During the sweltering days of July 1976, crowds of rowdy, long-haired young rebels invaded the aging Fox Theatre in the heart of Atlanta. Excitement spread through the auditorium as the house lights dimmed and the rebel flag covered the entire back of the stage. The roar of the crowd overwhelmed the words, "...some old friends of mine -- Lynyrd Skynyrd!" By the time the band finished their three night stand at the Fox, a legend had been made -- Skynyrd kicked off the campaign to save the Fox Theatre from destruction and recorded one of the best live albums of all time.
Lynyrd Skynyrd formed around the nucleus of Allen Collins, Gary Rossington and Ronnie VanZant in Jacksonville, Florida during the summer of 1964. Throughout high school, the band learned what they could from each other and by listening to the radio, being influenced by country standards, classic Southern blues and the new British rock sounds. Really impressed with the British sound as well as the rock image, the longhaired students soon ran afoul of the school authorities, namely one coach Leonard Skinner. By 1969, they all dropped out of school -- broke and unemployed -- but remained dedicated to their music. As one last dig at their old gym coach, the band introduced themselves one night as Leonard Skinner -- the name, after going through several versions, stuck as Lynyrd Skynyrd.
After several years of practicing, performing and personnel changes, Skynyrd, like any group of fledgling rock stars, started gigging the notorious one-nighters. Playing all over north Florida and Georgia, the band quickly established itself as a hot club band.
This success led to playing opening act for the Strawberry Alarm Clock, professional management from Alan Walden, and a chance to record some demo tapes in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Although Walden shopped the tapes extensively, the band had a hard time landing a record deal. However, in 1971 legendary producer Jimmy Johnson heard the tapes, and, largely on the strength of Ronnie's unique voice, agreed to produce an album on speculation. Despite several sessions that resulted in 17 recorded songs, the band still missed that elusive big break and continued playing the grueling Southern bar circuit. During these lean years, minor personnel changes occurred from time to time, but the core of Allen, Gary and Ronnie, along with Ed King, Billy Powell and Leon Wilkeson held the band together.
In 1973, things finally started coming together for Lynyrd Skynyrd. During a week-long stint at Funochio's in Atlanta, the band was discovered by the reknowned Al Kooper. After signing a record deal with Kooper's MCA subsidiary Sounds of the South, Skynyrd entered the studio. With Kooper at the controls, the session's 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'.
Following MCA's debut of the band, Skynyrd received the nod as the opening act for the Who's 1973 American Tour. Skynyrd's popularity spread across the country as they played the shows of their lives and 'Freebird' received massive radio airplay. The success of the first album led to almost constant touring, which increased even more after the release of Second Helping. Boosted by the success of the single, 'Sweet Home Alabama', Ronnie's response to Neil Young's 'Southern Man', Skynyrd's star rose further and further.
As the pressures of the road increased, heavy partying took its toll, and as the press picked up on the image of the band as bunch of crazy, drunk rednecks hell-bent on living the wildlife, the band found their creative urges at an all-time low.
When the time came for recording the third album, drummer Bob Burns had been replaced by Artimus Pyle. The band entered the studio with only one song, 'Saturday Night Special' and spent weeks trying to finish the Nuthin' Fancy album in between tour dates. The hectic schedule soon grew too much for guitarist Ed King who left in the middle of the '75 Torture Tour.
By the time the fourth album rolled around, Skynyrd realized that things had to change to keep the band from completely self-destructing. With earlier changes in management to Peter Rudge's Sir Productions and now in production to Tom Dowd, Gimme Back My Bullets represented a conscious effort to improve the band's sound and image. Also, in early 1976 the Honkettes, a female backup vocal group consisting of JoJo Billingsley, Cassie Gaines and Leslie Hawkins became part of the Skynyrd entourage.
While the crowds were as big as ever, Skynyrd had lost some of its biting edge. When, in 1976, the band restored their trademark three guitar lineup with the addition of Steve Gaines, they also restored a lot of the Skynyrd spark. Steve, the brother of vocalist Cassie, rounded out the band's sound and radiated an infectious enthusiasm that motivated everyone else in the band. Just a few weeks after Steve joined the band, Skynyrd recorded its first live album, One More From The Road, a 14 song, two-record set that captured the intense power of the band onstage.
The excitement generated by the release of the live album carried over to the new concert tours and the next studio album. Street Survivors recaptured much of the raw power and freshness of the first albums, but also refelcted a new maturity in the song writing and playing. The album, released in October 1977, sold a half million records immediately upon release and Skynyrd was set to headline at some of the top venues in the country, including Madison Square Garden -- a lifelong dream of Ronnie's. Skynyrd stood on the edge of becoming America's favorite touring band. They were on top of their world when it all fell away at 6000 feet above a Mississippi swamp.
At 6:42 PM on October 20, 1977, 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, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines and 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 in the 1970's was more than just the leaders of a wild pack of Southern rednecks singing about women and drinking; they were a group of musicians who tried to remain faithful to the spirit of rock and roll. Skynyrd left a true legacy of honest, foot-stompin' music that still rings with power and purpose today.