26 November 2009

Street Survivors

In my last post, I mentioned the connection between Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd, in life and in death. The death part occurred on 20 October 1977.

Original members Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins, and Gary Rossington formed the first incarnation of the band, then known as The Noble Five, as teenagers in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1964. They later wanted a more distinctive moniker so they named the group after their old high school nemesis, Leonard Skinner, a phys-ed teacher who enforced the school's strict policy against long hair by sending the boys to the assistant principal's office when their locks reached their back collars. By the time "Lynyrd Skynyrd" was being used, the fellas had dropped out of high school and had started toiling away on the Southern bar circuit. Skynyrd's hard work, constant practice, and fine musicianship led to opportunities such as opening for the Strawberry Alarm Clock and recording demos at the legendary Alabama music studio in Muscle Shoals (it earned a mention in the song "Sweet Home Alabama"). Skynyrd finally caught their big break in 1973 when they were discovered by musician and songwriter Al Kooper during a week-long gig in Atlanta. Not only did he sign the band to his MCA label offshoot, Sounds of the South, but he also produced their first three albums. Their debut, titled "pronounced leh-nerd skin-nerd", served up choice tunes like "Tuesday's Gone", "Gimme Three Steps", "Simple Man", and the now-legendary "Freebird".

After awhile, constant touring and alcohol and drug abuse began to take a toll on the band (see their songs "The Needle and the Spoon" and "That Smell"). In 1976, after considering leaving the band due to his flagging health and the birth of his daughter, lead singer Ronnie Van Zant instead made changes in management and studio production; added a third lead guitarist, Steve Gaines, and a three-member female back-up vocal group known as The Honkettes which included JoJo Billingsley, Leslie Hawkins and Steve's older sister Cassie; and insisted he and the rest of the band cut back on the partying and drugs. Zan Vant wrote "Gimme Back My Bullets" to celebrate the new positive direction.

Unfortunately, that new direction did not last. Skynyrd released the album Street Survivors on 17 October 1977. Included on the album was "That Smell", a tune Van Zant wrote as a warning to at least two of his bandmates about the dangers of drugs. Both Allen Collins and Gary Rossington had been in serious car accidents over the Labor Day weekend of 1976 and the band was forced to cancel some tour dates as well as slow down the album's recording. According to Wikipedia (and this bio), "Rossington has admitted repeatedly that he's the 'Prince Charming' of the song who crashed his car into an oak tree while drunk and stoned on Quaaludes. "

Three days after their new album's release, Lynyrd Skynyrd was in a chartered airplane en route from Greenville, South Carolina, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for a gig at LSU when, at 1842, the plane's pilot radioed that the aircraft was low on fuel. Less than ten minutes later, after attempting an emergency landing on a small airstrip, the Convair 240 crashed in a wooded swamp in Gillsburg, Mississippi. Pilot Walter McCreary, co-pilot William Gray, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, as well as Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, and Ronnie Van Zant perished in the crash while the other band and crew members suffered serious injuries. I remember watching the Lynyrd Skynyrd episode of VH1's Behind the Music repeatedly and I can recall that, according to that episode, Van Zant was ejected upon impact and his head hit a tree. Though Van Zant died from massive head trauma, one of the surviving members (maybe Gary Rossington, I don't remember exactly now) of the band said, "Ronnie didn't have a scratch on him!"

Because of the crash, the cover art for Street Survivors had to be adjusted. The original cover showed the band, Steve Gaines in particular, engulfed in flames. Out of respect for those who didn't survive the crash, as well as at the insistence of Steve's widow Teresa, MCA began releasing the album with a similar band photograph but with an all black background instead of the fire. The original artwork was restored, however, when the 30th anniversary version of the album was released.

The Official Lynyrd Skynyrd History website (see the link about the plane crash) says that Ronnie Van Zant was buried with his famous black hat and his favorite fishing pole (it gives no mention of the legend of him wearing his Neil Young T-shirt).

The surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd decided to disband permanently and performed in various other music groups over the years. But in 1987, Lynyrd Skynyrd, using the writing and singing talents of Van Zant's younger brother Johnny (another brother Donnie leads the band .38 Special), began to tour again and released an album of all new material in 1991. Johnny still tours and records with Skynyrd to this day (I grew up in the South and when Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers swing through, it's an annual summer event). The band's latest effort, God & Guns, was released on 29 September 2009 and debuted on the Billboard 200 chart at number 18, the band's highest chart position since Street Survivors.

Lynyrd Skynyrd in its latest incarnation, performing on Craig Ferguson's show in October 2009

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