Initially starting as My Backyard, Lynyrd Skynyrd was founded by Ronnie Van Zandt (vocals), Gary Rossington (guitars), Allan Collins (guitar), Greg Walker, and Bob Burns (drums). Their name came from Leonard Skinner, a school gym teacher who gave Van Zandt, and other members a hard time for having long hair; and by naming their longhaired Heavy Metal band after him (with a deliberate misspelling); one has to admit it was the ultimate in revenge! To realize a boyhood dream of founding the American version of the Rolling Stones but blown away by the southern blues of the Allman Brothers, they became determined to conquer the world with their own brand of the sound. Packing in school at the nearest opportunity, they practiced 16 hours a day to hone their sound. Indeed, their hometown was a burgeoning scene for the likes of Allmond Bros. Dicky Betts, as well as Berry Oakley and Tom Petty, and others. Their first victory was winning supporting slot for the one-hit wonder psychedelic group Strawberry Alarm Clock.
By 1970 they had managed an amazing 1,000 gigs, and the real fame and touring hadn't really started; all this on a single release of the 1968 single Need All My Friends, with only another single following in 1971 I've Been Your Fool taken from sessions the band had recorded at famed Muscle Shoals Studios in Sheffield, Alabama. During these sessions the band laid down the tracks that would eventually become their debut album, the aptly titled Pronouced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd in 1974. Leon Wilkenson joined the band midway through the sessions to replace Walker, while Ricky Matlocke contributed some of the vocals and drum parts while manager Alan Wladen touted the demos around to various companies to no avail until Al Cooper (ex-Blues Project) came around in the process of setting up Altanta based Sounds Of The South' label with the backing of M.C.A.' to capitalize on the booming Southern Rock scene. Clashing with them on the debut, Cooper managed to complete the production of the album acting almost like another member of the band by contributing vocal and instrumental bits to several tracks. Indeed, the album's mix of country Blues with Cream, Rolling Stones and Free culminated in the track many consider the quintessential Skynyrd song in Free Bird, not to mention the piano laden intro. Free Bird would meld into a Duane Allmand styled melancholy style and eventually cascade into a triple guitar blast (they would later dedicate the song to him after he was killed in a motorcycle crash). This extra guitar bit was achieved by overdubbing Collins, a feat successfully achieved live by Leon Wilkinson (who'd left prior to recording the album) later returning and allowing Ed King, who had filled in as bass player on the debut to become a permanent member then switching to guitar and cementing the three pronged attack of the classic Skynyrd line-up. The debut also boasted mournful ballads like Tuesday's Gone and Things Goin' On (a song about overhand political dealings set to a rolling Honky Tonk backing).
Their debut now behind them, they then secured a tour with the Who on their 1973 tour and instantly they found themselves with stadium gigs and won over the Who crowd. Indeed, with their second recording, Second Helping (1974), making the rounds at 12 U.S. on the strength of the Sweet Home Alabama hit (making 8 on its own; a song made as a rousing tongue in cheek rebuke of Neil Young's hit Southern Man) they were well on their way to major hit status. Second Helping proved to be a competent follow-up in its own right with further hits in the form of Workin' For MCA contrasting with the sounds of The Ballad Of Curtis Lowe, a tribute to a Black Blues man, proving that Lynyd Skynyrd was more than just hillbilly hicks commonly associated with their style. Van Zant was very proud of his southern U.S. upbringing and strived to tell the stories of a part of his homeland he felt had been discredited since the U.S. Civil War over a century earlier, but the charges of the band being political and racist were simply out of line. Indeed, the track Saturday Night Special, an anti-firearms song, flew in the face of those who thought they were nothing more than gun toting hicks.
Saturday Night Special proved to be the prototype for their entire third effort, Nuthin' Fancy (1975), a release that was a solid Hard Rocking affair but failed to break new ground; the release led to the Torture Tour (as it became known) for the stories of violence, madness, sex and drugs, particularly on the part of Van Zant whose outbursts became legendary. The album also saw the first line-up change with Bob Burns leaving and replaced with Artimus Pyle after a tirade on the tour. The pressure was clearly on for the band had barely been off the road since their inception and the tension was showing. Ed King was the next to get fed up and leave with Steve Gaines (brother of new backing singer Cassie Gaines) moving in, though he was featured on only a handful of tracks on the One More From The Road (1976) live effort released after the Gimme Back My Bullets (1976; a 20 U.S./34 U.K. effort).
The revitalized line-up, coupled with Van Zant's determination made Sweet Survivors (1977) their best since the sophomore effort. Inspired by the styles of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings the albums sound right down to a cover of Merle Haggerd's Honky Tonk Night Time Man and Van Zant's heartfelt anti-heroin track, That Smell. The album would prove to be their swansong, and the cover featuring the band burning in flames proved to be prophetic for while on the supporting tour on October 20, only days after the album's release, near Baton Ruge the plane carrying the band and crew suffered engine failure on both engines and plummeted to the ground killing Van Zant, both Gaines and assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick on impact. Although this latest album was their biggest hit ever at 5 U.S./13 U.K. they decided to close up the band considering the circumstances.
The remaining members of Rossington and Collins, recovered from their near-death experience to reform as Rossington-Collins Band and hire the services of Billy Powell (keyboards), Leon Wilkeson (bass), Dale Krantz (vocals), Barry Harewood (guitar) and Derek Hass (drums) to release Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere (1980) and This Is The Way (1981) with Rossington then going solo under his own name after the death of his wife Kathy to recruit Hass (drums), Jay Johnson (guitar), Tim Lindsay (bass) and Dale to release Returned To The Scene Of The Crime (1986). But the grim reaper had it in for Collins for later that same year he was in a car accident that killed his girlfriend and saw him emerge paralyzed from the waist down. He had now escaped death twice and after spending a couple of years recovering he would return with the line-up of Tim Lindsey (bass), Tim Sharpton (keyboards), Ronnie Eades (sax) and Mitch Riger (drums) to release Love Your Man (1988). This album, however, was where the reaper caught up with Collins for he would die of pneumonia two years later.
By this time, however, Van Zant's brother Johnny (ex-38 Special) stepped in to reform Lynyrd Skynyrd with Rossington, Powell, Pyle, Wilkeson and King along with Dale Krantz-Rossington and Randal Hall for a reunion tour and the release of the live set Southern By The Grace Of God (1988). The line-up went back to their separate ways but in 1991 the act made a more permanent reformation with Rossington, King and Randall Hall (guitar), with Johnny Van Zandt (vocals), Powell, Wilkeson, Pyle and Custer in tow to release Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991 (1991), a credible comeback album that also saw the return of King for its recording sessions. Jerry Jones (bass/guitar) and Dale Krantz-Rossington (back. vocals) were then added to the expanding line-up for the release of The Last Rebel (1993), the third album in a row to hit in the U.S. 60's; the last three albums respectively getting 68, 64, 64. Joining the bandwagon for all things unplugged in the 1990s, Endangered Species (1994) arrived, following with the live effort Southern Knights taking up the rear.
The line-up shifted slightly by the time Twenty was released in 1997 for the act would now feature Rossington, Van Zandt, Wilkeson, Powell, Rickey Medlocke (ex-Blackfoot; guitar/vocals), Hughie Thomasson (guitar/vocals) and Owen Hale (drums). Medlocke was the man of note here for he had played previously with the band on sessions for the debut some quarter-century earlier. But the following albums failed to capture the enthusiasm of the original band and the double CD Live From Steel Town (1998), Edge Of Forever (1999; an album that barely broke the U.S. top 100 at 96) and the ill-advised Christmas Time Again (2000) were a fete de complete.
Footnote: Allen Collens had one other album recorded during his life titled Here There And Back (1983) featuring himself with Harewood, Powell, Wilkeson, Hess and Jimmy Dougherty (vocals) and Randall Hall (guitar) as the Allen Collins Band side project. After this project, Powell spent some time in prison before joining Christian band Vision.
Another interesting footnote involved the air crash. In the 30 some odd years since, more evidence has appeared that showed conflicts between the official story and that claimed by the band's management at the time. Offcially it was engine failure that caused the crash but evidence has come to light that it might have been, as the management claimed, human error for Aerosmith appeared to have avoided the grim reaper themselves when they rejected this crew and aircraft only threee months earlier after their management whitnessed the flight crew passing around a bottle of Jack Daniels Whiskey before a flight, not to mention shoddy maintenance records, and the plane itself being considered obsolete.