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The quintessential Southern rock band, Lynyrd Skynyrd rose to prominence in 1973, full of regional pride and stressing cocky, boisterous hard rock as opposed to the Allman Brothers' more open-ended blues. Their signature song, "Freebird," complete with it fiery five-minute, three-guitar solo, is easily the most requested live song in existence. When the band broke up in 1977, after Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines died in a plane crash, rock suffered a tremendous loss.
The core members of Lynyrd Skynyrd first met in high school in Jacksonville, Florida. Van Zant, Allen Collins, and Gary Rossington formed the band My Backyard in 1965, eventually joined by Leon Wilkeson and Billy Powell. Their later name immortalized a gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, who was known to punish students who had long hair.
The band, with original drummer Bob Burns, was playing in Atlanta at a bar called Funocchio's in 1972, when they were spotted by Al Kooper, who was on a tour with Badfinger and also scouting bands for MCA's new Sounds of the South label. Kooper signed Skynyrd and produced its 1973 debut, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, adding session guitarist Ed King (late of Strawberry Alarm Clock). The group's initial hook was its three-guitar attack, topping the Allmans' trademark two-guitar leads. Skynyrd first got radio airplay with the lengthy "Freebird." What had been written as a tribute to Duane Allman eventually became an anthem for Skynyrd fans and—when revived, without lyrics, by the Rossington Collins Band in 1980—a tribute to Van Zant.
The band hooked up with the Who's Quadrophenia Tour in 1973 and acquired a reputation as a killer live act. The 1974 followup LP, multi-platinum Second Helping, also produced by Kooper, reached Number 12. It included another instant Southern standard, "Sweet Home Alabama" (Number Eight, 1974), a reply to Neil Young's "Alabama" and "Southern Man." But Van Zant often wore a Neil Young T-shirt, and Young later offered the band several songs to record, though they never made it to vinyl.
In December, 1974, Artimus Pyle joined as a replacement for Burns. King quit a month later. The band's third record, Nuthin' Fancy, went to Number Nine, but 1976's Gimme Back My Bullets, produced by Tom Dowd, sold somewhat less. Skynyrd regrouped in October 1976 with the double live One More From the Road (recorded at Atlanta's Fox Theater), which went to Number Nine, sold triple platinum, and featured new third guitarist Steve Gaines, plus a trio of female backup singers, including Gaines' sister Cassie, called the Honkettes. The band became one of the biggest U.S. concert draws.
Street Survivors, the band's sixth LP, was released three days before the plane crash of October 20, 1977. Skynyrd was traveling in a privately chartered plane between shows in Greenville, South Carolina, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when it crashed just outside Gillsburg, Mississippi, killing three members. The rest escaped with injuries. Ironically, the cover of the band's last LP pictured the members standing in flames and included an order form for a "Lynyrd Skynyrd survival kit." There was also a Van Zant composition about death called "That Smell." The LP cover was changed shortly after the accident, and the album (Number Five, 1977) went on to become one of Skynyrd's biggest sellers.
The next year Skynyrd released First...and Last, which consisted of previously unavailable recordings from 1970 to 1972 (the band had planned on releasing it before the accident). It went platinum, and in 1980 MCA released a best-of called Gold and Platinum.
That same year a new band emerged from Lynyrd Skynyrd's ashes. The Rossington-Collins Band featured three of the surviving members plus female lead singer Dale Krantz. Artimus Pyle, meanwhile, began touring with his Artimus Pyle Band in 1982. In 1986 tragedy struck again when Allen Collins crashed his car, killing his girlfriend and leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Four years later he died of respiratory failure due to pneumonia at age 37.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the fatal plane crash, in 1987, Rossington, Powell, Wilkeson, and King put Lynyrd Skynyrd back together, along with guitarist Randall Hall and Johnny Van-Zant (the only one of the brothers who hyphenates his surname) on lead vocals. The younger brother of Ronnie and Donnie (.38 Special) was a marginally successful solo artist, releasing five albums from 1980 through 1990. Dale Krantz, who had married Gary and become Dale Krantz Rossington by then, sang backup for a 32-date Skynyrd reunion tour, which was chronicled on the following year's double live album, Southern by the Grace of God/Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Tour-1987.
In 1991, the same group (minus Pyle, and with "Custer" on drums) released a new LP, Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991. Both it and 1993's The Last Rebel carried on Skynyrd's musical tradition and were reasonably well received. The band signed with Southern-rock stronghold Capricorn Records and released the one-off acoustic Endangered Species in 1994. Guitarist King left the band shortly after, and new guitarists Rickey Medlocke (formerly of Blackfoot) and Hughie Thomasson (formerly of the Outlaws) were hired as full-time members.
The 1996 concert documentary Freebird...The Movie captured the original band in its prime, on celluloid and an MCA soundtrack. The group's next albums were released on North Carolina-based CMC International, a label that established a solid market niche reviving the careers of slumping arena-rock acts. Sure enough, a 1997 "Behind the Music" special on VH1 aired while the band was in midtour supporting the album Twenty (Number 97, 1997), which marked the 20th anniversary of the fatal, fateful plane crash. Wilkeson died of natural causes in July 2001.
The band soldiered on with new bassist Ean Evans, releasing a new album, Vicious Cycle, in 2003, and hitting the road with Rossington and Powell, the only remaining original members. In 2004, this version of Lynyrd Skynyrd released Lyve: the Vicious Cycle Tour and performed with country music duo Montgomery Gentry on CMT's Crossroads show.
In 2004, Thomasson left the band to reform The Outlaws. In February 2005, Lynyrd Skynyrd performed a Super Bowl party with the young band 3 Doors Down, country singer Jo Dee Messina and veterans Charlie Daniels and .38 Special. The same year the band performed the Hurricane Katrina Music Relief Concert with Kid Rock on vocals, as Van-Zant recovered from throat surgery. Later that month, the group performed a Southern rock medley at the Grammy Awards with country stars Wilson, Tim McGraw, and Keith Urban. In 2006 the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In September 2007, Thomasson died of a heart attack at his Florida home and in January, 2009, Powell died, also of a heart attack.
With Rossington the only original member left, Skynyrd kept on working. In September, 2009, the band released God & Guns and launched a tour of the U.S. and Europe. Fox News host Sean Hannity has embraced the album, often playing segments on his radio show, and the band agreed to headline in the 2010 Sean Hannity Freedom Concert series, which raises scholarship money for the children of disabled veterans.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Evan Serpick contributed to this article.