Those who were born after the 80s may have heard of Lynyrd Skynyrd or at least the songs Lynyrd Skynyrd is known for such as Free Bird or Sweet Home Alabama. But how many of these ‘youngsters’ realize Lynyrd Skynyrd is not a person in the band but the name of a band? And yet the name did come from a real person, Leonard Skinner the band member’s gym teacher who was known for strictly enforcing a high school’s policy against boys having long hair.
Lynyrd Skynard’s band members first came together in the summer of 1964 as a group of friends Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins and Gary Rossington, decided to start playing together. Biographies written about the band state that their early influences ranged from the Southern blues common in north Florida to the country standards Ronnie Van Zant said he heard on runs up the Atlantic seaboard in his father’s eighteen-wheeler. Ronnie claimed later that the band really modeled themselves after the first waves of the British rock invasion, “If you ask me, we’re closer to the classic British rock groups like Free than anything else.”
Originally calling themselves “The Noble Five”, in 1965, early practice sessions occurred in the carport of drummer Bob Burns’ parents. The band practiced where ever and whenever one of their mothers let them. The constant practice soon turned into a “learn as you earn” policy that resulted in the Noble Five’s first gig that December.
Slowly, the young group developed their musical talents and the gigs increased. With the increase of talent came more band name changes including the Wildcats, the Sons of Satan, Conqueror Worm, and the Pretty Ones. Van Zant said they used to change their name for the heck of it because nobody knew who they were. The longest lasting pre- Lynyrd Skynyrd name was One Percent.
As the band struggled in their early years, members continued to be influenced by upcoming British bands, even to the point where band members grew their hair long, something few did in the 60s. At the time, school dress code forbid boys hair to even touch their eyebrows or ears. The boys gym coach, Leonard Skinner, from Robert E Lee High School, was the biggest enforcer of this dress code. Van Zant and other band members who attended the high school would use Vasoline before school to slick back their hair to keep it out of their eyes and off their shoulders. Many of the teachers thought they had short hair, except Skinner. Band member Gary Rossington recalled, “All the teachers thought we had short hair, but then at gym you had to take a shower – it was mandatory.” Rossington said Skinner always came through the showers and if he caught you with your hair down touching year ears, he would kick you out or send you to the principal’s office. After having this occur dozens of times, Rossington said he quit school.
With this influence, later on the band would rename itself Leonard Skinner, which grew into Lynard Skynard, and then finally, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Lynyrd Skynrd grew to be a household name by the 70s, especially after opening for The Who in 1973. In 1974 they featured their most popular single Sweet Home Alabama.
Following success, tragic events began to unfold. Both Collins and Rossington had serious car accidents over Labor Day weekend in 1976, forcing the band to cancel some concert dates. The accident inspired the song “That Smell”. The lyrics talk about the oak tree Rossington crashed into and Prince Charming is himself, drunk and stoned on Quaaludes.
Later, the most tragic of all events occurred. On October 20, 1977, when Lynyrd Skynyrd’s chartered plane ran out of fuel near the end of their flight from Greenville, South Carolina, pilots attempted an emergency landing on a small airstrip. The plane crashed in a forest in Gillsburg, Mississippi. Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray were all killed on impact; the other band members suffered serious injuries.
Lynyrd Skynyrd disbanded after the tragedy, reuniting just once to perform an instrumental version of “Free Bird” at Charlie Daniels’ Volunteer Jam in January 1979. Collins, Rossington, Powell and Pyle performed the song with Charlie Daniels and members of his band.
In 1987, Lynyrd Skynyrd reunited for a full-scale tour with crash survivors Gary Rossington, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson and Artimus Pyle and former guitarist Ed King.
The band Skynyrd went on with various replacement members and still perform today.
Jeff Bachmeier is owner of 977music.com, an online music and online radio station network providing live streaming Internet Radio channels with music from the 50’s thru Today. Users can also choose to create their own customized on demand playlist through their own social media profile. For more information please visit http://www.977music.com.
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