Gary's Signature Sound
As a founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, he helped usher in the Southern rock scene in the 1970s. Leading the Rossington-Collins Band, he defined the unmistakable sound in the 1980s. Back at the helm of Lynyrd Skynyrd, guitarist Gary Rossington advances the legendary music even further in the 1990s.
Born on December 4, 1951 in Jacksonville, Florida, Gary Rossington's father died shortly after he was born. This early loss affected him deeply and made him especially dedicated toward his mother, Berniece. When Gary first bought a "real" guitar -- a classic Les Paul Sunburst -- he named the guitar after his mother.
Gary began his musical career in the summer of 1964 when friend Bob Burns received a drum kit -- both boys immediately decided that they would become world famous rock and roll drummers. The practical limitations of a forming a band with only two drummers soon became apparent and Gary gravitated toward playing the guitar. Collecting Coke bottles, scrap metal and a new paper route soon garnered enough to put a deposit on a Sears Silvertone guitar. Gary remembered, "It was a Silvertone. It came in a case with the amp -- it all came in one piece. It was cool. I bought it for about 60 bucks, I think. It seems like it took me five years to pay for it." Another Jacksonville friend, Larry Junstrom, played bass guitar and the settings developed for one of the very first pre-Skynyrd bands: You, Me and Him. All they had to do was learn how to play music.
Gary's older sister, Carol, began dating Lloyd Phillips who played lead guitar in a Jacksonville band that often won local 'Battle of the Bands' contests because of his fast playing. Lloyd really impressed Gary by knowing all the solos in songs like 'Louie, Louie' and 'You Really Got Me'. While waiting to pick Carol up for their date, Lloyd would spend the time showing Gary the basics of playing the guitar.
Gary Rossington, Bob Burns, and Larry Junstrom. Allen Collins. Ronnie VanZant. When these five people came together for the first time in 1964, no one really realized that rock and roll history was being made. Especially hearing about the first rehearsal of My Backyard. No one knew any songs all the way through. Playing just the parts they knew, the new band tried 'Last Time', 'Gloria' and 'Louie, Louie'. Allen had a small Super Reverb amp and both he and Gary plugged their guitars into the bright channel and Ronnie sang through the normal -- all three in one amp.
Years of practicing slowly paid off and as the band gelled, Skynyrd, like any decent group of fledgling rock stars, started gigging the notorious one-nighters which led to management with Alan Walden and a chance to record a demo album with Jimmy Johnson in 1970. Although the demos did not attract a lot of attention from most of the record companies, the band was offered a contract with Capricorn Records. Worried that Skynyrd would forever be under the shadow of the Allman Brothers at the label, the band returned to the daily grind of one-nighters on the Southern bar circuit.
In 1973, however, things finally started coming together for Lynyrd Skynyrd. During a week-long stint at Funochio’s in Atlanta, the band was discovered by the renown Al Kooper. After signing a record deal with MCA subsidiary Sounds of the South, Skynyrd entered the studio with Kooper producing. The result -- Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd -- started the band on its rise to fame with standards like ‘Gimme Three Steps’, ‘Simple Man’, and the incendiary, guitar-driven classic, ‘Freebird’.
Gold and platinum albums followed a string of hit songs like ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, ‘Saturday Night Special’, ‘Gimme Back My Bullets’, ‘What’s Your Name?’, and ‘That Smell’. Over the four years Skynyrd recorded, the memories gradually turned into legends. Opening the Who tour. “Skynning” Europe alive. 1975’s Torture Tour. Steve Gaines. One More From The Road. The Knebworth Fair ’76.
In September 1976, Gary inspired one of Skynyrd's greatest songs ever -- 'That Smell'. Driving drunk in Jacksonville, he lost control of his new car and smashed through a parking lot (and Volkswagon bug) into an old oak tree. "Whiskey bottles, brand new car..."
By October 20, 1977, Skynyrd’s songs had become radio staples. Their latest album, Street Survivors, had just been released to critical and popular acclaim. Their ambitious new tour, just days underway, saw sellout crowds. Then it all fell away at 6000 feet above a Mississippi swamp.
At 6:42 PM, the pilot of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s chartered Convair 240 airplane radioed that the craft was dangerously low on fuel. Less than ten minutes later, the plane crashed into a densely wooded thicket in the middle of a swamp. The crash, which killed Ronnie VanZant, guitarist Steve Gaines, vocalist Cassie Gaines, road manager Dean Kilpatrick and seriously injured the rest of the band and crew, shattered Skynyrd’s fast rising star as it cut a 500 foot path through the swamp. Lynyrd Skynyrd had met a sudden, tragic end.
Gary Rossington, who had both legs, arms wrist and feet broken, as well as a broken pelvic bone and ribs, met with other surviving band members and agreed to disband Skynyrd forever. Lynyrd Skynyrd had come to a fateful and tragic end.
After several years of recovery, the crash survivors felt the time was right for another try. Gary Rossington and Allen Collins had performed at a few special jams, and slowly began planning a new band. In a few months they had signed on Skynyrd survivors Billy Powell and Leon Wilkeson and other local musicians, although the choice of a lead vocalist for the new band remained a perplexing one. Wisely, Gary and Allen chose Dale Krantz, a gutsy, whiskey-voiced female backup singer from .38 Special, instead of an inferior male Ronnie VanZant imitator.
The Rossington-Collins Band debuted in 1980 with the Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere album. Kicked by such songs as ‘Getaway” and 'Don’t Misunderstand Me’ the album sold more than a million copies and the band toured to enthusiastic, sellout crowds. However the band’s 1981 follow-up effort stumbled in the marketplace despite being well-received critcally.
Mounting pressures took a high toll on the band. Allen’s wife died during a miscarriage forcing the cancellation of the 1980 tour, then Gary broke his foot and postponed the tour for another six months. By 1982, Gary and Dale had fallen in love which added another stress to the host of problems within the band. In May the two married and retired to a log house just outside the National Elk Refuge in the Grand Teton Mountains to relax and raise a family.
After four years away from the music industry, Gary and Dale reappeared in 1986 with a new band and album. Returned to the Scene Of The Crime remained guitar oriented rock, but dropped much of the classic Skynyrd sound. Gary knew the approaching tenth anniversary of the crash would bring more and more calls for a Skynyrd reunion. Although initially reluctant, he became involved to insure the reunion would be done right. Reuniting all the crash survivors, Ed King and attempting to fill the shoes of Ronnie VanZant and Steve Gaines proved a daunting task. The band, however, took the stage for the first time in a decade at the 1987 Charlie Daniels’ Volunteer Jam.
The Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Band used the show to kick off a three year tour showcasing the classics that still remained extremely popular. Tearing through a fifteen song set, the band finished with the traditional closer, ‘Freebird’ -- now transformed into the band’s eulogy for Ronnie VanZant. Playing the song instrumentally as a single spotlight lit Ronnie’s hat perched on an empty mic stand, the song never failed to provoke deep emotions from both band members and fans.
The band found that the devotion of Skynyrd’s fans had increased dramatically in the years since the plane crash. As the Tribute Tour stretched on, the band approached the delicate issue of continuing with new material. What had started as a tribute to the glory of Skynyrd’s past had become an important part of the band’s future.
After some serious soul searching by Gary Rossington, the first new material in fourteen years-- Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991 -- came about. Every new song on 1991 and its follow-up, The Last Rebel, told a story in true Skynyrd style. The tunes, all written or co-written by band members, range from blistering guitar rockers to meaningful ballads.
The full-fledged reformation of Skynyrd took their legions of fans by storm. Kicking off the twentieth anniversary of the first Skynyrd album, the band reclaimed the historic stage at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta for a series of celebratory shows. Then Skynyrd embarked on a tour crisscrossing America and Europe, followed by an all-acoustic album of Skynyrd classics and more sellout dates. A new group with a classic heritage.
Gary Rossington, firmly in control of his and his band’s destiny, returned to the Fox Theatre in December 1995 to cement Skynyrd’s place in rock roll history with the debut of Freebird... The Movie. Centering around Skynyrd’s famous 1976 performance at the Knebworth Fair and candid “home movies” of the band on and off the road, the film serves as the final testimony on the significance of one of the greatest rock bands America produced.
Lynyrd Skynyrd in the 1970s was more than just the
leaders of a wild pack of Southern rednecks singing about women and drinking;
they were a group of musicians who tried to remain faithful to the true spirit
of rock and roll. Skynyrd left a legacy of honest, foot-stompin’ music, a legacy
Gary Rossington personifies in the 1990s.
©The Freebird Foundation, Inc.