Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Blues/boogie band formed in 1966 in Jacksonville FL: Ronnie Van Zant (b 15 January 1949; d 20 October 1977, McCombe MS), vocals; Garry Rossington and Allen Collins, guitars; Billy Powell, keyboards; Leon Wilkeson, bass; Bob Burns, drums, all from the same neighbourhood.

Previous names of the band included the Noble Five, the Wild Things and 1%; then they named themselves after Leonard Skinner (d 2010), a gym teacher who'd suspended them for long hair. They added Ed King (ex-Strawberry Alarm Clock) as third guitar. By 1972 the famous lineup was complete. Powell was a friend of Wilkeson's and had been the band's roadie; he was hired to play keyboards when he happened to sit down and play an introduction to 'Freebird'. Soon after that, Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd '73 was their debut album, produced by Al Kooper, who'd spotted them in an Atlanta bar; it included their classic ten-minute version of 'Freebird', a tribute to Duane Allman that became their anthem and an FM staple: its bluesy vocals and weaving three-guitar battling as track rose to a climax summarized their music there and then. Second Helping '74 was also produced by Kooper, considered their best by many, including King's 'Sweet Home Alabama', a top ten answer to Neil Young's 'Southern Man', the 1974 single attacking Gov. George Wallace.

Burns and King left in 1975, replaced by Artimus Pyle and the following year Steve Gaines, ex-Smokehouse and Detroit (with Mitch Ryder). Who manager Peter Rudge took over the band after their support on the Who's Quadrophenia tour '73 made them into a main USA live attraction. Nuthin Fancy and Gimme Back My Bullets '75-6 were solid but unimpressive; the spark was rekindled by two-disc live One More From The Road '76 made at a Fox Theatre in Atlanta: Gaines's vinyl debut saw them in fine form on home territory, the band augmented by Gaines's sister Cassie, other girl backing singers trading off against Van Zant's bourbon-soaked voice. But days after release of Street Survivors '77 with ironic fiery cover art, the band's chartered plane crashed in a Mississippi swamp en route to a gig, killing Van Zant, Steve and Cassie and the road manager; others were injured. They could not carry on without their splendid macho frontman; pre-Kooper tapes were released as First And Last '78; two-disc Gold And Platinum '79 and Best Of The Rest '82 were compilations.

The Rossington Collins band kept the Southern flag flying, including Wilkeson and Powell (LPs Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere '80, This Is The Way '81 charted strongly); younger brother Donnie Van Zant formed .38 Special (seven LPs on A&M included Strength In Numbers '86); Pyle formed his own band, as did Collins later. Collins crashed his car while drunk '86, paralysing himself from the waist down and killing his girlfriend; he died of pneumonia 23 January 1990 aged 37.

Skynyrd added guts and fire to the Allman Brothers Southern guitar rock blueprint; a live version of 'Freebird' made no. 21 in UK '82 and fellow confederates Molly Hatchet still played it for years. They clocked up almost 2,000 gigs; it's said that touring stunted their creativity, but the RIAA certified five of their LPs as multi-platinum mid-'87; they re-formed that year for a sentimental tour with brother Johnny replacing Ronnie (Johnny Van Zant band had LPs No More Dirty Deals, Round Two, The Last Of The Wild Ones '80-2 on Polydor, Van-Zandt '85 on Geffen, Brickyard Road '90 on Atlantic). After the usual barrel-scrapings of live tracks etc three-CD The Boxed Set '92 compiled the best Skynyrd tracks; the re-formed band with Johnny, King and Randall Hall on guitar made Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991 (produced by Tom Dowd), The Last Rebel '93, Endangered Species '94 (Unplugged on Capricorn, produced by Barry Beckett) and 20 '97 on CMC/BMG (Johnny duetting with Ronnie on 'Travelin' Man').

Billy Powell, born in 1952 in Corpus Christie TX, had been badly injured in the airplane crash in 1977; he died 28 January 2009 at home in Orange Park FL, having missed a meeting with a heart specialist. Donald 'Ean' Evans, who had replaced Wilkeson in 2001, died of cancer 6 May 2009, about 48 years old. The original drummer Bob Burns (b Robert Louis Jones Jr.) died 3 April 2015 aged 64 in a car crash in Georgia. Ed King (b 14 September 1949, Glendale CA; d 22 August 2018, Nashville, of cancer) said he left the band because he was a peaceful California hippie and got tired of all the fighting; he came back years later for reunions.