If you had long hair in the late-60s the chances were pretty good you also had pencil arms. So having a gym teacher who hated longhairs was a particular horror. One Leonard Skinner was notorious for putting Jacksonville, FL, longhaired high school boys through the ringer. To Skinner, long hair meant you were one of those hippies, in cahoots with the commies, who took their orders directly from Moscow - or was it Peking (now known as Beijing)? It would take hard work and discipline to bring those weak minded kids back to truth, justice and the American way. Skinner met the challenge head-on. By doing so, he achieved a lasting, if peculiar, brand of fame. A modified version of his name was the moniker of one of the South's great Rock bands, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Prolonged regional touring led to a couple of singles that didn't do much. But they did attract producer Al Kooper's attention. Vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, bassist Leon Wilkeson, keyboardist Billy Powell, drummer Bob Burns and guitarists Gary Rossington, Allen Collins and Ed King headed for the studio. They emerged in the summer of '73 with "Pronounced LEH'-NERD SKIN-NERD." "Gimme Three Steps" was a potent southern Rock song. But a song dedicated to the recently departed guitar great Duane Allman, "Free Bird" was a concert, radio and fan favorite, becoming Skynyrd's signature song.
"Second Helping" came out the following year and contained "Sweet Home Alabama," an answer to Neil Young's redneck bashing "Southern Man" ("Neil Young should remember, Southern man don't need him around any how."). In addition, there were the boogie Rockers "Don't Ask Me No Questions" and "Call Me the Breeze," along with the humorous "Workin' For MCA," the band's record label. But there were some slip ups along the way. After extensive touring, Burns left and was replaced by Artimus Pyle. Also, Van Zant seemed to find bar fights with increasing regularity and consistently added to an already lengthy arrest record. His activities were later alluded to in "What's Your Name."
"Nuthin' Fancy" featured "Saturday Night Special." At this juncture King, who'd once been a member of the psychedelic Strawberry Alarm Clock, called it quits due to drug and alcohol problems. Steve Gaines stepped in and the band also added three female back-up singers for touring. One of the singers was Gaines' sister Cassie. "Gimme Back My Bullets," with the excellent title track, was followed by one of the all-time best live albums "One More From The Road." The highlight was "Free Bird," which clocked in at over fifteen minutes, without a wasted note or self-indulgent moment. The song built toward a climatic screaming guitar battle.
"Street Survivors" had "What's Your Name" and the brilliant "That Smell," a song that turned out to be prophetic. A line in the song talks about "having the smell of death around you." While on tour, the band chartered a plane to take them to a show in Baton Rouge. But the plane ran out of fuel ("E" means empty) and crashed. Van Zant, Steve and Cassie Gaines and the band's road manager were killed. Other members were seriously injured. The "Street Survivors" cover had the band walking through flames. In light of events the record company pulled the album and changed the cover.
Plane crash survivors Gary Rossington and Allen Collins started the Rossington-Collins Band. Later, Lynyrd Skynyrd re-formed to record and hit the oldies circuit with former Outlaws' guitarist Hughie Thomasson and Ronnie's kid brother, Johnny, handling vocals. But none of this touched Lynyrd Skynyrd's late '70s prime. A few albums rolled out but they were of little consequence. Following the '03 "Vicious Cycle" tour the group released "Lyve."
"The old saying is if it ain't broke, don't fix it, so we didn't step out too far," explained Johnny Van Zant regarding '09 album, "God & Guns." "We wanted to show the people that not only are we doing the old material, keeping the music going, but we still have some new tricks up our sleeves, too," added Rossington. The 13-song disc had a guest appearance by Rob Zombie and featured the single "Still Unbroken."
1973 Pronounced 'Leh-'nerd 'Skin-'nerd
1974 Second Helping
1975 Nuthin' Fancy
1976 Gimme Back My Bullets
1977 Street Survivors
1991 Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991
1993 The Last Rebel
1994 Endangered Species
1999 Edge Of Forever
2003 Vicious Cycle
2009 God & Guns
Recorded just before the plane went down "Street Survivors" ("That Smell" and "What's Your Name") is Lynyrd Skynyrd's hottest studio album. Their debut "Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd" ("Gimme Three Steps" and the original studio version of "Free Bird") and the second album aptly titled "Second Helping" ("Sweet Home Alabama" and the telling "Don't Ask Me No Questions") are also excellent. Whether you acquire it on "One More From The Road" or the "best of package" "Gold & Platinum," or just download it, get the live version of "Free Bird."
By the late '90s, with only two original members (Rossington and Powell), Lynyrd Skynyrd was clearly recycling. But that was OK. What really hurt was when the latest line-up attempted to claim Lynyrd Skynyrd's glorious past. Why release a live album containing another run at "Free Bird?" That's largely the reason "Lyve" comes off as redundant (they'd already tread on sacred ground with their mid-90s unplugged set "Endangered Species"). The best way to view "Lyve" is as a "Vicious Cycle" tour memento because this incarnation is far closer to being a tribute band than the real deal.