Anniversary Album: 50 Years of ‘Second Helping’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd

Fifty years ago this month, Lynryd Skynyrd released their second studio album, titled appropriately enough Second Helping. Before its release, they were just one of many up-and-coming rock bands trying to find a firm footing. Second Helping changed all that, as it turned them into the leading lights of Southern rock.

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It didn’t hurt that the album featured a breakthrough single that introduced them to fans from all over the country and world. Here’s the story behind this album, as well as a look at its lasting legacy.

“Helping” Hands

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s debut album featured a striking title (Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd) and at least four songs (“Tuesday’s Gone,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man” and, but of course, “Free Bird”) that would become rock classics. But upon its initial release, it didn’t exactly make them household names.

It did bring them enough exposure to get them a gig opening for none other than The Who on a major tour. Audiences expecting the British rockers were often taken aback by the pure power of Skynyrd, who boasted three flame-throwing guitarists and a soulful shouter of a lead singer in Ronnie Van Zant. Confidence brimming, they hit the studio to make their second album with producer Al Kooper.

What they needed to really put them over was a hit single. It’s doubtful Van Zant (lyricist), Gary Rossington, and Ed King (the latter two composing the music) thought in those terms as they were writing “Sweet Home Alabama.” They were keenly aware, however, they had a killer foundation in that opening riff of King’s.

Van Zant wrote the words as a tongue-in-cheek riposte to a couple of Neil Young songs. Over the years, many have debated how much or how little the band actually believed in some of the song’s good-ol’-boy platitudes. But the bottom line was that fans responded to the way Skynyrd presented as a band that would espouse its beliefs regardless of what anyone else thought.

“Sweet Home Alabama” certainly struck a chord, and it brought fans into the rest of the band’s work on Second Helping. It led to a rerelease of “Free Bird” as a single, and that cemented Lynyrd Skynyrd as the heirs to the Southern rock tradition, which had been lacking a leading light in the wake of the personal struggles and tragedies surrounding The Allman Brothers Band in the middle of the decade.

Asking for “Seconds”

Listening to Second Helping, it’s striking to note how there’s not really a wasted moment on the record. All eight songs are beasts in their own way. With “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” and “Workin’ for MCA,” Van Zant thoughtfully questioned the inner machinery of rock music without sounding like a whiner, in part because of the robust musical attack going on around him.

“I Need You” and “The Needle and the Spoon” gave the instrumentalists the chance to show off their bluesier side. The cover of J.J. Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze” lent those same players an opportunity to rip and send the album out in a blaze of glory. Meanwhile, “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” showed the band’s ability to branch out and deliver a sensitive story song.

Al Kooper produced it all with an ear to finding just the right touches for each song, such as the call-and-response backing vocalists on “Sweet Home Alabama” or the horn section on “Don’t Ask Me Questions” and “Call Me the Breeze.” Here was a band with instrumental chops to spare, four contributing songwriters (Van Zant, King, Rossington, and Allen Collins), and a willingness to speak to their life experiences instead of settling for easy love-song clichés.

You can look at the first two albums as the band’s killer one-two punch to start their career. Their three subsequent albums had fiery moments, but not quite the same cohesion. The plane crash that killed Van Zant and later band members Steve and Cassie Gaines ended their all-too brief classic period. But what a stretch that was, with Second Helping serving as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s defiant, dizzying peak.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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