Garry Rossington (Lynyrd Skynyrd) was born in West Jacksonville Florida on December 4, 1951. Anybody familiar with the area knows, that West Jacksonville was considered the tough part of town where things were different. It’s the area where Lynyrd Skynyrd was born. And now every original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd is dead. A Southern Rock band of musicians that passed before their time. The kind that used “to rape and pillage” across the country, who got drunk, did drugs, got laid… That was Lynyrd Skynyrd or at least that was the band’s reputation.
I know I can’t say “rape and pillage” anymore. But that’s how we described the rock star lifestyle back in the seventies, and Lynyrd Skynyrd were part of the firmament of the seventies, even after the plane crash.
Rossington had a strong childhood interest in baseball and aspired as a child to one day play for the New York Yankees. Rossington recalled that he was a “good ball player” but upon hearing the Rolling Stones in his early teens he became interested in music and ultimately gave up on his baseball aspirations.
It was Rossington’s love of baseball that indirectly led to the formation of Lynyrd Skynyrd in the summer of 1964 when he was not yet 13 years old. He became acquainted with Ronnie Van Zant and Bob Burns while playing on rival Jacksonville baseball teams and the trio decided to jam together one afternoon after Burns was injured by a ball hit by Van Zant. They set up their equipment in the carport of Burns’ parents’ house and played The Rolling Stones’ then-current hit “Time Is on My Side”. Liking what they heard, they immediately decided to form a band. Naming themselves The Noble Five, with the additions of guitarist Allen Collins and bassist Larry Junstrom, they later changed the name of the band to The One Percent before eventually settling on the name Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1969.
Rossington grew up in a single-parent household and said that early in their relationship, Ronnie van Zant became something of a father figure to him. He credited Van Zant, who was three years his senior, with teaching him and his bandmates how to drive a car, as well as introducing them to “all that stuff you learn when you’re 14, 15, 16”.
According to a New York Times article, Lacy Van Zant, patriarch of the Van Zant family, once went to West Jacksonville’s Robert E. Lee High School to plead Rossington’s case to school administrators after the fatherless Rossington was suspended for having long hair. Lacy Van Zant explained to the assistant principal that Rossington’s father, who died shortly after Rossington was born, had died in the Army and that Rossington’s mother needed the money Rossington made playing in his band. Lacy Van Zant further explained that, like his own sons, they were working men and long hair was part of the job. It is not known if the elder Van Zant’s efforts were successful, but Rossington later dropped out of high school to focus on Lynyrd Skynyrd full-time.
Rossington’s instrument of choice was a 1959 Gibson Les Paul which he had purchased from a woman whose boyfriend had left her and left behind his guitar. He named it “Berniece” in honor of his mother, whom he was extremely close to after the death of his father. Rossington played lead guitar on “Tuesday’s Gone” and the slide guitar for “Free Bird”. Along with Collins, Rossington also provided the guitar work for “Simple Man”. Besides the Les Paul, he used various other Gibson Guitars including Gibson SGs. Gibson later released a Gary Rossington SG/Les Paul in their Custom Shop. For most of his career, he played through Marshall and Peavey amplifiers.
“Free Bird” was not an immediate hit. After all, Skynyrd was on Al Kooper’s Sounds of the South label, distributed by MCA, and you remember Skynyrd’s song about MCA, right? And just a sidenote re Al… He produced the first three LPs, the band’s best work… Better than the iconic Tom Dowd’s stuff thereafter.
So… Skynyrd penetrated the populace kind of slowly with their first album “Pronounced ….. This was not “Led Zeppelin IV,” where “Stairway to Heaven” was immediately added to playlists. In truth, Skynyrd didn’t really break through nationwide or globally until the second album, “Second Helping,” with “Sweet Home Alabama.”
It’s when their tracks started to permeate FM radio…
God, if today’s youngsters lived through the days of AOR in the seventies. EVERYBODY listened, the FM rock station was the heartbeat of America. If you tuned in, you learned everything you needed to survive. And you never missed a show because you were unaware of it, when a band came to town…
So as the decade wore on, and they had the Memorial 500 and other holiday countdowns, number one was always “Stairway to Heaven.” Number two was “Free Bird.” And eventually “Kashmir” was number three. Always, year after year.
You see Lynyrd Skynyrd had three lead guitarists. We’d seen two drummers, but three lead guitarists? It pushed the music over the line, made it special, magical. It was called a Guitar Army…Not Navy or Air Force, but Army, because that’s where most Southern Boys ended up in real life.
In 1976, Rossington and fellow Skynyrd guitarist Allen Collins were both involved in separate car accidents in their hometown of Jacksonville. Rossington had just bought a new Ford Torino and hit an oak tree while under the influence of alcohol and other drugs. The band was forced to postpone a tour scheduled to begin a few days later, and Rossington was fined US$5,000 for the delay his actions caused to the band’s schedule. The song “That Smell”, written by Van Zant and Collins, was based on the wreck and Rossington’s state of influence from drugs and alcohol that caused it.
“Sweet Home Alabama” was one of those one listen records. Looped you right in. I asked Al Kooper the backstory. Just after the first LP was released, the band called and asked to come up to Hot Lanta to record a new song. That wasn’t released for another year. I asked Al if he knew it was a hit. He said…IT WAS SWEET HOME ALABAMA!
Though in time Rossington fully recovered from the severe injuries sustained in the plane crash, and later played on stage again, with steel rods in his right arm and right leg, he battled serious drug addiction for several years, largely the result of his heavy dependence on pain medication taken during his recovery. Rossington co-founded the Rossington Collins Band with Collins in 1980. The band released two albums, but disbanded in 1982 after the death of Collins’ wife, Kathy.
One important thing you’ve got to know is Ronnie Van Zant was the frontman and the band leader, and not a reluctant one like Gregg Allman. Ronnie had a large personality, he was full of quotes, and he didn’t give a fuck, he’d say whatever he wanted. Point being, the rest of the band stayed relatively faceless. You only knew the rest of the players from the album covers. But the key songwriters were Van Zant, Allen Collins, occasionally Ed King and Gary Rossington. Rossington had his hands all over the hits.
Even though no one could replace Ronnie, the Skynyrd legend could not be kept down. Ultimately, around 1987, the band was reformed with Ronnie’s brother Johnny as lead vocalist, and over time the original players came and went, and then they ultimately passed away. For the next 30 or so years they kept touring with limited interruptions and no…It’s not like Gary Rossington’s death is a shock. He had so many health problems, it seemed inevitable. He suffered a heart attack on October 8, 2015, after which two Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts had to be canceled; he underwent emergency heart surgery in July 2021…and then he finally gave out on March 5, 2023.
Even if every original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd is dead…the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd is still young. Doesn’t sound dated. Sounds as fresh as the seventies, when rock ruled the world, when we thought it could never die.
Skynyrd was not background. It wasn’t the soundtrack to a video game. The band and its music stood alone. That was enough. No brand extensions were necessary. Ronnie Van Zant’s identity, the band’s image was enough. Long after all the perfumes and other chozzerai the “musicians” of today are purveying is gone, they’ll still be playing Skynyrd music.
You see our music wasn’t momentary, it was FOREVER! And a good portion still is.
But you can only really get the hit by listening to the records. And no one else could be Ronnie Van Zant and Gary Rossington. Without them, without either of them, it’s not Skynyrd. A band. Self-contained. Living the life we all wanted to. The dream was to go on the road, at least go backstage, just to touch, to be in the presence of these giants.
So it’s the end of an era, and those of us still here are left with this empty feeling.