Lynyrd Skynyrd took their name from their school gym teacher at Robert E Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida – one Leonard Skinner, a man legendary among the band and their peers for his hostility towards long-haired students.
In 1973, the band emerged from the Florida swamplands as a stepchild of the new American South, a culture at once repentant and defiant about its tarnished heritage. By the time they recorded their debut album, Skynyrd had honed a dexterous, chicken-fried sound in Dixieland’s dives and juke joints, assembling along the way a vicious triple-guitar attack to complement a taut rhythm section and Ronnie Van Zant’s remarkably soulful voice.
Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd (1973) was part blues, part country, part The Who, and became the first truly meaningful Southern rock statement. Where the rival Allman Brothers ventured into jazz and hippie noodling, Skynyrd offered a comparable virtuosity anchored deeper in the blues.
The album’s breathtaking finale, Freebird, transformed the group into celebrities and vaulted the album into the charts. Pensive, brash, uplifting and heartrending, the song offers a nine-minute lesson in rock, complete with the most exhilarating outburst of electric guitar to that point, and maybe since.
By 1975, Skynyrd were a man down after one of their three guitar players, Ed King, quit mid-tour, weary of the band’s hellraising. The album Gimme Back My Bullets was recorded with “just” two guitarists but the band had so much drive that King was barely missed.
On 20 October 1977 – just three days after they released their fifth studio album (Street Survivors), the band’s chartered twin-prop aircraft ran out of fuel and plunged into a forest near Gillsburg, Mississippi, killing singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and four other members of their entourage.
In the aftermath, Street Survivors seemed loaded with portents; its cover pictured the band engulfed by flames, and That Smell – which was actually an anti-drug song – had Van Zant warning, “The smell of death’s around you”.
Lynyrd Skynyrd disbanded after the tragedy, reuniting only on one occasion to perform an instrumental version of Free Bird at Charlie Daniels’ “Volunteer Jam V” in January 1979.
In 1987, Lynyrd Skynyrd reunited for a full-scale tour with five members of the pre-crash band: Gary Rossington, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson and Artimus Pyle, along with guitarist Ed King, who had left the band two years before the crash.
Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny, took over as the new lead singer and primary songwriter. The band released its first post-reunion album in 1991, entitled Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991.
Leonard Skinner passed away in 2010.
Ronnie Van Zant
Drums, vocals, guitar