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.