson also passed away in July 2001.
Had fate not intervened in October 1977, how far could Lynyrd Skynyrd have gone? That is always the burning question, as it is for other fallen rock stars like Jimi Hendrix, Randy Rhoads, Jim Morrison and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The fact is that we will never know. Skynyrd’s star was still on the rise at the time of the accident; they could have taken it as far as they wanted to. But, to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s credit, it took only four short years to give us enough classic rock to last a lifetime.