Rugged Northern Florida is different than it's stepsister, the beach rimmed southern Florida peninsula, having more in common with wooded, swampy southern Georgia. Sprawling near the mouth of the St. John's River is urban Jacksonville, one of the South's major industrial seaports and home of Mayport Naval Station.
It was on the tough westside of Jacksonville that brawny ex-prizefighter-turned- truck driver Lacey VanZant settled with his wife Marion to raise a close family of three girls and three boys. Eldest son Ronnie described the working class neighborhood: "It was rough, particularly where I grew up. It was like the ghetto, black and white, and there was a lot of street fighting."
Lacey taught his son to box, and Ronnie grew up on the Shantytown streets getting into trouble, playing ball, and fishing in the nearby river. Another passion was music. As a youngster, he first sang in a holy church, with a choir of black women gospel singers. But there was another kind of music that attracted him. One of his Shantytown neighbors was an old former sharecropper from Georgia who played raucous "swamp country" blues on his porch. Young Ronnie would spend hours listening to Shorty Medlocke's music and advice. "Don't ever quit and you'll have it made in the shade," Shorty would tell the eager youngster.
Another musical influence was the radio in his father's diesel truck. Occasionally Ronnie accompanied his father on runs up the Eastern seaboard, sometimes riding the highways as far north as New York. These journeys were accompanied by sounds from across the AM band, including Ronnie's all-time favorite, country music's Merle Haggard.
By sixteen, Ronnie had approached a band called "Us," asking them if they would like a lead singer to front their blend of black delta music and big city R&B. "Us" often competed in battles of the bands with other local school groups, including one from upscale rival Forrest High School, "The Mods," that included 13-year-old self-tauhgt guitarist Allen Collins. As their name would indicate, "The Mods" played British influenced rock 'n' roll.
After "Us" broke up, one of those British groups changed everything for Ronnie. This band had the same raw energy as "swamp country" music but had a passionate new fire, a faster more frenetic beat. The Sound of their guitars was amplified to a roar matched by the teen fan's screams. These tough looking, long haired rebels were the Rolling Stones, and Ronnie VanZant would never forget the moment he first heard them. From then on, Ronnie harbored a dream to form a group who would be the American equivalent of the Rolling Stones.
"I hand-picked all these boys to play for me," Ronnie said about assembling a band to fulfill his dream. He began with a neighbor who had a drum kit, Bob Burns. Ronnie asked Bob if he knew anyone who had a guitar, and he suggested his 13-year-old schoolfriend, Gary Rossington, who in turn suggested Larry Junstrom, who owned a bass guitar. Now only two things were lacking: an amplifier... and the ability to play. One person who had both was "Mods" guitarist Allen Collins, whom they all knew.
The group became The Noble Five. They modeled themselves after the first wave of Brit-rock invasion and The Yardbirds, Cream(with Eric Clapton), and Jimi Hendrix's explosive Experience, all of whom played hard, intense rock filled with echo, feedback and distortion: the new metallic sound the media had christened "Psychedelic".
The Noble Five practiced after school and occasionally performed at local parties and dances, loading everything into Ronnie's car and playing for as much as they could drink plus gas money. The sound of the five plugged into the same battered amp was hardly overpowering. "When we started playing, we were just terrible," Ronnie laughingly recalled.
Sometimes when they were rehearsing in Bob Burns' parents' carport, the five thought they heard a knock on the door, but no one was there. Burns would laugh, "Leonard was at the door." Or the phone would ring, and nobody was on the the other end; Bob would credit "Leonard" again. Soon this became the group's running gag-eventually the embryo of their permanent name.
At Lee High School, where there was a strict dress code, Bob and Gary ran into problems with their new long-haired rock 'n' roll look. They would grease their hair back for regular classes, but after the mandatory gym class shower, coach Leonard Skinner would often catch them with the forbidden hair style, and they'd be suspended. Weary of repeated suspensions, they dropped out at age sixteen.
The fivesomewere broke, but resisted taking full-time jobs in order to commit themselves to the band. They were also constantly fighting off complaints about the loudness of their rehearsals, so the band serched for a rehearsal facility away from the city, finding what became known as "Hell House" on an isolated 99-acre farm 20 miles south of Jacksonville, near a town called Green Cove Springs. It was in this tiny hot-box-like cabin that Lynyrd Skynyrd's music was born. Ronnie thrived on the sweaty studio-like setting, and the band began to write songs with the immediate goal of making a record. Hell House was occupied sunrise to sundown, seven days a week. Song ideas would come during quiet moments such as when Gary and Ronnie would go fishing in a creek behind the House.
Ronnie:"I always look for the melody first, then think of the words as I go along... then take them to one of the guitar players and we arrange everythin'..."
" I try to write about places I've seen, things that I've done, normal things... I think if you write it really simple, then you can reach more people."
The counter-culture had come to Jacksonville, and clubs like The Woodstock and Forrest Inn sprang up. The later was on the west edge of town and became a favorite for Ronnie, Allen and the group. They'd play under names taken from B movies, first "Conqueror Worm" from a Vincent Price horror flick, then "One Percent" from a Hell's Angels movie. As a joke, one night they combined their running gag about the mysterious Leonard with their old gym coach's name, introducing themselves as Leonard Skinnerd. Most of the audience knew Coach Skinner, and their enthusiastic response gave the group their new and final name, although thevowels were changed to y's to protect the guilty.
Jacksonville soon bacame a hot-bed for the emerging Southern blues-rock scene. Duane Allman came down from Macon, Geogia to jam with Second Coming, featuring Dickie Betts and Berry Oakley, and the effect wasn't lost on the new Skynyrd group. When the Allman Brothers' first album was released, the blues-rock revival was in full force in Dixie. The next wave of British blues had also hit with Led Zeppelin in the fore. For Skynyrd, the group with the biggest impact was Free, a powerfull quartet with a thick, stomping sound. Soulful Free vocalist Paul Rodgers instantly became one of Ronnie's favorite singer/ lyricists, while guitarist Paul Kossof's "bleeding tremolo" became the model for Gary's distorted tones.
Lynyrd Skynyrd bagan to coalesce musically and otherwise. They won a battle of the bands in Jacksonville and landed their first tour-as warmup for a Strawberry Alarm Clock milking the last echoes of their '67 hit "Incense And Peppermints." The $50 a week they made on that tour was double what they earned playing in Jacksonville, and the group began to assemble a road crew for such jaunts, beginning with original roadies as Dean Kilpatrick and Kevin Elson (who would later produce Journey and mix Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991).
By October 1970 Lynyrd Skynyrd were together five years and had played nearly a thousand gigs. They had a manager, Alan Walden, brother of Capricorn Records' president Phil. Alan managed mostly soul groups, and he arranged for Skynyrd to record demos at Quinvy Studios just outside of the upcoming "other" Soul Music capital, Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
"Free Bird" was one of the songs recorded at Quinvy, and the rock epic had already begun to come together. Allen actually had the music for six months prior to playing it for the band, but Ronnie initially resisted adding words to so many chords. Finally, when Ronnie came up with the "Free Bird" lyrics he asked Allen to play his melody. However, the initial version of "Free Bird" fell flat with audiences. It wasn't until Allen added the soaring uptempo changes accentuating "Can't chan-a-ang-ange..." that the song took off. The first time they played this new arrangement was at Jacksonville's Art Museum, and the response was overwhelming.
Jimmy Johnson of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios was especially taken with the guitars and Ronnie's voice on the Quinvy demos. Johnson believed enough to produce an album's worth of material for nothing but a producer's percentage, if and when the recording was sold.
So Skynyrd borrowed money and drove to the tiny northern Alabama hamlet of Sheffield to record at Muscle Shoals Sound. Eight members of the crew stayed in two rooms at Blue's truckstop. The drummer and sometime lead vocalist on the first Muscle Shoals go-round was Rickey Medlocke, later of Blackfoot, and bassist Leon Wilkeson joined towards the end of the second series of sessions. The first sessions took place in the Spring of 1971, the second in the Fall.
Jimmy Johnson and production partner Tim Smith virtually taught the band how to record-showing them how to put the bass and drums together in a rhythm section and how to retain the original feeling of songs throughout the recording process. Skynyrd taught the engineers about endurance during all night sessions. The band would have to record whenever there was leftover studio time, sometimes in the middle of the night, but they were finally recording. Beginning with "One More Time," they laid down the original multi- track versions of "Free Bird," "I Ain't The One," "Trust," "Gimme Three Steps," and twelve other songs. Ronnie would later emphasize the group's debt to the Muscle Shoals crew for everything they learned, affectionately dubbing them "The Swampers" on "Sweet Home Alabama."
Manager Walden shopped the Muscle Shoals tapes around, and found no takers. Only brother Phil's Capricorn label showed interest, but Ronnie nixed that, feeling that the group would have been lost amidst the label's Southern rock explosion of the Allmans, Marshall Tucker Band, and Wet Willie.
Skynyrd was discouraged and returned to Jacksonville but found homecooking none-to-appetizing. Their maverick sound had become unwelcome to local bookers, so the group migrated to Atlanta, where they located off-and-on home at Funochio's, notorious as the most dangerous bar in the city. Shooting and stabbings were nightly occurences, but the group would commute reguarly from Jacksonville to play the club. Money would be borrowed from Ronnie's new wife, Judy, for the trip up, and she would be repaid upon their return.
Producer-performer Al Kooper had been visiting Atlanta since he played the first Atlanta Pop Festival in 1969. The southern rock scene was exploding, and Kooper had noticed the abundance of talent in and about Atlanta. With the backing of MCA Records, he launched the Sounds Of The South label with the initial deal calling for four new artists-three of which returned out to be Los Angeles funk band Elijah, Kooper's own reformed Blues Project, and the Atlanta bar band Mose Jones. It was on Mose Jones' recommendation that the final spot was filled by Skynyrd. Kooper jammed with the group at Funochio's, and after some initial hesitancy, Lynyrd Skynyrd signed on.
Young bassist Leon Wilkeson, unsure of his ability to handle the imminent success, bolted the band. Needing a replacement, Ronnie remembered Ed King from their Strawberry Alarm Clock touring days. Somehow VanZant located King working at a small bar in North Carolina and brought him to Hell House for the rehearsals for the Al Kooper-produced demos. Recorded at Studio One in Atlanta in one live session that lasted until 3:00 a.m., the demos produced five songs.
Skynyrd had a catalog of almost 20 songs when they approached recording their debut album, Pronounced 'leh-nerd skin'-nerd, and deciding which songs to perform and adapting to their newfound producer Al Kooper caused the sessions to be considerably tumultuous. A powerful and a headstrong personality, Kooper would clash with the group over changing established arrangements on songs like "I Ain't The One," but his knowledge of modern recording techniques allowed the group to graft onto songs new embellishments. One overdubbed track that stands out is "Free Bird," were Allen added a second guitar part slightly behind his solo to create the famed dual guitar sound that climaxes the album.
Wilkeson returned after the recording of pronounced, and King moved to guitar, allowing the band to duplicate the album's multiple guitar sound live. Once the band worked out the new division of labor, they found that Allen's stabbing Gibson Firebird, Gary's whining Les Paul, and Ed's metallic Strat chops complemented each other amazingly well. The new format also caused an immediate burst of creativity, resulting in the writing of "Sweet Home Alabama" even before pronounced was released.
"Sweet Home Alabama" was Ronnie's rebuttal to Neil Young, who had included a critical song called "Alabama" on his then-recent Harvest album and had earlier recorded the regionally derogatory "Southern Man".
Ronnie:"We wrote Alabama as a joke. We didn't even think about it-the words just came out that way. We just laughed like hell, and said 'Ain't that funny'... We love Neil Young, we love his music..."
Immediately following the recording of "Sweet Home Alabama," Lynyrd Skynyrd was introduced at a special Sounds Of The South press party at Richard's club in Atlanta on Sunday, July 29, 1973. When Skynyrd hit the stage with a roaring version of "Workin' For MCA," written especially for the event, the party stopped while 500 hardened industry vets stood on chairs to get a glimpse of this unknown band.
The Manager of another MCA act, The Who's Peter Rudge, signed them to open for The Who's fall, 1973 Quadrophenia tour. On opening night, at San Francisco's Cow Palace on November 20, 1973, a terrified Lynyrd Skynyrd who had never played anything larger than tiny barrooms and clubs, tried to recreate the barroom ambience on the cavernous Cow Palace stage by getting as drunk as possible, then tearing through a five song set in a state of virtual panic. The crowd loved them.
Skynyrd was not a choreographed act- the focus of attention being Ronnie, who strode the stage barefoot, brandishing his mike stand like a fishing pole, moving only he'd coax more out of one of the guitarists. VanZant's motionless style of singing in his husky baritone was punctuated by piercing "wolf whistles," which let crowds know it was time for another burning solo.
Despite "Free Bird" dominating FM radio, the critical success of the first album and their corresponding success on The Who tour, neither pronounced nor its single "Gimme Three Steps" made any impression on the charts. As the group and producer Kooper went into the Record Plant studio in Los Angeles in January of'74, they were feeling pressure to produce the breakthrough Top 40 hit. Ronnie felt that that could be "Sweet Home Alabama," but Kooper and MCA thought that "Alabama" would be too regional and opted for "Don't Ask Me No Questions."
Ronnie:"I made a deal that if single they wanted to release didn't make it, they'd... put out "Sweet Home Alabama". I just had this feeling about it. We got it down real fast... It's always the ones that you get down fast that make it."
"Don't Ask Me No Questions" didn't make it, so in late June,"Sweet Home Alabama" was released as a last ditch effort to revive a faltering Second Helping. The references to Neil Young and Watergate sparked instant controversy, and as the record rose up the charts, President Richard M. Nixon quite coincidentally fell as a result of the Watergate scandal. By September 20, "Alabama" and Second Helping were certified gold records, to be followed in December by pronounced.
The success of "Sweet Home Alabama" was double-edged. The title, the retort to Neil Young's "Southern Man," and the "Watergate don't bother me" contents instantly branded this rugged looking t-shirts 'n' jeans band from Florida as "A Southern Band." Then MCA added to Skynyrd's live stage a Confederate stars 'n' bars backdrop, and the imagery was fully developed, wheter the group realized it or really want it.
Skynyrd toured continously in support of their first two albums, and the endles one-nighters took their roll. After a tour of Europe, North Carolina drummer Artimus Pyle replaced founding member Bob Burns, who left the group suffering from exhaustion, and Ronnie would write "Am I Losin'?" partially about his departure.
Bob Burns did record "Saturday Night Special" with the group prior to the European tour, but when Skynyrd returned to Webb IV Studios in Atlanta in January, '75 with Artimus on skins, they had nothing else prepared for recording. It was a matter of being in the studio up to 16 hours a day for 21 straight days to crank out the seven songs being added to "Special" for the obligatory album. With sarcastic understatement, Ronnie dubbed the LP Nuthin' Fancy, and the group hit the road for a 90 day, 61-date "Torture Tour"(as the members called it). Despitenits ultimate success, the tour left a trail of fistfights, wrecked hotel rooms, sloppy performances, and canceled shows. Halfway through the tour, the band awoke to find that Ed King, unable to cope with the lifestyle and other personal problems, had packed up and left during the night. Allen and Gary divided up his parts for the remaining six weeks of "Torture Tour."
Ronnie VanZant:"We were doing bottles of Dom Perignon, fifths of whiskey, wine and beer...We couldn't even remember the order of the songs. Some guy crouched behind an amp and shouted them to us. We made the Who look like church boys on Sunday. We done things only fools'd do."
Ronnie:"We get a lot of publicity about busting up places or being really mean... but you just get really tired...really nervous...just about to flip out and go over the deep end, just say the hell with it, I quit. Well, instead of doing that we're just liable to knock a hole in the wall."
Though it was successful commersially, Skynyrd was not completly satisfied with Nuthin' Fancy, so for their fourth album, new manager Peter Rudge arranged for Tom Dowd, producer of Layla and the Allman's Live At The Fillmore East, to take over the controls. Dowd's approach involved a disciplined method of arranging and rehearsing each song, then recording the basic instrumental tracks with the band as a unit in the studio. This contrasted with Al Kooper's approach which relied heavily on overdubbing.
Four numbers for the new album were recorded in late September at the Record Plant in Los Angeles, then the band hit the road, returning to Capricorn Studios in Macon, Georgia in November to finish the recording. The title track of the new album was yet another misunderstood Skynyrd statement, Gimme Back My Bullets.
Ronnie:"We quit doin' the song... because almost every audience... would throw a handful of bullets, you know, like .38 slugs... I'd say 'Gimme Back My Bullets', and they'd let me have it...There are two types of bullets(in the music buisness). There's bullets from a gun, and there's a bullet on the trade magazines. I wish you'd listen to the song that (second) way-that's the way it was meant."
Bye the time of the Bullets album, the "Outlaw" movement was taking hold in country music, and songs like "All I Can Do Is Write About It" on the album "T For Texas" which was added to their shows, reflected an increasing emphasis on hardcore country music. The "Outlaw" movement was a return to the roots of country, a movement against the slick Nashville sound, and was spearheaded by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Tompall Glaser, among others. In fact the addition of "T For Texas" was prompted by Ronnie hearing Glaser's version of the classic Jimmy Rodgers' yodel. Riding the success of both their tours and albums, Skynyrd set July, 1976 for the live recordings that would be their fifth album, eventually titled One More From The Road. This would give the band time to find a new third guitarist, and for several months, they auditioned players including Leslie West, formerly of mountain, and Southern studio guitar wiz, Wayne Perkins. However, the guitarist turned out to be closer than they imagined.
Subsequent to Bullets, the group began touring with a trio of gospel-style female backup singers- Jo Jo Billingsley, Leslie Hawkins, and Cassie Gaines. Cassie was a torrid throated Memphis State University grad who landed the Skynyrd gig after five years of session work. When she realized the band was searching for a new picker, she told them about her younger brother.
Steve Gaines was familiar enough with Skynyrd that his band, Crawdaddy, played "Saturday Night Special" as part of their regular set. However, when he drove from his home in Seneca, Missouri to a Skynyrd show in Kansas City as his sisters request, he had no idea that Cassie had arranged for him to play with the group. Once he stepped on the stage to jam on "T For Texas," though, it was the band's turn to be shocked at Cassie's kid brother's ability.
© Rick Clark
Thanks to www.skynyrd.com for some of the pictures
Information on this site were copied from the booklet that followed The Box Set