By Al Kooper
In 1972, the radio was logjammed with progressive rock like you wouldn't believe — Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis — I was searching for a great three-chord band to produce. And so, that year, I heard Lynyrd Skynyrd making their Atlanta debut at a very dangerous club on Peachtree Street called Funocchio's. They were playing a weeklong engagement, and each night I'd hear another great original song from them and knew I'd found the band I was searching for.
As I got to know them, I marveled at their work ethic. They had a shack on the swamp in their native Jacksonville, Florida, where they rehearsed constantly, honing their original material into polished, shining steel. They may have had three guitar players, but they understood restraint. Of all the bands I'd come across in my life, they were the finest arrangers. "Sweet Home Alabama" sounds like seasoned studio musicians twice their age.
Ronnie Van Zant was Lynyrd Skynyrd. I don't mean to demean the roles the others played in the group's success, but it never would have happened without him. His lyrics were a big part of it — like Woody Guthrie and Merle Haggard before him, Ronnie knew how to cut to the chase. And Ronnie ran that band with an iron hand. I have never seen such internal discipline in a band. One example: These guys composed all of their guitar solos. Most bands improvised solos each time they performed or recorded. Not them. Ronnie's dream was that they would sound exactly the same every time they took the stage.
After three or four albums, Lynyrd Skynyrd transcended the Southern-rock tag. They became one of the greatest rock & roll bands in history. They feared no one. On their very first national tour, they opened for the Who. And got encores!
When Ronnie went down in that terrible 1977 plane crash, the forward progress of the band ended. After the survivors all healed, they miraculously reassembled. Ronnie's kid brother Johnny took over, and you had to rub your eyes to make sure it wasn't Ronnie. But while the band could duplicate the majesty of past live shows (and still can), the heart and soul of the band was gone forever.