When it comes to Southern rock, no one does it better than Lynyrd Skynyrd. Lynyrd Skynyrd are one of the pioneers of the Southern rock genre in the 1970s, popularizing hits such as “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird”. Ronnie Van Zant was the band’s founding member when he was in his teens. They were signed to MCA Records that released their first album Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd in 1973.
Their following grew more rapidly mostly due to their opening stint on the Who’s Quadrophenia tour in 1973 and their song “Free Bird”. Because of this, their second and third album Second Helping and Nuthin’ Fancy respectively, became multi-platinum sellers.
In 1977 the band experienced tragedy when Van Zandt and other two members perished on an airborne crash from their chartered Convair CV-300 plane; the band were at the peak of success then. After the crash, Lynyrkd Skynyrd went on a hiatus, until about 10 years later the group reformed, with Ronnie’s younger brother Johnny taking over as their new lead singer-songwriter. The group soldiered on despite the deaths that have been continuing to haunt their members, as well as several lineup changes.
The Origins and Foundation of Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s roots hailed from Jacksonville, Florida. Vocalist and primary songwriter Ronnie Van Zant and guitarists Allen Collins and Gary Rossington formed their own band while still in high school. Bassist Leon Wilkeson and keyboardist Billy Powell joined them later on. They first called themselves The Noble Five.
From The Noble Five, the band changed their name to My Backyard, and then finally into Leonard Skinnerd, as a mocking tribute to their physical education teacher Leonard Skinner, who was notorious for punishing male students for sporting long hair. Finally, the band added Bob Burns to complete the lineup.
The band began to play at local clubs around the southern region. They received a big break when they were discovered by Blood, Sweat & Tears producer Al Kooper when he saw the band playing at Funocchio’s in Atlanta, Georgia. Later, the band changed the spelling of Leonard Sknnerd to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and signed with MCA Records with the help of Kooper. He also produced the band’s 1973 debut album Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, which also saw contributions from Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Ed King who played bass there, and eventually joined the band.
Lynyrd Skynyrd Band Members
Lynyrd Skynyrd has undergone numerous lineup changes throughout its history. The original lineup formed in the late 1960s, but over the years, the band has seen members come and go, especially after the tragic plane crash in 1977 that claimed the lives of several members. Here is a rundown of key members throughout the band’s history, focusing primarily on the original and early lineups:
Original and Early Members (1960s-1977):
- Ronnie Van Zant (Lead Vocals): The founding member and lead vocalist, Ronnie was a central figure in the band until his death in the 1977 plane crash.
- Gary Rossington (Guitar): One of the original members, Rossington has been the only constant member throughout the band’s history.
- Allen Collins (Guitar): A key member of the original lineup, known for his guitar skills. He was in the band until the 1977 plane crash and passed away in 1990.
- Bob Burns (Drums): The original drummer, Burns played with the band until 1974. He passed away in 2015.
- Larry Junstrom (Bass): The original bassist, Junstrom left in 1971 and later joined .38 Special, another Southern rock band. He passed away in 2019.
- Ed King (Guitar, Bass): Joined in 1972, originally as a bassist and then as a guitarist. He co-wrote the song “Sweet Home Alabama” and was part of the band until 1975 and then again in the later reunions until his health declined.
- Leon Wilkeson (Bass): Replaced Junstrom in 1972 and stayed with the band until his death in 2001.
- Billy Powell (Keyboards): Initially a roadie for the band, Powell became the keyboardist in 1972 and remained with the band until his death in 2009.
- Artimus Pyle (Drums): Joined in 1974 as Burns’ replacement and was part of the band until the 1977 plane crash, surviving the crash.
- Steve Gaines (Guitar): Joined in 1976 and quickly became an integral part of the band. He died in the 1977 plane crash.
- Cassie Gaines (Backing Vocals): Steve Gaines’ sister, she was a member of the Honkettes, the backing vocalists for the band. She also perished in the 1977 plane crash.
Post-Crash and Reformation (Since 1987)
After the plane crash in 1977, the band took a hiatus. In 1987, the band reformed with some of the surviving members and new ones. Johnny Van Zant, the younger brother of Ronnie, took over as the lead vocalist. The lineup since then has included numerous members, with Gary Rossington remaining as a constant link to the original group.
Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd later yielded the band’s first hit single “Free Bird,” which was dedicated to the Allman Brothers’ Duane Allman, who had just recently died of a motorcycle accident.
The song was also played by Lynyrd Skynyrd when they opened for The Who in the latter’s Quadrophenia tour in the US. This helped the band gain a loyal following. “Free Bird” went to #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974.
Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd peaked at #27 on the Billboard 200 album chart, an impressive feat for a debut release; it eventually went double platinum.
Breakthrough Success with “Sweet Home Alabama”
Lynyrd Skynyrd released their second album Second Helping in 1974, which featured the single, “Sweet Home Alabama,” which became their breakthrough hit. It was written as a response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” Although rivals against each other profession-wise, Van Zant and Young were in fact good friends and admirers of each other’s music.
“Sweet Home Alabama” peaked at #8 on the Hot 100 and is now a rock classic. The most prominent feature of this hard-driving rock song is the excellent guitar work from King. The single’s album Second Helping eventually went to double platinum in 1974.
More Hit Albums and Singles
Lynyrd Skynyrd experienced some lineup changes in the mid-1970s. Burns and King left, and new drummer Artimus Pyle joined the fold. The new lineup released their third album Nuthin’ Fancy in 1975, which became their first album to reach the top 10 (at #9). It yielded a Top 40 hit “Saturday Night Special” (at #27) which had been co-written by King and Van Zant. The follow-up LP Gimme Back My Bullets, failed to live up to the expectations after the successes of their earlier LP’s, although it peaked at #20 on the Billboard 200 album chart in 1976.
The band recovered their supremacy in hard rock territory after their first live album One More From The Road regained their old following as well as winning new fans. It went to #9 on the Billboard 200, and is still one of the band’s most successful outings; it eventually went to triple platinum. The album also featured their new guitarist Steve Gaines, and a trio of all-girl backing singers that included Gaine’s sister Cassie.
Tragedy Looms, and the End of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Golden Era
Lynyrd Skynyrd were clearly at the peak of their fame and success and were poised to achieve something more. The band would prove that, through their sixth album Street Survivors, released on October 17, 1977.
Sadly, Lynyrd Skynrd’s nascent fame and success were put to an end when three of the members – Van Zant, Cassie and Steve Gaines – perished at a plane crash in Gillsburg, Mississippi, after they left Greenville, South Carolina where they had just performed their successful shows. Other band members and crew suffered serious injuries but survived. The tragedy occurred just three days after the release of Street Survivors. The reason behind the plane crash was ruled to be fuel shortage.
On the day that Street Survivors was released, the cover art depicted the band engulfed in flames. But after the tragedy, the cover was soon changed. The album also became successful, earning a double platinum status. However, the band soon disintegrated, ending their golden era with a compilation album Skynyrd’s First and … Last in 1978.
During the 1980s each of the members went on different musical pursuits. Rossington and Collins formed – of course – Rossington Collins band, which also included Wilkeson and Powell. After Rossington Collins broke up, Powell played keyboards for a Christian rock band Vision.
Another tragedy occurred to another band member, Allen Collins. He and his girlfriend were in a car accident in 1986 that killed her, and left Collins (who was drunk behind the wheel) paralyzed, thus making him unable to play again. Collins eventually died of respiratory failure in 1990.
Lynyrd Skynyrd – Assured of a Legendary Place in Rock History
The band reunited in 1987 with Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny taking over the lead singing and songwriting duties. The band toured constantly and put out albums on occasion. Wilkeson and Powell had both died, leaving Gary Rossington the sole surviving member (before the 1977 crash).
By then, the band was considered a rock legend already, especially in respect to their classic lineup in the 1970s. It has received several awards and honors, including ones from the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, into which Lynyrd Skynyrd was inducted in 2006. The group is still active today, with a newer lineup.