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.

Lynyrd Skynyrd, circa 1976 (L-R): Leon Wilkeson, Allen Collins, Ronnie Van Zant, Gary Rossington, Artemus Pyle (rear), Steve Gaines, Billy Powell

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.

The wreckage of the band’s ill-fated Conair flight in Mississippi

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.

The band in August 1977

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.

Collins, Van Zant and Rossington in concert, 1975

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.



I got a name, I got a name

They called it “The Name Game,” a silly, fun participation song that was all the rage in 1965, when R&B singer Shirley Ellis made it a #3 hit on the US charts.

You simply take anybody’s name, slip it into the basic format, and off you go.  Party on, Garth!  “Garth, Garth, bo-Barth, banana-fana-fo-Farth, fee-fi-mo-Marth, GARTH!”

So, as Shakespeare once asked, “What’s in a name?”  In the world of popular music, there are dozens of examples of performing artists who conjured up new names for themselves.  They did this on their own, if their ego was big enough…or an agent or record company insisted on a catchier stage name than the clunky or boring given name they’d been carrying around.

Some of the examples I’m offering up to you will be well known.  Others, you might be surprised about.  In either case, I’m here to expose these stars’ real names as part of my own Name Game.


Farrokh Bulsara


Farrokh was born in 1946 to parents from the Gujarat region of British-owned India.  He was born in the African country of Zanzibar, then a British colony, and attended a boarding school in Bombay, India, where he learned piano and focused more on music than academics.  After returning to Zanzibar at age 17, he and his family had to flee the 1964 revolution there, settling in Middlesex, England.  He earned a degree in art and graphic design, but music was his passion, and he became a member of several bands between 1968 and 1970.  Then he met guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor from the band Smile.  In time, they changed their name to Queen, and Farrokh Bulsara became Freddie Mercury, whose astonishing four-octave vocal range and flamboyant stage presence were key to Queen’s international success.

Marvin Aday


Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, by a schoolteacher and policeman, Marvin showed an early interest in music and theater arts, appearing in several high school musicals.  He was very close to his mother (who sang in a gospel quartet) and, following her death, he dropped out of North Texas State College and relocated to Los Angeles in 1969 to pursue a career in the arts, as was his mother’s wish.  When Marvin formed a band (that had some notoriety warming up for the likes of Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and the Who), he named it after his mother’s favorite Saturday night dish, Meat Loaf Soul.  Tipping the scales at nearly 300 pounds, Marvin soon took on that name for himself, appearing in films and on stage as Meat Loaf.  By 1977, his “Bat Out of Hell” LP made him an international star.

Ellen Cohen


Ellen was born during WWII in Baltimore to Jewish parents who were children of Russian immigrants, and the family struggled there and in Alexandria, Virginia.  Blessed with a versatile voice and a knack for stage performance, Ellen appeared in several musicals in New York before becoming part of a successful singing trio called The Big 3, appearing on “Ed Sullivan” and elsewhere.  They became The Mugwumps, and eventually she lobbied hard to join a group she admired called The New Journeymen, featuring John Phillips, Michele Phillips and Denny Doherty.  By then, Ellen had begun referring to herself as Cass (short for “Cassandra”), and her incredible pipes ended up winning her a spot in the group despite Phillips’ misgiving about her obesity.  The public didn’t care about that when The Mamas and The Papas exploded on the scene with huge hits like “California Dreamin’” and “Monday Monday,” among others, carried by Mama Cass Elliott‘s soaring alto.

Richard Starkey


Little Ritchie had a rough childhood, spending most of his time in bed in hospitals.  He took to picking up pencils, pens, whatever was handy, and banging out rhythms on any horizontal surface he could find.  Eventually, his parents bought him a set of drums, and he became very proficient, at least in the circle of bands and clubs in and around Liverpool, England.  He took to wearing rings — many rings, big showy rings — on his fingers, and soon found himself with a nickname:  Ringo.  His last name could be shortened by a syllable, and Ringo would then be a Star…or, more precisely, Starr.  In any event, after a stint with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, he was tapped by the younger lads who made up another local group, The Beatles, to replace their mate Pete Best on drums, and well, there you have it.  What a great gig for Ringo Starr.

Paul Hewson


Paul was born and raised in a north suburb of Dublin, Ireland, and was a rather rebellious kid in school, becoming more so after his mother’s death when he was 14.  He didn’t get along with his father and instead hung out with his surrealist street gang, Lypton Village.  As is the case with many gangs, everyone was given nicknames, and Paul went through several:  First came the unwieldy Steinhegvanhuysenolegbangbangbang, which was shortened to Huyseman, then Houseman.  Next he was Bon Murray, then “Bonavox of O’Connell Street,” named for a neighborhood hearing-aid shop.  That was abbreviated to “Bono Vox,” which happened to be Latin for “good voice,” which Paul liked, so it stuck…after it was shortened to just Bono.  Within a couple years, he and his mates David Evans (“The Edge”), Adam Clayton and Larry Mullens Jr. formed a band called Feedback…then The Hype…and finally, U2, who became one of the most popular bands on the planet.

Stevland Judkins


Born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1950 and raised in Detroit, Stevland suffered from premature retinopathy, which causes the retinas to detach from the corneal wall, resulting in blindness.  He made up for this deficiency by pouring himself into all the music he heard and felt all around him — gospel, rhythm and blues, country, rock ‘n roll.  He mastered harmonica, piano and drums by age 10, and was signed to a recording contract as a child prodigy.  Stevland made his debut on the Top Ten at age 12, and maintained an enviable chart track record throughout the 1960s with a dozen Top Ten hits, more than a dozen albums and many TV appearances.  By the 1970s, his talents mushroomed, and Stevie Wonder became producer, songwriter, instrumentalist and singer, and one of the leading musical artists of all time, winning multiple Grammys and multiple Number One albums and singles.

Reginald Dwight


Raised by a free-spirited, music-loving mother, Reggie proved to be something of a child prodigy on piano, playing difficult classical pieces after hearing them only once.  Although his classical training continued, he was also drawn to the rock and roll of Jerry Lee Lewis, and soon landed a weekend gig as pianist in a neighborhood pub.  Reggie also played in a band called Bluesology, who opened for American soul bands like the Isley Brothers, and became the support group for Long John Baldry, one of the pioneers of the British blues movement.  Reg began writing songs for a music publisher, who teamed him up with a lyric writer named Bernie Taupin.  Around that time, he decided he needed a better stage name, so he combined the names of two musicians he admired — Bluesology sax player Elton Dean, and Long John Baldry — to create a new moniker: Elton John.  You may have heard of him.

Henry Deutschendorf


Henry was the son of a decorated military man, John Deutschendorf, Sr., who earned a spot in the Air Force Hall of Fame, but the father had little time for his son.  It was his mother’s mother who instilled in him the love of music and bought him his first guitar.  He lived in Roswell, NM, and Montgomery, AL, and Tucson, AZ, and Fort Worth TX, never fitting in anywhere.  Henry’s uncle, Dave Deutschendorf, was a member of the New Christy Minstrels, who encourage him to write songs and work on his guitar techniques.  New Christy member Randy Sparks told Henry to lose his last name, so Henry (whose middle name was John), adopted the capital of his favorite state, Colorado.  By the time he was 22, Henry was John Denver, replacing Chad Mitchell in The Mitchell Trio, writing his own songs and dreaming of a solo career.  His song, “Babe I Hate to Go,” was picked up by Peter Paul and Mary, retitled “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and became the #1 song in the country in late 1969, the first step in a hugely successful solo career.

Declan McManus


Declan’s father, Ross MacManus, was a London-based jazz trumpeter and singer with The Joe Loss Orchestra, a popular British Big Band act from the 1940s through the ’60s.  He instilled a love of all types of music in his son, even after a divorce which sent Declan and his mother to live in Liverpool.  Declan formed a folk duo there when he was just 16, then returned to London in the mid-’70s and fronted a pub rock band called Flip City.  His father had performed under the name Day Costello and, in tribute to him, he adopted the name D.P. Costello around that time.  He continued writing songs and pursuing a solo recording career, and was eventually signed to the new upstart independent label, Stiff Records, who focused on punk and New Wave acts.  His manager, Jake Riviera, suggested Declan make the bold move of adopting Elvis Presley’s sacred first name, and Elvis Costello went on to become one of the most celebrated and respected musicians to emerge from the British New Wave movement.

Vincent Furnier


Vincent was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, the Motown City, but the R&B bug didn’t really bite, and at age 14, Vincent and his family moved to Phoenix, Arizona.  He and his fellow cross-country teammates won the school talent contest miming Beatles songs, which inspired them to buy and learn how to play guitar, bass, drums and so on.  Vincent liked being the lead singer, but he recognized he and the band needed to find a way to stand out from all the other bands out there.  Hey, how about controversial, shocking, perverse?  It’ll attract lots of press coverage, even though it was just an act.  OK, cool, but what shall we call ourselves?  Something completely opposite of the outrageous image they envisioned…  Hmmm…  How about we pick a character from the wholesome family sitcom “Mayberry RFD,” a neighborly woman named Alice Cooper?  Perfect.  The band, formerly The Spiders, became Alice Cooper, and Vincent himself pretty much became the perverse persona soon known worldwide as Alice Cooper, with snakes, bats, guillotines and other gruesome props as part of his shtick.  In fact, once the band broke up in 1974, Furnier successfully sued to adopt the Alice Cooper name as his own.  Not sure what his IRS tax returns say…

* * * * * * * * *

There’s a rather long list of name-changing recording artists who make my “honorable mention” list, and some of their stories are interesting enough to inspire me to do another blog post someday.

Steven Georgiou evolved into Cat Stevens (and then Yusaf Islam);  Walden Cassotto was renamed Bobby “Mack the Knife” Darin;  The Police and solo star Sting was born Gordon Sumner;  Malcolm Rebbenack became known as Dr. John the Night Tripper;  Ernest Evans morphed into Chubby Checker;  country star Crystal Gayle started out as Brenda Webb;  even as a teenager, McKinley Morganfield was known as Muddy Waters;  a youngster named Perry Miller ended up better known as Jesse Colin Young;  we know a girl named Judith Cohen as Juice Newton;  British boy Paul Gadd was eventually Gary Glitter; and Ray Sawyer was “on the cover of Rolling Stone” as Dr. Hook.

Some stars changed only their last names:  Francis Castellucio (Frankie Valli);  Edward Mahoney (Eddie Money);  Dominic Ierace (Donnie Iris);  Carol Klein (Carole King);  LaDonna Gaines (Donna Summer);  Cherilyn Sarkisian (Cher);  Georgios Panayiotou (George Michael);  John Ramistella (Johnny Rivers);  Hugh Cregg III (Huey Lewis);  Richard Penniman (Little Richard);  Peter Blankfield (Peter Wolf);  David Jones (David Bowie);  Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan);  Ray Robinson (Ray Charles);  Patricia Holt (Patti LaBelle);  Martyn Buchwald (Marty Balin);  Patricia Andrzejewski (Pat Benatar);  Priscilla White (Cilla Black).

And this tradition goes on well past the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Just about every hip-hop artist of the last 30 years has a made-up name…  And we really need look no further than Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, the young lady born in 1986 in New York’s Upper East Side.  In 2006, when the aspiring singer arrived at the studio, her first producer used to greet her with a few lines from his favorite Queen song “Radio Ga Ga.”  In a text message he sent to her one day, “radio” auto-corrected to “lady,” and Lady Gaga was born.