For many people, Ronnie VanZant was Lynyrd Skynyrd.
"Mr. and Mrs. Lacy VanZant announce the birth of a son on Thursday, January 15. Mrs. VanZant is the former Miss Marion Hicks." (Florida Times Union -- January 23, 1948) At the time, little did anyone realize those few, sparse words would herald the arrival of a man destined to change the outlook of an entire generation of music. Today, nearly twenty years after the death of that VanZant son, his words ring on with increasing power, authority and adoration.
Born just over five pounds in Jacksonville's St Vincent's Hospital, Ronnie grew up in one of the toughest households in one of the toughest areas of Jacksonville, Florida's Westside "Shanty Town." This toughness permeated his entire being, almost from day one. Growing up on Mull Street, Ronnie was the undisputed king among the boys who would gather to play baseball or football -- games that usually degenerated into raucous free-for-alls because of a missed catch or disputed strike. These games introduced Ronnie with his first love -- baseball. He hoped that sports would rescue him from Shanty Town and recalled in 1975, "I went as far as playing American Legion ball. The next step would have been AA. I played center field. 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."
Another early passion of Ronnie's was to remain with him throughout his life. Ronnie loved to fish. In the earliest days he and his friends would wander down to nearby Cedar Creek with simple poles and croaker sacks; later fishing provided him the necessary rest and relaxation he needed to escape from the mounting pressures of success with Lynyrd Skynyrd. When the band would return home to Florida after touring for weeks on end, Gary and Ronnie would head out fishing as soon as they woke the next day.
Ronnie's musical interest first centered around playing his father's guitars and piano, but found that being the frontman suited his nature best. In early 1964, Ronnie heard that a group of students he knew at Lakeshore Junior High were putting together a band and needed a singer. He went to the audition and promptly announced that he was the new singer for the band. The others knew they couldn't beat Ronnie in a fight, so Ronnie became the singer for Us.
A short time after landing his first gig, Ronnie met Gary Rossington and Bob Burns. After deciding the three of them would try and make some music and tracking down an amplifier -- reluctantly supplied by Allen Collins -- they witnessed the genesis of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Practicing anywhere and anytime their parents and neighbors would tolerate the noise, the band, first called My Backyard, then the Noble Five, gelled with the addition of bass player Larry Junstrom. One of the band's favorite places to practice was in Allen's living room while his mother worked evenings at the local Woolworth's. Allen's mother recalled that she would return home shortly after nine at night and whenever the band practiced at her house, Ronnie would be the first out the door to greet her with a kiss on the cheek.
After several years of practicing and name changes, Skynyrd, like any decent group of fledgling rock stars, started gigging the notorious one-nighters which led to management with Alan Walden and a chance to record a demo album with Jimmy Johnson in 1970. Although the demos did not attract a lot of attention from most of the record companies, the band was offered a contract with Capricorn Records. Demonstrating his own strength and determination that Skynyrd would succeed on its own terms, Ronnie vetoed the deal -- he wouldn't put his band in the shadow of the Allman Brothers. Skynyrd returned to the daily grind of one-nighters on the Southern bar circuit.
Ronnie married Judy Seymour in Waycross, Georgia on November 18, 1972. They met in 1969 when Gary introduced Ronnie to Judy at a One Percent gig at the Comic Book Club in Jacksonville. Several of the players in Lynyrd Skynyrd had now married and the time was getting close to when the band either had to make it or the members would not be able to support their growing families.
In 1973, however, things finally started coming together for Lynyrd Skynyrd. During a week-long stint at Funochio's in Atlanta, the band was discovered by the renown Al Kooper. After signing a record deal with MCA subsidiary Sounds of the South, Skynyrd entered the studio with Kooper producing. The result -- Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd -- started the band on its rise to fame with standards like 'Gimme Three Steps', 'Simple Man', and the incendiary, guitar-driven classic, 'Freebird'.
Gold and platinum albums followed a string of hit songs like 'Sweet Home Alabama', 'Saturday Night Special', 'Gimme Back My Bullets', 'What's Your Name?', and 'That Smell'. Over the four years Skynyrd recorded, the memories gradually turned into legends. Opening the Who tour. "Skynning" Europe alive. 1975's Torture Tour. Steve Gaines. One More From The Road. The Knebworth Fair '76.
Despite achieving tremendous success with Lynyrd Skynyrd, by late 1976 Ronnie began considering leaving the band. His health had suffered horribly from the rigors of nearly non-stop touring and partying and the birth of his daughter Melody in September caused him to reassess his life and his priorities. Although Gary and Allen convinced him not to leave, Ronnie did insist on toning down the "rotgut life" Skynyrd had been leading. This fresh approach, combined with the addition of Steve Gaines as Skynyrd's new third guitar player, re-inspired Ronnie and he wrote some of the best material of his career.
By October 20, 1977, Skynyrd's songs had become radio staples. Their latest album, Street Survivors, had just been released to critical and popular acclaim. Their ambitious new tour, just days underway, saw sellout crowds. Then it all fell away at 6000 feet above a Mississippi swamp.
At 6:42 PM, the pilot of Lynyrd Skynyrd's chartered Convair 240 airplane radioed that the craft was dangerously low on fuel. Less than ten minutes later, the plane crashed into a densely wooded thicket in the middle of a swamp. The crash, which killed Ronnie VanZant, guitarist Steve Gaines, vocalist Cassie Gaines, road manager Dean Kilpatrick and seriously injured the rest of the band and crew, shattered Skynyrd's fast rising star as it cut a 500 foot path through the swamp. Lynyrd Skynyrd had met a sudden, tragic end.
As Merle Haggard's 'I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am' played, Ronnie was laid to rest with his trademark Texas Hatters black hat and favorite fishing pole. Ronnie was memorialized with a simple, ten minute private service under cloudy skies in Orange Park, Florida surrounded by 150 close friends and family. Following a taped recording of David Allen Coe's 'Another Pretty Country Song', Charlie Daniels sang 'Amazing Grace'. Standing in front of the rose-covered brass coffin, minister David Evans, who had recently performed Gary's wedding, led the mourners with the message that Ronnie was not dead; that he lived on in heaven in spirit and on earth in song.
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