Ronnie Van Zandt

Ronnie Van Zandt

Steve Gaines

Cassie Gaines

Dean Kilpatrick
Lynyrd Skynyrd was perhaps one of rock’s greatest groups and embraced the morals and attitudes of the youth of the “South”. Picking up the “Southern Rock” baton where the Allman Brothers left off, Lynyrd Skynyrd hit and hit hard. They were one of the first groups to feature 3 lead guitarists. Formed in 1965 they later took their name from a Jacksonville high school gym teacher named “Leonard Skinner” who was known to punish students with long hair. The nucleus of the band was guitarists Allen Collins and Gary Rossington, bassist Larry Junstrom and lead singer Ronnie Van Zant. They later picked up Billy Powell on piano, Bob Burns on drums and and replaced Larry Junstrom with Leon Wilkeson on bass in 1971. The group was discovered by rock veteran Al Kooper who was scouting for new acts for the “Sounds Of The South” label. During the sessions for their first album Kooper felt they needed a musician with more studio experience and brought in Ed King formerly of the “Strawberry Alarm Clock”. (remember “Incense and Peppermints ?) For some reason Wilkeson left the band and King filled in for him on the bass. Wilkeson returned six months later. Released in 1973 “Pronounced” was kick ass from the get go. It contained Skynyrd classics “Gimme Three Steps”, “Simple Man”, “Tuesday’s Gone”, “I Ain’t the One”, “Poison Whiskey” and the seventies rock anthem “Freebird”. The music to “Freebird” was written by Allen Collins and the lyrics by Ronnie Van Zant as a tribute to Duane Allman. Around this period they were invited to be “The Who’s” opening act for their “Quadrophenia Tour”. The rednecks from Jacksonville blew “The Who” offstage and soon were removed from the tour. In 1974 “Lynyrd Skynyrd” released “Second Helping” another solid outing containing the hit song “Sweet Home Alabama”. “Second Helping” also yielded “The Ballad of Curtis Loew”,”The Needle and the Spoon”,”Call Me The Breeze”,”Swamp Music” and “Working For MCA”. All solid rockers with outstanding guitar work.. The boys were on their way to superstardom. Burns, burnt out from touring quit the group in late 1974 and was replaced by “Artimus Pyle” . In 1975 the boys released “Nuthin’ Fancy” and true to it’s name it was nothing fancy. Although it did contain one of “Skynyrd’s” strongest tunes “Saturday Night Special”. After “Nuthin’Fancy” Ed King had packed it in and eventually ended-up a computer programmer. In 1976 “Gimme Back My Bullets” was released and went gold. When the boys went shopping for a new guitarist, Cassie Gaines, a member of the female back-up singers, suggested they check out her brother Steve Gaines. The band was duely impressed and recruited Gaines. Gaines hailed from Oklahoma and was an outstanding guitarist and rejuvenated the group. With Gaines on board the band regained their cutting edge. They recorded a two-record live set at the Fox Theatre. Released in 76 “One More From The Road” contains blistering versions of Skynyrd originals as well as smoking versions of “T for Texas” and “Crossroads”. There is some excellent footage of an outdoor concert that exists from this period that illustrates how powerful a rock group “Lynyrd Skynyrd” was. By now the excesses of rock stardom where starting to take their toll on the band. After some excessive drug and alcohol consumption and a few wrecked cars Ronnie Van Zant mandated that the group “get its act together”. Ronnie had sort of always been the unofficial leader, probably because he was the toughest and knocked one of the band member’s teeth out. The Skynyrd entourage holed up at Criteria recording studio in Miami and began to work on its next album. Released in October of 1977 “Street Survivor’s” was Skynyrd’s finest work, containing the classics “What’s Your Name”,”That Smell”,”Ain’t No good Life”, and ”You Got That Right”.Lynyrd Skynyrd had just played four dates on their opening tour when on October 20th of 1977 the “Freebird” went down. As if a premonition , the background of the “Street Survivors” cover was shrouded in fire with flames wrapping around Steve Gaines head. It also came with an order form for T-shirts and other band paraphenalia labeled as “Lynyrd Skynyrd Survival Kit”. As with most famous rock plane crashes there are varying accounts of what caused the crash. There had been previous signs of engine trouble with the plane before and some band members were concerned and wanted the plane checked out but Ronnie said “F*ck it, if were gonna go , were gonna go”………..these are the versions of the crash….. The amount of fuel needed to make it to the next gig at Louisiana University was underestimated and the plane ran out of fuel. The left engine gave out and the pilot decided to switch the fuel to the remaining engine and mistakenly dumped it. Whatever the cause may be both engines cut out and the plane began a slow descent while members of the Skynyrd entourage prayed. Ronnie Van Zant refused to put his seat belt on. The plane crashed in a heavily wooded area in Gillsburg Mississippi enroute to Baton Rouge Louisiana. Ronnie was thrown from the plane and killed instantly when his head hit a tree. Cassie Gaines was cut across her neck. Billy Powell cradled her as she kept repeating “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die”. She died in his arms. Also killed were Steve Gaines and Dean Kilpatrick the tour manager. Somehow Artimus Pyle with broken ribs managed to walk to a distant farmhouse for help. In 1978 MCA released “Skynyrd’s first and last”…which contained early material from when Ricky Medlocke was in the group from 1970-72 and some cuts left over from the Criteria sessions slated for the next album. The two best probably being “Down South Jukin” and “Coming home”. Later compilations revealed a few more gems, “I’ve Been Your Fool” and “Truck Driving Man”. When Lynyrd Skynyrd regrouped in the late 80’s with brother Johnny on vocals, “Freebird” was played as an instrumental homage to Ronnie, with his cowboy hat hanging on the microphone stand. Ronnie Van Zant had always said he wasn’t going to make it to 30. He was right, he was 29 when he died.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.