The smell of death surrounds you
October 20, 1977. Gene Odom, bodyguard for Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant and the band’s head of security, got into a heated argument with pilot Walter McCreary. The 1948 Conair twin-prop plane the band had been using for most of its tour was scheduled to depart Greenville, North Carolina shortly for Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the next stop on their concert tour.
The previous day on the flight from Lakeland, Florida to Greenville, flames had been observed shooting out of the plane’s right engine during the flight. Odom insisted the pilot should have the matter investigated in Greenville, but McCreary said his mechanic would be meeting them in Baton Rouge, where repairs would be made. “No, man,” Odom protested. “We’ve got a day off between shows. Have a mechanic check it here today.” McCreary refused, telling Odom to back down or be removed from the flight. “You’re a fool,” Odom angrily told McCreary.
The band and its entourage took off, and 20 minutes into the 600-mile flight, first one engine and then the other failed. It turned out they were out of fuel, which couldn’t be detected in the cockpit because the fuel gauges were broken. An emergency landing was attempted in Mississippi, but the plane clipped multiple pine trees 200 yards short of a landing strip, crashing into dense, swampy forest.
Six people were killed, including Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, singer Cassie Gaines, road manager Dean Kirkpatrick and both pilots. The rest of the band — guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, keyboardist Billy Powell, bassist Leon Wilkeson and drummer Artemus Pyle — were all seriously injured with punctured organs, broken bones and deep emotional scars.
For Lynyrd Skynyrd, who had been riding an ever-broadening wave of success since their debut LP in 1973, it proved to be a devastating blow. The survivors chose to disband. Although various lineups made new albums and returned to live performances years later, they were clearly never the same after that fateful trip.
Rossington, at age 71, the last surviving original member, died this week of complications from a heart condition. As one fan commented mournfully on the group’s website, “They’re all together now.”
I’ve always been mostly ambivalent about Lynyrd Skynyrd. Their brand of Southern fried boogie rock was competent enough, even exceptional at times, but I could never get past their unabashed Dixie leanings, especially the insufferable hit single “Sweet Home Alabama,” with its apparent support of segregationist George Wallace. I’ve been revisiting the band’s catalog the past several days, and I have concluded it’s a damn shame that too many people know the group mostly for that grossly overplayed, simplistic ditty. Truth be told, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first five LPs (the pre-crash era) are chock full of great tracks, but as is too often the case with classic rock bands, their exposure is limited to just three or four songs played ad nauseum.
“Freebird,” of course, is in a category by itself. It ranks up there with Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” as a fine song so completely ruined by overexposure that it became a joke perpetuated by drunks at wedding receptions. I know I’m not alone in saying I would be very happy to never hear either of these songs ever again.
But damn, when you listen to the musicianship on Skynyrd’s repertoire, it’s abundantly clear that these guys were loaded with instrumental talent, and played like the proverbial well-oiled machine when they were at their peak. Case in point: Check out their scorching cover of J. J. Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze” from their strong “Second Helping” album, or “I Know a Little,” the infectious track Gaines wrote for their “Street Survivors” album. This was one vibrant boogie-rock band that deserved its success.
They may have been long-haired hippies who got in their share of trouble at the Jacksonville, Florida, high school where they met, in the mid-’60s, but they developed a strong work ethic and a passion for what they were doing. Even in their earlier incarnations as My Backyard, The Noble Five and The One Percent, these guys worked hard. Van Zant was notorious for insisting the group rehearse for untold hours to ensure their performances at parties, dances and clubs would be tight and precise.
The story behind their choice of the name Lynyrd Skynyrd is well known. They selected it in mock parody of their former gym teacher Leonard Skinner, who had given them a hard time about their long hair, but they thought it would be wise to alter the spelling to prevent any legal entanglements. What I didn’t know is that the name also came, in part, from a line in musical comedian Allan Sherman’s hit novelty single from the early ’60s called “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” written as a letter home from a boy at summer camp where things weren’t going so well. One verse says, “You remember Leonard Skinner? He got ptomaine poisoning last night after dinner!”
By 1972, the band had a decent regional following in the Deep South. At an Atlanta club called Funochio’s, rock producer/musician Al Kooper was impressed enough by their act to sign them to his new Sounds of the South label, to be distributed by MCA Records. Guitarists Collins and Rossington came up with engaging melodies and memorable riffs while Van Zant penned the lyrics, and with Kooper manning the studio boards, the group came up with a dynamic debut LP entitled, awkwardly, “Pronounced ‘Lėh-‘nérd ‘Skin-nérd.” FM stations nationwide were attracted to the interesting blend of country boogie and Southern soul inherent in eventual classics like “Tuesday’s Gone,” “Simple Man” and “Gimme Three Steps.” Meanwhile, “Freebird,” which clocked in at well over nine minutes, took on a life of its own, thanks to Rossington’s deft slide guitar on the song proper and Collins’s quicksilver soloing on the four-minute second half.
Said Rossington in the 1990s, “We always said we had a lot of balls back then, or gumption, whatever you call it, for playing a song that long. Singles are only three, four minutes at the most, and five is unusual. ‘Free Bird’ was nine minutes. They said, ‘Nobody will ever play that song. You guys are crazy.’”
I suppose it was inevitable that comparisons would be drawn between the group and The Allman Brothers Band, also from the South but with much more of a jazz/jam band bent. I was among those who didn’t find much similarity between the two groups, other than the guitar-heavy arrangements. Van Zant’s one-dimensional singing wasn’t in the same league as Gregg Allman, and Skynyrd’s music had little of the blues roots that so dominated the Allmans’ stuff. Still, the fact that both bands lost key members to tragic accidents perpetuated the comparisons.
Indeed, Rossington cheated death more than once. He survived a nasty drunk-driving wreck in 1976, which inspired the ominous track “That Smell” the following year that presaged the plane crash: “Whiskey bottles, brand new cars, /Oak tree, you’re in my way, /There’s too much coke and too much smoke, /Look what’s going on inside you, /Ooooh, that smell, can’t you smell that smell? /Ooooh that smell, the smell of death surrounds you…” Collins, too, had his issues with alcohol and drugs, ending up paralyzed from a 1986 car accident he caused.
The two guitarists teamed up in 1980 to form the Rossington-Collins Band, which lasted for two albums but never approached Skynyrd’s level of popularity. Rossington was back in the fold when new lineups of Skynyrd (including Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny on vocals) were assembled in the late 1980s to stage a tribute tour to their fallen bandmates. New releases were mostly ignored by radio and the buying public, but the group attracted a new generation of fans to their concerts, registering decent crowds in the 1990s and the years since.
In recent times, when Skynyrd courted controversy by continuing to use the Confederate flag in promotional materials (which they finally dropped in 2012), Rossington said the polarizing symbol was meant to show where they were from and not to offend. “I know that sounds naïve to say, but it’s how we felt,” he admitted. “If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd,” a 2018 documentary about the star-crossed band, is a worthwhile retelling of their history.
But as I said up front, the music is what matters. Once you get past the “played to death” tracks (which I included anyway for posterity), my Spotify playlist illustrates just how much Lynyrd Skynyrd had to offer and the legacy they left behind.