Free Bird – Lynyrd Skynyrd

Lynyrd Skynyrd is a Southern Rock band, formed in Jacksonville, Florida in 1964. The band became prominent in the Southern United States in 1973, and rose to worldwide recognition before three members and one road crew member died in an airplane crash in 1977. The band reformed in 1987 for a reunion tour with lead singer Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny as the frontman. Lynyrd Skynyrd continues to tour and record. Of its original members, only Gary Rossington remains with the band as of 2010.

In the summer of 1964, teenage friends Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins, and Gary Rossington, formed the band “The Noble Five”, which then changed in 1965 to “My Backyard”, when Larry Junstrom and Bob Burns joined in Jacksonville, Florida. Their early influences included British Invasion bands such as Free, The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles, as well as Southern blues and country & western music Allman Brothers.  In 1968, the group won a local Battle of the Bands contest and the opening slot on several Southeast shows for the California-based psychedelic rock band Strawberry Alarm Clock.

In 1970, Van Zant sought a new name. “One Percent” and “The Noble Five” were each considered before the group settled on “Leonard Skinnerd”, a mocking tribute to a physical-education teacher at Robert E. Lee High School, Leonard Skinner, who was notorious for strictly enforcing the school’s policy against boys having long hair. The more distinctive spelling was adopted before they released their first album. Despite their high school acrimony, the band developed a friendlier relationship with Skinner in later years, and invited him to introduce them at a concert in the Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum.

Around 1970, they went through a number of member changes, with Van Zant, Collins and Rossington remaining the only constants. Burns and Junstrom left the band, and were briefly replaced by Rickey Medlocke on drums and Greg Walker on bass. In 1971, with this lineup, they made some recordings at the famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. By the time they made a second round of Muscle Shoals recordings in 1972, Burns had rejoined the band and Leon Wilkeson had become Larry Junstrom’s permanent replacement on bass, with Medlocke and Walker having left to play with the southern rock band Blackfoot. Around this time, the band occasionally played shows with both Burns and Medlocke participating, utilizing a dual-drummer approach similar to that of The Allman Brothers. Also in 1972, roadie Billy Powell became the keyboardist for the band.

The Plane Crash

On Thursday, October 20, 1977, just three days after the release of Street Survivors, and five shows into their most successful headlining tour to date, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s chartered Convair 240 ran out of fuel near the end of their flight from Greenville, South Carolina, where they had just performed at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium, to LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Though the 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 bandmembers suffered serious injuries.

Following the crash and the ensuing press, Street Survivors became the band’s second platinum album and reached #5 on the U.S. album chart. The single “What’s Your Name” reached #13 on the single airplay charts in January 1978.

The original cover sleeve for Street Survivors had featured a photograph of the band, particularly Steve Gaines, engulfed in flames. Out of respect for the deceased (and at the request of Teresa Gaines, Steve’s widow), MCA Records withdrew the original cover and replaced it with a similar image of the band against a simple black background. Thirty years later, for the deluxe CD version of Street Survivors, the original “flames” cover was restored.

Lynyrd Skynyrd disbanded after the tragedy, reuniting just once to perform an instrumental version of “Free Bird” at Charlie Daniels’ Volunteer Jam V in January 1979. Collins, Rossington, Powell and Pyle performed the song with Charlie Daniels and members of his band. Leon Wilkeson, who was still undergoing physical therapy for his badly broken left arm, was in attendance, along with Judy Van Zant, Teresa Gaines, JoJo Billingsley and Leslie Hawkins.

Freebird

The lyrical portion of the song was written early in the group’s history. Roadie Billy Powell was discovered as a keyboardist for the band when he played the intro piece to “Free Bird” at a high school prom. Lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant noted his talent and invited him to join.

Allen Collins’s then-girlfriend, Kathy, whom he later married, asked him, “If I leave here tomorrow would you still remember me?”. Collins jotted the question down and it eventually became the opening line of “Free Bird”.

Following the plane crash in 1977, all of the songs played by surviving band members were performed as instrumentals beginning with the Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam V in 1979. When “Free Bird” came up, a solitary microphone with a single spotlight would be at center stage while the band played the instrumental version. This tradition lasted until 1989, when an almost-rioting audience coerced Rossington to urge Johnny Van Zant to sing the song for the first time – something he had vowed never to do on stage during the Tribute Tour. The current version has a shortened solo similar to the original studio version.

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If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me
For I must be traveling on now
‘Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see

But if I stayed here with you,GIRL
Things just couldn’t be the same
‘Cause I’m as free as a bird now
And this bird you cannot change

Ohohohohohhhhh
And the bird you cannot change
And this bird you cannot change
Lord knows I can’t change

Bye bye, baby, it’s been a sweet love, yeah, yeah
Though this feeling I can’t change
But please don’t take it so badly
‘Cause Lord knows I’m to blame

But if I stay here with you, GIRL
Things just couldn’t be the same
Cause I’m as free as a bird now
And this bird you never change

Ohohohohohhhhh
And the bird you cannot change
And this bird you cannot change
Lord knows I can’t change
Lord help me I can’t change
Lord I can’t change,
Won’t you fly high, Free Bird, yeah

  • Audio from the 1973 album, (Pronounced ‘LÄ•h-’nérd ‘Skin-’nérd):

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About DJ Allyn

DJ Allyn is a burned out radio guy who went on to become a burned out sound engineer for a few Seattle area grunge bands in the 1980s and 1990s. Left the madness of worldwide tours with bands, cleaned up my act and went into the relative sanity of sound engineering for television series. Currently working as the Director of Sound for a television series being filmed in North Vancouver, British Columbia. I am always on the lookout for interesting videos, old music, and fun.

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