October 20, 1977 – Ronald Wayne “Ronnie” Van Zant was born on January 15, 1948 in West Jacksonville, Florida. He was the nucleus founding member and frontman of the Jacksonville, Florida, based Southern rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd formed in 1964.
Friends and schoolmates Allen Collins, Gary Rossington, Larry Junstrom, and Bob Burns made up the band. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s name was inspired by a gym teacher the boys had in high school, Leonard Skinner, who disapproved of students with long hair.
Their fan base grow rapidly throughout 1973, mainly due to their opening slot on The Who’s Quadrophenia tour in the United States. Their debut self titled album produced the hit Freebird, the track achieved the No. 3 spot on Guitar World’s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos.
Their second album in 1974, Second Helping, featured their most popular single, “Sweet Home Alabama”, a tongue in cheek response to Neil Young’s “Alabama” and “Southern Man”.
He was their charismatic lead vocalist/lyricist, when he was killed in the same plane crash that took his fellow band members Cassie Gaines and Steve Gaines. For many people Ronnie van Zant was really Lynyrd Skynyrd, even though the guitar army behind him on stage, made a huge impact on rock music in the early seventies.
Ronnie aspired to be many things before finding his love for music. Notably, he was interested in becoming a boxer (as Muhammad Ali was one of his idols), and in playing professional baseball, even playing American Legion baseball. Ronnie also tossed around the idea of becoming a stock car racer. He would say that he was going to be the most famous person to come out of Jacksonville since stock car racer Lee Roy Yarbrough.
But music got him.
There are so many bizarre things going on with Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s ‘Street Survivors‘ album that we get all weirded out just thinking about them. First, there’s the cover of the 1977 LP, which features the band engulfed in flames. Knowing what comes next — three days after the album’s release, the band’s plane went down, killing frontman Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister Cassie and others — is enough to freak out even people who aren’t freaked out by these kinds of things.
And then there’s the words to ‘That Smell,’ one of the album’s most popular songs: ”Say you’ll be alright come tomorrow, but tomorrow might not be here for you,” “Angel of darkness upon you,” ”The smell of death surrounds you.” It may have been written as a cautionary drug tune, but following the events of Oct. 20, 1977, ‘That Smell’ takes on a whole new, and creepily prescient, meaning.
Died in a plane crash. Four band members were killed along with the pilot, Walter McCreary and co-pilot, William Gray when the band’s rented plane, a Convair 240, ran out of fuel and crashed into a swamp in Gillsburg, Missouri.