“Free Bird” isn’t just one of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s signature hits, it’s also one of the most famous songs in rock and roll history. Released as the second single off Lynyrd Skynyrd’s groundbreaking debut album Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd, “Free Bird” features the famous guitar riff by Gary Rossington, who was the last member of the original band to pass away in March 2023.
Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
With the studio version reaching the top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100, a live version brought it back on the charts between 1976 and 1977 where it peaked inside the top 40. But who wrote the song? We answer that question below.
Meet the Writers Behind “Free Bird”
This iconic song was co-written by two of the band’s original members, frontman Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Allen Collins. Van Zant was the co-founder, lead singer and primary songwriter for Lynyrd Skynyrd. Born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, Van Zant formed Lynyrd Skynyrd in his hometown in 1964 with Collins, Rossington, bass guitarist Larry Junstrom and drummer Bob Burns. Among the band’s other hits he co-wrote are “Sweet Home Alabama,” “That Smell,” “Saturday Night Special,” “What’s Your Name” and “Simple Man.” Prior to forming the legendary rock band, Van Zant had aspirations to pursue a career in baseball.
“I think the whole trick to writing is it’s not very hard to do,” Van Zant explained about songwriting on Jim Ladd’s radio show, Interview, in 1976 (quote via Country Rebel). “The hard thing to do is to get yourself in the mood for writing, just get yourself in that right atmosphere. … When you get yourself in the right mood and the right place all the pressure’s off your head.”
Van Zant sadly didn’t live to see 30, as he was one of the six people who perished in a plane crash in 1977. Following Lynyrd Skynyrd’s show in Greenville, South Carolina, the plane they were on was en route to Baton Rogue, Louisiana, and crashed in Gillsburg, Mississippi, after running out of fuel. Guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister and background singer Cassie Gaines, the band’s assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray were also killed.
Legend has it that Van Zant predicted he would die before turning 30, as Artimus Pyle, who joined the band as a drummer in 1974, said in a VH1 Behind the Music interview. “Ronnie and I were in Tokyo, Japan, and Ronnie told me that he would never live to see 30 and that he would go out with his boots on, in other words, on the road. I said, ‘Ronnie, don’t talk like that,’ but the man knew his destiny.”
In addition to co-founding Lynyrd Skynyrd, Collins and Van Zant were frequent songwriting partners, their names behind the band’s debut single “Gimme Three Steps,” “Double Trouble,” “That Smell” and more. Collins was born in Jacksonville too, learning to play guitar at the age of 12.
Collins was also on the plane that crashed in 1977, yet he and Rossington survived with serious injuries. The crash left Collins with broken vertebrae in his neck and damage in his right arm. Following the tragic crash, Collins and Rossington formed the short-lived Rossington Collins Band in 1979 with other surviving members at the time Billy Powell and Leon Wilkeson. They released two albums, Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere in 1980, which hit No. 13 on the Billboard 200, and its follow up This is the Way in 1981, which cracked the top 30 on the same chart. They disbanded in 1982.
Collins’ career as a guitarist was cut short when he got into a devastating car accident in 1986 that killed his girlfriend, Debra Jean Watts, and left him paralyzed from the waist down. He never returned to the stage following the accident. Collins passed away in 1990 at the age of 37 after developing pneumonia from complications with paralysis. He’s buried in a cemetery in his hometown.
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