A Look Behind the Death of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant

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Videos by American Songwriter

Ronnie Van Zant was one of the founding members of the great southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. Van Zant wasn’t born in the sweet home of Alabama, but rather he was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida in 1948. Music wasn’t always Van Zant’s first love. When he was a kid, he imagined life on the baseball field as a Minor League star. But, on October 20, 1977, Ronnie Van Zant’s death came suddenly and tragically during the midst of the band’s success.

Van Zant’s Death

After performing in Greenville, South Carolina, Lynyrd Skynyrd took a flight over to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to play a show at LSU. While on the plane, they received a notice that the pilot was trying to land because they ran out of fuel.

The plane crashed in a heavily forested area in Gillsburg, Mississippi. Ronnie Van Zant, along with band members Steve Gaines, and tour members Cassie Gains, who sang backup, Dean Kilpatrick, assistant road manager, and both pilots were killed on impact. Band members Allen Collins, Gary Rossington, Leon Wilkeson, Billy Powell, Artimus Pyle, and Leslie Hawkings, tour manager Ron Eckerman and several road crew faced serious injuries.

But, what was Van Zant and the band’s legacy and history that lead up to this tragedy? Let’s dive into the history of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Beginnings of Lynyrd Skynyrd

In 1964, the band formed under the name of My Backyard with Ronnie Van Zant as the vocalist, Gary Rossington and Allen Collins on guitar, bassist Larry Junstrom, and Bob Burns on drums.

Baseball brought the high school teens together as Van Zant, Burns, and Rossington knew each other from playing on rival baseball teams. After Van Zant accidentally hit Burns with a baseball, the group decided to play some music together. They realized there was a special quality there and Van Zant recruited Allen Collins as another guitarist, along with Larry Junstrom on bass guitar. They, then, changed their name from My Backyard to The Noble Five. Finally, they decided on The One Percent in 1968 because of taunts from the crowd saying they only had one percent of talent.

However, the name didn’t stick. Burns suggested the name “Leonard Skinnerd,” in reference to both a character in Allan Sherman’s novelty song “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” as well as a mock of their P.E. teacher Leonard Skinner at their high school. They all despised the P.E. teacher because he would get the boys with long hair in trouble at school. By 1970, the band was going by the spelling “Lynyrd Skynyrd.”

The early ’70s brought the group success in the South. It also brought them, new band members. Junstrom left the band and Greg T. Walker briefly took over on bass, while rickey Medlocke joined the band as a second drummer and occasional vocalist.

The Band’s Success

In 1972, Al Kooper, who was a part of the band Blood, Sweat &Tears, discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd at one of their concerts. He signed them to his label, Sounds of the South, which MCA Records supported. They recorded their first self-titled studio album and were joined by Ed King when Wilkeson temporarily left the band due to his nervousness over fame. The album featured the legendary song “Free Bird,” which was about Duane Allman‘s death. The song reached the top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Lynyrd Skynyrd gained a large following from opening up for The Who on their Quadrophenia tour. Their second studio album, Second Helping, confirmed that the band made it in the industry. The album also rolled out their hit song “Sweet Home Alabama,” which was a response to Neil Young‘s “Southern Man.” The song earned a number eight spot on the charts.

The Decline

In 1975, personal issues and stress started hitting the band. Drummer Burns left the band after a mental breakdown during a European tour, in which Artimus Pyle replaced him. Al Kooper parted ways from the band because he was disappointed in their lack of preparation while recording their Nuthin’ Fancy album.

Midway through the Nuthin’ Fancy tour, guitarist Ed King left because of an argument he had with Van Zant. Van Zant belittled King for a subpar performance due to the fact that he had to play the show with old strings that broke during the performance. However, he had to use the guitar with old strings because his guitar roadie ended up in jail with Van Zant the night before and was still there during the performance.

In 1976 the band dealt with a serious car accident, involving Collins and Rossington. Collins drove the car into a tree because he was drunk and stoned on Quaaludes. It ended up inspiring the song “That Smell.”

Van Zant tried to clean up the band’s rambunctious reputation following the birth of his daughter in ’76. 1977 brought the band’s highest talent yet, as they added Steve Gaines to the lineup. But, the band didn’t meet their full potential due to the tragedy of the plane crash.

After the crash, the band took a ten-year hiatus, only to return in 1987. Upon their return, the band consisted of the original pre-crash band members—Rossington, Powell, Wilkeson, and Pyle. Guitarist Ed King returned and Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny Van Zant took over as lead singer.

Photo by Richard McCaffrey/ Michael Ochs Archive/ Getty Images

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