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Tribute: Lynyrd Skynyrd

Lynyrd Skynyrd

Welcome to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Tribute. This page includes information about and photos of the band members and the 1977 plane crash. Lynyrd Skynyrd were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

Information for this Tribute was gathered from various web sites, print publications, and television programs. I have done my best to research the events, corroborate the facts and combine the information. If anyone is certain that something I have posted is incorrect, or has information to add, please feel free to e-mail me. Thank you.

"Classic" Lynyrd Skynyrd (roughly 1971-77)

Ronnie Van Zant space saver Allen Collins space saver Gary Rossington

Left: founder, songwriter and singer, Ronnie Van Zant.

Center: founder, songwriter and guitarist, Allen Collins.

Right: founder and guitarist, Gary Rossington.

space saver

Billy Powell space saver Bob Burns space saver Artimus Pyle

Left: keyboardist Billy Powell.

Center: original drummer, Bob Burns (second from left).

Right: drummer Artimus Pyle (who replaced Bob Burns in 1974).

space saver

Ed King space saver Steve Gaines space saver Leon Wilkinson

Left: guitarist Ed King (1972-1975).

Center: guitarist Steve Gaines (joined in 1976, replacing Ed King).

Right: bassist Leon Wilkeson (at left, "The Mad Hatter").

The Honkettes

Backing vocalists, The Honkettes: Cassie Gaines, Leslie Hawkins and Jo Jo Billingsley.

Skynyrd

Billy Powell, Allen Collins, Ronnie Van Zant (top), Artimus Pyle (center),

Leon Wilkeson (bottom), Steve Gaines and Gary Rossington.

The Music

"Free Bird"

"Sweet Home Alabama"

"Simple Man"

"Gimme Three Steps"

"Saturday Night Special"

"Double Trouble"

"That Smell"

"The Ballad of Curtis Loew"

"What's Your Name"

"Gimme Back My Bullets"

"Don't Ask Me No Questions"

"Swamp Music"

"Truck Drivin' Man"

"Tuesday's Gone"

"Call Me the Breeze"

The Tragedy

Lynyrd Skynyrd

Back: Artimus Pyle, Cassie Gaines, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson.

Front: Allen Collins, Leslie Hawkins, Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant, Jo Jo Billingsley, Steve Gaines.

20 October 1977, 6:55 pm. While flying from Greenville, South Carolina to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Lynyrd Skynyrd's chartered Convair 240 aircraft crashed in a Mississippi swamp. The plane was carrying 24 passengers and 2 crew members. The band members on board were: Allen Collins, Cassie Gaines and her brother, Steve Gaines, Leslie Hawkins, Billy Powell, Artimus Pyle, Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant, and Leon Wilkeson. Rumour has it that several of those involved had misgivings about flying on the plane, and that they planned to get rid of it once they had reached Baton Rouge. Cassie Gaines lacked confidence in the aircraft and Jo Jo Billingsley (who was not on the plane) had a dream that the plane had crashed. She called Allen Collins, asking him to tell the others not to get on it. Stage manager, Clayton Johnson, remarked afterwards that, "There had been a lot of mistrust of that airplane since we chartered it."

Skynyrd's plane

Skynyrd's chartered Convair 240

The following account is from keyboardist Billy Powell:

"The right engine started sputtering, and I went up to the cockpit. The pilot said they were just transferring oil from one wing to another, everything's okay. Later, the engine went dead. Artimus [Pyle] and I ran to the cockpit. The pilot was in shock. He said, 'Oh my God, strap in.' Ronnie [Van Zant] had been asleep on the floor and Artimus got him up and he was really pissed. We strapped in and a minute later we crashed. The pilot said he was trying for a field, but I didn't see one. The trees kept getting closer, they kept getting bigger. Then there was a sound like someone hitting the outside of the plane with hundreds of baseball bats. I crashed into a table; people were hit by flying objects all over the plane. Ronnie was killed with a single head injury. The top of the plane was ripped open. Artimus crawled out the top and said there was a swamp, maybe alligators. I kicked my way out and felt for my hands -- they were still there. I felt for my nose and it wasn't, it was on the side of my face. There was just silence. Artimus and Ken Peden and I ran to get help, Artimus with his ribs sticking out."

Leon Wilkeson and Dean Kilpatrick

Leon Wilkeson (left) and road manager, Dean Kilpatrick.

Artimus Pyle remembers strapping Ronnie Van Zant into his seat and trying to put a velvet cushion under his head. They crashed into a swamp in McComb, Mississippi, and the plane was destroyed by the impact. There was no fire. Two crew members and four of the passengers were killed; twenty others were injured. Those who were not killed lay for hours, awaiting rescue. Pyle, despite suffering a broken sternum and several broken ribs, ran for help. About a mile away, he came upon a farmhouse and ran, raving, towards it. The farmer, Johnny Mote, frightened by Pyle's dirty, bloody appearance, mistook him for a madman and shot him in the shoulder. (The shotgun blast was not fatal.) Once Mote realized that Pyle was a refugee of the plane crash, he called for help.

Read the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) report about the cause and damage of the crash.

Plane wreckage

The effect of the crash was devastating. In addition to general cuts and bruises...

Allen Collins
suffered two cracked neck vertebrae and an arm amputation was recommended. (His father refused.)
Leslie Hawkins
endured a concussion, broke her neck in three places, and had facial injuries which required plastic surgery. She was partially paralyzed and suffered permanent neurological damage.
Billy Powell
sustained severe facial lacerations. (Powell was the only band member well enough, on crutches and with his face in bandages, to attend the funerals of those who perished.)
Artimus Pyle
suffered a broken sternum and several broken ribs.
Gary Rossington
broke both legs and both arms and sustained a concussion.
Leon Wilkeson
broke his jaw and had most of his teeth knocked out, suffered a crushed chest (with a punctured lung), almost needed an arm amputated, and he sustained internal injuries. (Wilkeson reportedly coded at the hospital and had to be revived.)

Those were the fortunate ones.

Crash site

In addition to the pilot (Walter McCreary) and co-pilot (William Gray), Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, and Dean Kilpatrick (Skynyrd's road manager) were killed.

According to Billy Powell on VH1's Behind The Music, Cassie Gaines's throat had been cut from ear to ear and she bled to death in his arms. He also stated that Ronnie Van Zant had sustained a severe head injury, which was the cause of his death. Powell's account of events scandalized many associated with the band, and was contradicted by Artimus Pyle and Judy Van Zant Jenness (Ronnie's widow). In 1998, the widow Van Zant posted Ronnie's autopsy on Lynyrd Skynyrd's website to prove the truth of his injuries. (It is no longer available on the internet.) Ronnie died from blunt head trauma, reportedly from sustaining a bruise about the size of a quarter on his temple.

Ronnie Van Zant space saver Steve Gaines space saver Cassie Gaines

Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines

When the plane crashed, Steve Gaines was 28. Cassie Gaines and Ronnie Van Zant were 29.

Steve and Cassie Gaines were laid to rest on 23 October 1977 in Jacksonville Memory Gardens, Orange Park, Florida. A private ceremony was held for Ronnie on 25 October, who was laso bureid in Jacksonville Memory Gardens. Among those who attended were Ed King, Bob Burns), Billy Powell, Dickey Betts (Allman Brothers Band), Charlie Daniels, Al Kooper (founder of Blood, Sweat & Tears), and Tom Dowd (producer/engineer who had worked on the Manhattan Project). Merle Haggard's "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am" and David Allan Coe's "Another Pretty Country Song" were played. Charlie Daniels read a poem, and with .38 Special, performed "Amazing Grace". Ronnie Van Zant was buried to the left of Steve Gaines and in front of Cassie. Van Zant's and the Gaines' resting places were moved in 2000 after Ronnie's and Steve's grave sites were broken into and vandalized. The monuments (shown below) remain as memorials for the fans.

Ronnie Van Zant's memorial

Ronnie Van Zant's memorial.

Steve Gaines's memorial space saver Cassie Gaines's memorial

Steve and Cassie Gaines' memorials.

The band's fifth album, Street Survivors, was released three days before the crash. The cover showed the band engulfed in flames. After the crash, the album was pulled from stores and re-released with new artwork, showing the band against a plain black background. Street Survivors went on to become the band's second platinum album, and reached #5 on the U.S. album chart. The single "What's Your Name" reached #13.

Also included on the album is the song, "That Smell." It was penned by Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins, at a time when the band had been heavily into alcohol and drugs. Van Zant was inspired to write the piece when Gary Rossington, drunk and high, crashed his new car into a tree. Van Zant supposedly said, "I had a creepy feeling things were going against us, so I thought I'd write a morbid song." Oddly enough, as of July 2009, Gary Rossington is the only surviving founding member of Lynyrd Skynyd still playing with the band.

Author's note: What I find eerie is that, on the original cover of Street Survivors, Steve Gaines is positioned in the middle, consumed by flames. He perished in the crash. Next to him are Ronnie Van Zant (who also perished) and Leon Wilkeson (who seems to have received the worst injuries of the survivors and reportedly coded at one point). As you fan out, the injuries seem arguably less life-threatening - the next two are Gary Rossington and Artimus Pyle, then Allen Collins and Billy Powell - who sustained "merely" facial lacerations and general cuts and bruises. Cassie Gaines, not in the photo, but "close" to Steve because they were siblings, also perished in the crash.

Original Street Survivors cover space saver Re-released artwork of Street Survivors

The original cover of Street Survivors and the re-released, post-crash version.

In 1980, Allen Collins's wife, Kathy, died of a hemorrhage following a miscarriage. In his grief, Collins embarked on a campaign of reckless behavior, culminating in a 1986 drunken car crash. His girlfriend was killed and he was paralyzed from the waist down. He died on 23 January 1990 from pneumonia, a result of decreased lung capacity from the paralyzation. He was 37. Allen Collins (Larkin Allen Collins, Jr.) is buried in Riverside Memorial Park Cemetery in Jacksonville, Florida with his wife, Kathy Evelyn.

Allen Collins's memorial

During the early '90s, Ed King found Leon Wilkeson on the group's tour bus, sleeping, but with his throat cut and bleeding. Wilkeson was taken to the hospital and recovered. It is still a mystery as to who was responsible - Ed King blames Wilkeson's girlfriend-at-the-time. Leon Russell Wilkeson passed away from liver disease on 27 July 2001 at the age of 49. He is buried in Riverside Memorial Park Cemetery in Jacksonville, Florida. "Fly on proud bird you're free at last"

Leon Wilkeson's memorial

Hughie Thomasson (Hugh Edward Thomasson, Jr.), founder of The Outlaws, played guitar with Skynyrd from the mid-1990s until 2005. He died of a heart attack on 9 September 2007. Thomasson was 55.

Billy Powell (William Norris Powell) suffered a fatal heart attack on 28 January of 2009; he was 56. Powell had called 911 complaining of difficulty breathing. Paramedics found him in his bedroom unresponsive, still holding the telephone. Powell was cremated and his ashes were returned to his family.

On 6 May 2009, Donald "Ean" Wayne Evans, a bassist who joined the band in 2001 after the death of Leon Wilkeson, succumbed to cancer. He was 48.

Jo Jo Billingsley, the Honkette who had a dream about the 1977 plane crash prior to the accident and therefore avoided that fatal ride, died on 24 June 2010. She had been battling cancer and was 58.

Interesting aside: Leonard Skinner (Forby Leonard Skinner), the high school gym teacher from whom the band took its name, died 20 September 2010. He was 77. The New York Times referred to Skinner as "arguably the most influential high school gym teacher in American popular culture".

In 2006, Lynyrd Skynyrd was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The honorees were: Bob Burns, Allen Collins, Steve Gaines, Ed King, Billy Powell, Artimus Pyle,

Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant, and Leon Wilkeson.

Skynyrd inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame

The 2006 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction:

Gary Rossington, Billy Powell, Artimus Pyle, Ed King, and Bob Burns.