SKYNYRD HISTORY LESSONS
Name Changes and Ten Dollar Gigs
Dreams of music and baseball collided in Jacksonville, Florida during the summer of 1964. Although Ronnie VanZant, Bob Burns, Allen Collins, Gary Rossington and Larry Junstrom developed an early forerunner of Lynyrd Skynrd that summer, for most of the players, baseball remained the star attraction.
Gary Rossington dreamed of eventually playing for the New York Yankees. His mother, Berniece Rossington, remembered, "He wanted to be a Yankee". He was a Yankee fan and he was going to play on the Yankee team when he grew up. He would be a baseball player." Gary reflected on his baseball career, "I was a fat little kid - second baseman. I was a real good ball player..."
Ronnie VanZant, in particular, hoped for a sports career. He recalled in 1975, "I went as far as playing American Legion ball. The next stop would have been AA (minor league baseball). I played centerfield. I had the highest batting average in the league one year and a good arm - you've got to have a good arm to play outfield. Gary was good too, but he gave it all up when he got to like the Rolling Stones."
Initially, the young teenagers found their new band and rock music just one interest among many. Allen Collins, however, had no illusions of a sports career. He wanted to be a rock star, but didn't know if he wanted to be a star with Ronnie and Gary.
Allen got his musical start playing the guitar when he was twelve years old. His step-mother, Leila Collins, played country and western guitar. Allen's father, Larkin collins, remebered Allen's first experience with the guitar. "My wife, Leila sat down and taught Allen three or four notes at one sitting, and he liked it. He picked it up from there and, well, she taught him some more, but he never had a lesson in his life. She sort of, you might say, was his only lesson. No doubt about it at all."
Shortly after first picking up the guitar, Allen had a falling out with his father and returned to live with his mother. His father then bought him his first guitar and amplifier and only a few weeks later Ronnie, Bob, and Gary waylayed Allen into playing music with them.
Ronnie VanZant began his musical career in a common venue - singing in the bathtub. Ronnie's mother, Marion VanZant, recalled her son's early singing, "They'd play on the piano and guitar, but singing in the bathtub, that was their real thing. The first day Ronnie went to school he sat in the corner with a dunce cap on his head for singing `Ricochet Romance' and `Beer Drinkin' Daddy' in the classroom. So, I had to go down to the school house and take Ronnie outside and tend to him a little bit."
After seeing the Rolling Stones play on the Ed Sullivan Show on television, Gary began shifting his emphasis from baseball to rock and roll, but later admitted the process was difficult, "It happened slow at first. It took a long time to learn how. We were trying to learn from people, no lessons or anything, just watching."
The band, first called My Backyard, but quickly changed to the Noble Five, learned their music by watching others perform and picking apart the songs they heard on the radio. Early influences ranged from the Southern blues common in north Florida to the country standards Ronnie heard on runs up the Atlantic seaboard in his father's eighteen-wheeler. Ronnie always claimed though, that the band really modeled themselves after the first waves of the British rock invasion, "If you ask me, we're closer to the classic British rock groups like Free than anything else."
"You know, we came from English music," Gary agreed, "We'd listen to the Yardbirds and Clapton, you know and Jeff Beck, the Beatles and the Stones, the Animals, all those groups. They were our idols and gods at the time. As a matter of fact, that's when I really did think the Beatles were like gods. I had this thing when Iwas going to school. I'd listen to the radio - couldn't afford a record player then - I had a little radio then. If they ever came on,I would never turn them off and if I was late for school, had to miss scholl or miss church and get my butt beat by my momma because I'd miss a chore. It was like against my religion to turn them off."
The Noble Five's earliest practice sessions occured in the carport of drummer Bob Burns' parents. The band practiced where ever and whenever one of their mother would turn a deaf ear and agree to their requests. Gary reminisced, 'See, it was who's mother would let them play at their house. It wasn't where you were going to rehearse, it was who's mom... Bob went, `I can talk my mother into it.' So..." Often their Jacksonville neighbors were not as tolerant as Bob Burns' mother. "We used to practice after school until the cops would run us off every night, then on weekends, all day,all night."
The constant practice soon turned into a "learn as you earn" policy that resulted in the Noble Five's first gig that December. Ronnie's brother-in-law owned Morris Auto Supply, the auto parts store where Ronnie worked. His brother-in-law wanted a cheap band for his annual Christmas party at a big barbecue restaurant. Gary explained, "It wasn't the Green Pig, but it had a little dance floor and stage and they used to have country combos so people could dance after they ate. It was kind of a juke joint/babecue joint. He invited all his employees, freinds and gas station people that worked and bought parts from him and he wanted a band - cheap. We got ten bucks.
"That was big time money. We thought we were rich. That was two bucks apiece and we all chipped in a quarter apiece for gas. We came home with $1.75.
"At that time we were still playing through Allen's Super Reverb and Bob had drums and Larry had a little Ampeg bass amp you could barely hear.It was one of those little R2-D2 robot-looking things. We played `Gloria' and a few Rolling Stones songs. We only knew about five, six or seven songs. We kept doing those all night and he paid us and we got out of there."
Shortly after that first gig, Allen bought the Beatles '65 album that had just come out. Gary recalled, "I remember when Beatles '65 came out. We were together then and we were trying to learn their songs. they were too hard to learn, but we were trying."
Slowly, they developed their musical talents and the gigs increased. At the very beginning, only Ronnie had reached the legal driving age and for quite awhile he was the only one with a car. Gary explained setting up for a gig, "Actually, it was always the same band - we just kept changing the name." Some said the band changed names more times than they ever changed their socks. In any event, they ran through such names as the Wildcats, the Sons of Satan, Conqueror Worm, the Pretty Ones. " We used to play teen dens, church socials and stuff so the band's name didn't matter. We used to change our name every day, just for the heck of it, because we weren't known at all." The longest lasting pre- Lynyrd Skynyrd name was also the last, the One percent.
In early 1968, the group saw a movie in Gainesville about the Hell's Angels and saw a slogan that appealed to them. Gary recalled, "A couple of bikers came up, Hell's Angels, and we saw they had tattoos or patches saying `One Percent'.That was their little logo - one percent of the world is bikers you know. We thought that was cool, so we changed to the One Percent like we were bad-ass biker dudes or something." The One Percent lasted for more than a year.
"We'd play anything on the radio, `Satisfaction', `Day Tripper' - we were into Yardbirds, Blues Magoos. We used to play at clubs at night and go to school during the day.They called us a psychedelic band and it was hard for us to get work at dances because people wanted Top-40. After about four years playing at parties, playing anywhere we could, we were making about twenty dollars a week."
While frustrating, the increasingly frequent playing about Jacksonville resulted in building the band's endurance and musical talent. Ronnie recalled, "In the beginning, we used to play one joint until midnight for kids, then they turned it into a bottle club and we'd go until 6 am. It really tightened us up as a band. When you're from the South, you learn to work your ass off, and we did.It was hellatious. Hellatious and and the best years of our lives."
The group also became introduced to many that would later play important roles in the success of Lynyrd Skynyrd and beyond - friends like Kevin Elson and Gene Odom, players like Randall Hall, Billy Powell, Barry Harwood. And, for Ronnie, a very special lady.
Judy VanZant related her introduction to the band, "I first met Gary Rossington in 1969. Then he introduced me to Ronnie. They were still called the One Percent then.They were playing at a club on Forsyth Street in downtown Jacksonville called the Comic Book Club in 1969. They played there quite a bit." Judy and Ronnie were married in 1971 and had a daughter, Melody, in 1976.
As the gigs increased, the band began taking on the persona of rock and rollers. "We were playing the church dances and clubs around town. And we had to be cool, man, and look ike an English group," Gary explained, "The Beatles, the Stones and the Yardbirds were where we got our influences, learning from the British people. We grew our hair long, which back then was not even touching our eyebrows hardly and barely our ears, but the dress code at school said you couldn't have that."
Allen attened Forrest High School in Jacksonville, a school with a very strict dress code that forbade long hair on males. His father remembered, "The first time, the school called me. All I did was pick Allen up and take him to the barbershop to get a normal haircut, which he resented. I thought, at that time, his education was more important and I done what I thought was right. He always hated it. I didn't hear from him for two or three years because of it. I only found out later, after he and I kind of made up, that he resented it, because all of them laughed at him."
However, it was the dress code at cross-town rival Robert E Lee High School that would go down in rock and roll history, largely because of a tough gym teacher named Leonard Skinner. In 1978, Skinner recalled, "I was a gym coach in high school for Ronnie VanZant and of the others in the band. Back in those days we had a dress code. The dress code involved sideburns not coming below the ears; hair not touching the back of the collar; belts had to be worn; shirt tails had to be in; and socks had to be worn at all times. It was among the duties of the coach to help enforce these rules and apparently one of the people, or one or more of the people, that I may have sent down were members of this band."
Trying to get around the dress code's ban on long hair, Gary and the others would use Vasoline before school to slick back their hair and keep it out of their eyes and off their shoulders. Gary remembered thinking they looked like rednecks, but all the teachers thought they had short hair. All except coach Skinner, that was.
Gary recalled, "All the teachers thought we had short hair, but then at gym you had to take a shower - it was mandatory." Remembering the results of those showers, Gary related, "Leonard Skinner would come through the showers while you were doing it, and if he caught you with your hair down touching your ears or something he'd kick you out or send you to the principal. After about 20 or 30 times of doing that to me, and kicking me out for two weeks of suspension, I just quit school. He kicked me out and I said,`____ you, I'm gone!'
"We played at the Forrest Inn a night or two later and as a joke, because Ronie was goofing on me leaving and what happened when Skinner kicked me out, he said `Hey, we're One Percent. We're gonna play for y'all tonight, but we're gonna change our name though. Everybody who wants to change it to Leonard Skinner applaud, Everybody who don't, don't.' Everybody knew Leonard Skinner because he was everybody else's coach too. So everybody roared and cheered and they thought it was a big joke and funny, but we kept it. And later we changed the Y's and stuff so we wouldn't get in trouble and it kind of caught on from that little joke."
After the Forrest Inn date, Bob Burns reinforced the name change by joking that Skinner would come for Gary. Whenever a phone would ring and no one would be on the line or they thought they heard a knock on the door, it was always "Leonard" out to get Gary.
Leonard Skinner grew into Lynard Skynard, and then finally, the band settled on Lynyrd Skynyrd.