Skynyrd’s tragic story is just unbelievably sad. Five records in, with the band still very much in their ascension, a plane crash rips out the nucleus of the group. They’ve limped on ever since, gaining barely more respect than a tribute band, but the glory years were definitely a long time ago. With guitarist Ed King’s death last October, only one of the seven original band members pictured here, guitarist Gary Rossington, remains alive to tell the tale.
In just four short years, the band managed to accomplish a great deal. And they hit the ground running too. Debut album (Pronounced ‘lĕh-‘nérd ‘skin-‘nérd) from 1973 is a gem of a hard-rock record. Detractors may pigeon-hole it as dumb, sub-Allman Brothers southern rock, but it’s much more than that.
Aside from Ronnie Van Zant’s lyrics, and the triple-guitar threat of King, Rossington and Allen Collins, the real star of the show is Dylan alumn Al Kooper, whose production elevates the band to something else. The phased drum intro to album opener I Ain’t The One sets a groove that flows through the record. The Allman Brothers were never this funky. And what sort of band comes pre-packaged with an anthem like Free Bird on their first release?
Last year’s documentary, If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd, offers a good insight into the short-lived glory days of the band. Pieced together with archival footage and interviews alongside talking heads from surviving members, the film is as heartbreaking as you would expect, particularly when the survivors recount the circumstances involving the plane crash.
The doomed 30-year old Convair CV-240 had previously struggled to complete an earlier flight, and members of the band had joked about the flames they had seen shooting out of its ‘spluttering’ engine. They cautiously stepped aboard the flight from South Carolina to Louisiana on October 20th, 1977. With one engine malfunctioning, and the resulting abnormal fuel consumption, the pilots didn’t notice that the plane was running out of fuel.
Attempting to make an emergency landing, the pilots brought the plane down in a swamp just 300 yards short of the small, rural airstrip they were aiming for. Guitarist Gary Rossington remembers the increasing sound of the plane skimming the treetops for 100 yards, before the plane hit the ground.
Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his backup-singing sister Cassie Gaines, the band’s road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray all perished in the crash. ‘Crew inattention to fuel supply’ was ultimately determined to be the cause of the crash, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Hit: Free Bird
Hidden Gem: I Ain’t The One