The Plane Crash That Killed Lynyrd Skynyrd Original Members

by frugalrvers

One of the greatest tragedies in music history is the plane crash that took the lives of Ronnie Van Zant and the Gaines siblings, the early members of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Is there a fan of classic rock who doesn't know the song “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd? It is one of the songs most requested, to a sometimes annoying and laughable degree, by audiences wherever bar bands play.

But maybe what is less well known is the fate of 3 of the Lynyrd Skynyrd original members, including the lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ronnie Van Zant. A tragic plane crash took the lives of these band members and severely injured everyone else on board the aircraft in 1977. Here is the story of the rise and fall of one of America's most original and loved rock bands.

Musicians That Died In Plane Crashes - There Were Many

Rock stars that died young in plane crashes have been with us (before leaving us) since the very early days of rock and roll, and right up to the present day. My wife is afraid of flying, and when you put musicians who died in plane crashes in a summary like this, I can almost understand why.

 

Because touring and playing live shows was such an important part of the new business of rock in the 1950s, musicians and performers used air travel to get to far-flung locations on time. Invariably, the more aircraft were used to transport these budding celebrities, the more chance there was for a tragedy. The most famous and earliest of these ill-fated plane rides was the one that took the lives of 3 rockers in one fiery accident. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson Jr.) were traveling together to a package show in Clear Lake Iowa in the winter of 1959 when their small plane crashed, killing all three young stars.

 

The soul singer Otis Redding, riding the wave of a historic appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of love, 1967, died in a plane crash along with members of his band in December of that year. Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Denver, Randy Rhoads, Ricky Nelson, Jim Croce, Patsy Cline, all perished while traveling in aircraft. More recently R&B singer Aaliyah and Latin sensation Jenny Rivera met similar fates. In an interesting twist of fate, the well-known forever 27 club, surprisingly, has only a couple of members who died in airplane accidents. But one of the most remarkable plane crash tragedies is the one that took the lives of Ronnie Van Zant, lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and two other later Lynyrd Skynyrd original members, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, vocalist Cassie Gaines, in 1977.

Founding Member And Lynyrd Skynyrd Lead Singer Dead: Ronnie Van Zant

Some History On The Lead Singer Of Lynyrd Skynyrd

For Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, death came perhaps more mercifully than for many others who were yet to experience success. He and his band had been playing their own swaggering brand of southern rock for almost a decade, and had many hits and best-selling albums. In fact, they were in many ways at the peak of their careers.

 

The core 3 Lynyrd Skynyrd original members, Ronnie Van Zant, Gary Rossington, and Allen Collins, had formed their first band in their hometown of Jacksonville Florida in 1964. For Ronnie Van Zant, rock and roll was in his blood and ran in the family – his brother Donnie was and is lead vocalist in the classic rock band 38 Special, and his younger brother Johnny took over as the frontman for the reformed band in the 80s. In 1970 the young group decided to name themselves after a high school principal who caused them much grief for their long hair and delinquent behaviors, Leonard Skinner, but wisely gave the name a twist and a new spelling, and Lynyrd Skynyrd was born.

 

After being “discovered” by rock icon and producer Al Kooper in Atlanta in 1972, the band released their first album in 1973 and were on their way to legendary status in the history of rock. This debut not only contained the hits Gimme Three Steps, Tuesday's Gone, and Simple Man, but the song that launched a thousand bar bands, Free Bird. The song was such a big seller that they were invited to tour as opening act for the Who in 1973, further advancing their success. When their second album (Second Helping) was released in 1974, they demonstrated that they were no redneck rock flash in the pan by having their biggest hit ever with Sweet Home Alabama. The song spawned the urban myth that Van Zant and Neil Young were enemies when in fact they were admirers of each other – Young had written a song (Powderfinger) expressly for the band, who unfortunately did not record it.

 

With their bluesy, triple guitar sound and their southern heritage, Lynyrd Skynyrd, lead singer Van Zant, and their expanded line up had more hits over the next few years while the band changed a few members out here and there. A third record appeared in 1975 – Nuthin' Fancy – which was somewhat of a disappointment sales wise, although the band continued touring and packing venues all over the world on the basis of their earlier hits. After the fourth album (Gimme Back My Bullets) and tour, a double live album was the result of their hard work, and a new guitarist joined the group just in time to record the fifth studio record named Street Survivors, which would, ironically, be their final product with the core three members, and the only album featuring Gaines on guitar. The LP came out on October 17, 1977, and contained two of their biggest songs, That Smell and What's Your Name. The album eventually earned double platinum status for sales.

PLANE CRASH: Ronnie Van Zant Death As Well As The Gaines Siblings

Miraculously Some Members Survived......

Riding high on their past successes on the charts and in support of the new record, the band launched a tour that was planned to fulfill a lifelong dream of Van Zant – playing Madison Square Garden in November. The band had played 5 shows and had just released Street Survivors when, on October 20, 1977, the plane they had chartered for the tour crashed near Gillsburg, Mississippi. Apparently the cause of the crash was a simple but tragic one – the airplane ran out of fuel after a miscalculation by the pilots and a rare engine malfunction that resulted in an overuse of fuel.

 

All three of those killed in the mishap were just a year or two older than 27, the age at which so many famous rockers have met their demise. The survivors of the crash were seriously injured, and years passed before all of them had recovered from the mishap. An autopsy of Ronnie Van Zant's body showed that he had died from blunt force head trauma in the crash. In an ironic twist, the cover of Street Survivors had been designed to show the band members emerging from a wall of flames (SEE BELOW), and the album was initially printed with the original artwork. After the crash, it was withdrawn and a plain cover was used in its place.

Lynyrd Skynyrd Street Survivors Showed Band Members With Wall Of Flames

Ronnie Van Zant Is The One Wearing The Black Hat
Street Survivors

Top 10 Lynyrd Skynyrd Songs List

These Top Lynyrd Skynyrd Songs Are Known By Many Generations

During the short span of years that the Lynyrd Skynyrd original members and the subsequent variations had recorded, they built up an admirable list of classic rock songs, and most of them were popular hits as well. After the survivors (including Collins and Rossington) reformed the band in the late 1980s, they continued to record and tour, but have never duplicated the string of hits that the first version of the band enjoyed. The top 10 Lynyrd Skynyrd songs are essentially the ones that were played on the radio and sold as singles, and all of them can be heard on classic rock radio play-lists today:

 

Free Bird

That Smell

What's Your Name

Gimme Three Steps

Simple Man

Sweet Home Alabama

Tuesday's Gone

Don't Ask Me No Questions

Gimme Back My Bullets

Saturday Night Special

 

Lynyrd Skynyrd: The Legacy

Lynyrd Skynyrd's music epitomized a certain trend in the 70s rock world of excessive machismo, a destructive lifestyle, long guitar solos, an entourage of female backup singers, and a lack of subtlety. On the other hand, the top Lynyrd Skynyrd songs are undeniably catchy, with a rootsy southern character that was unique among the glitz and glitter of the decade. The hipness quotient of the band became very low as punk and new wave came along in the latter half of the decade, and as the genres multiplied, they seemed to get a bit lost in the shuffle. But they were real rock and rollers in a time of slick pop music and sham rock, and their music will continue to delight and inspire as the years roll on into the future.

 

Our Favorite, Modern Southern Rock Band: Drive By Truckers

Although the tradition and legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd continues in their music and in the present day version of the band, it is a fact that no one has measured up to the original band and their hits in the 1970s.

 

One band has come very close, however, not in popularity, but in quality and spirit. A southern band called the Drive By Truckers is one of our favorite bands, and they have a track record of great albums going back several years.

 

One of their best, and a double album at that, is known as Southern Rock Opera. In this amazingly dead-on suite of related songs, the rockers tell their own story of rock and roll on the road, excess, and the traveling life, and make clear their spiritual and conceptual connection to Lynyrd Skynyrd. It's a classic in its own right, and a fitting tribute to the greatness of the original Southern thing, Lynryrd Skynyrd.

 

They reference, even via song titles, Skynyrd "stuff" - with titles like "Shut Up And Get On The Plane" and "Ronnie And Neil" and "Cassie's Brother." PLUS they refer to Skynyrd in their lyrics.

Drive By Truckers Music - You've GOT To Give Them A Listen

They Have More Than What Is Here...Check 'Em Out
The Dirty SouthSouthern Rock Opera (Dig)Decoration Day
Updated: on 03/01/2013, frugalrvers
 
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Lynyrd Skynyrd Comments


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frugalrvers on 03/24/2014

It is sad, Bill...you are right! Would love to catch a concert at the Gorge (we live in pacific NW)...bet that was amazing!

Bill on 03/24/2014

Im sitting here listening to what is called lynrd skynrd, but it's not!!! Watching AXs Tv. Sorry but Lynrd skynrd died in that plane wreck... even now when I play Skynrd I make sure it was them..... easy to do if ya just listen ;the voice the playing., u cant mistake or miss the differences. I saw new skynrd at the gorge in eastern Washington in the late 90s. Not Lynrd Skynrd!!!!!!! So sad.......

georgettejohn on 03/02/2013

My son is kinda "old school", has always been an "old, gentle soul" so it was easy to do. All his pictures since childhood have an aura of being a "simple man" -work, friends, family and very in tune with the important things in life so finding pictures to match the lyrics was very easy as well. Without intentionally doing it, when the slideshow was finished and I gave it to him...he pointed out that in a couple of the pictures of him in his early teen years he was wearing Skynyrd sweatshirts! Your article has sent me down memory lane as well. Remembering life as a teenager and the sadness experienced when I first learned of their fate.

frugalrvers on 03/02/2013

I didn't realize that the "slideshow" was OF your son! Thought maybe a class project you helped with, etc. Now I have incredible goosebumps...what a mom you are! Just, to use my daughter's lingo, "awesome!"

georgettejohn on 03/02/2013

My son was speechless when I gave him the slideshow. He has always liked the song, the words, the meaning but putting pictures of his growth through the year to it made it incredible for him. He ready enjoyed reading the article as well!

frugalrvers on 03/02/2013

Thank you, Mira!! Jim's having fun writing these music articles...

Mira on 03/02/2013

Another great set of songs to discover, and a wonderful article. :)

frugalrvers on 03/02/2013

Thank you for your comment Georgettejohn! How talented/creative you are to make a slideshow with that song...what did your son think? We are amazed how most of the time our kids don't know the great music we grew up with - yet if you ask them if they know Free Bird, they do! Some things withstand the test of time, don't they?

georgettejohn on 03/01/2013

Favorite Band all through high school and beyond. On my son's 18th birthday I made a slideshow for him with "Simple Man". Great Article.



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