Lynyrd Skynyrd bass player Leon Wilkeson died in his sleep on July 28th in a Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida hotel room, where he was taking a break from the group’s current tour; he was forty-nine. The cause of death is not yet known, but the band’s management considered Wilkeson to have been in good health.
The band was originally founded in Jacksonville, Florida in 1965 by high school friends Ronnie Van Zant (vocals), Allen Collins (guitar) and Gary Rossington (guitar) under the name My Backyard. Shortly after, Wilkenson and keyboardist Billy Powell joined and the band changed its name to Lynyrd Skynyrd in mock tribute to their gym teacher Leonard Skinner, who disliked longhaired students. Lynyrd Skynyrd went on to become the definitive Southern Rock band, blending rock, blues and country to create some of the genre’s most enduring hits, including “Free Bird,” “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Gimme Three Steps.”
On October 20, 1977, just before the band released their fifth record, Street Survivors, their chartered plane crashed killing Van Zant, recently recruited guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines. Wilkeson was one of the survivors, but the group disbanded shortly after. In 1987, Rossington, Powell and Wilkeson — along with guitarist Ed King, who joined the group after their 1973 debut was recorded — reunited Lynyrd Skynyrd, adding vocalist Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie’s brother, and guitarist Randall Hall. Since then, the band, which has experienced lineup changes since, has toured frequently and recorded several albums.
“I never get tired [of playing the old songs],” Wilkeson said during the band’s 1999 tour. “That’s the baffling thing. I could play that music forever. I’m a Skynyrd fan as well as a player.”
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Wilkeson’s death leaves the group’s future in doubt. According to a legal agreement with Ronnie Van Zant’s widow, Judy Van Zant-Jenness, Lynyrd Skynyrd must contain three original members to retain legal rights to the name. With Wilkeson’s death, only Powell and Rossington remain from the group’s original lineup. However, while several of the band’s current dates (up to August 7th) have been cancelled, the band plans to continue the tour.
A memorial service, open to the public, will be held for Wilkeson on August 1st at 11:00 a.m. at the Evergreen Cemetery in Jacksonville. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial contributions be made to the Musician’s Assistance Program (MAP), an organization that provides drug and alcohol treatment for musicians regardless of their financial situation. For more information on how to donate, go to www.map2000.org.