Guitarist and songwriter Gary Rossington, the last original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, who survived their 1977 plane crash and played with the band until this year, died Sunday. He was 71.
“It is with our deepest sympathy and sadness that we have to advise, that we lost our brother, friend, family member, songwriter and guitarist, Gary Rossington, today,” the band wrote on its official Facebook page. “Gary is now with his Skynyrd brothers and family in heaven and playing it pretty, like he always does.”
No other details were provided.
Rossington was badly injured in the 1977 plane crash that killed four members of the legendary Southern rock band including frontman Ronnie Van Zant. Rossington broke both of his legs, arms and ankles and his pelvis. He rejoined the band when Van Zant’s brother Johnny reformed the group in 1987, and the band had been recording and touring ever since.
Rossington, who co-penned many of the band’s best-known songs including “Free Bird,” had emergency heart surgery in 2021 but recovered and rejoined the band. News of his death comes as the band was revving to go on a 22-city North American tour with ZZ Top beginning in June.
“The last of the Free Birds has flown home,” the estate of his late friend Charlie Daniels wrote in tribute today on Twitter.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s original lineup included Rossington, lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarists Allen Collins and Larry Junstrom and drummer Bob Burns. They formed in 1964 in Jacksonville, FL with the name My Backyard. The group’s self-titled 1973 debut LP, subtitled (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd), was a hit and featured such classic tracks as “Gimme Three Steps,” “Tuesday’s Gone,” “Simple Man” and “Free Bird,” a Top 20 pop single that would become one of rock’s most popular and enduring songs. The album hit No. 27 on the Billboard 200 and went double platinum.
Rossington played the signature slide-guitar licks on the song.
Skynyrd — which took its deliberately misspelled name from Leonard Skinner, a hated gym teacher at their high school — would make four more studio albums and a live album before the plane crash. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
After recovering from his injuries in the crash, Rossington formed the Rossington Collins Band with Collins. Featuring Dale Krantz on vocals, their 1980 debut album made the Top 15 and went gold, spawning an FM hit with “Don’t Misunderstand Me.” The group broke up after its 1981 follow-up disc, This Is the Way.
Rossington then formed The Rossington Band, which made one album in 1988.
Skynyrd hit the national scene in the wake of the success of fellow Southern rockers The Allman Brothers Band and others including The Charlie Daniels Band, The Marshall Tucker Band and Wet Willie. The group’s success fed the genre’s popularity, and other acts including The Outlaws, Molly Hatchet and .38 Special would on to score platinum albums.
But Skynyrd was the most popular Southern rock act in the 1970s. It placed three more studios albums in the Billboard Top 20 from 1974-76 with Second Helping, Nuthin’ Fancy and Gimme Back My Bullets. Its 1974 sophomore set featured a surprise top 10 pop single in “Sweet Home Alabama.” Considered among rock greatest’s “answer records,” it was inspired by Neil Young’s early-’70s tracks “Southern Man” and “Alabama” and punctuated by Van Zant’s memorable line, “I hope Neil Young will remember/A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”
Rather than spurring animosity, Van Zant and Young would become friends — a relationship chronicled decades later in the Drive-By Truckers song “Ronnie and Neil.” That track was from Southern Rock Opera, the great 2001 double album that chronicled Skynyrd’s rise through its terrible plane crash.
Later in 1976, Lynyrd Skynyrd released the double live LP One More from the Road, which hit the Billboard Top 10 and featured the legendary version of “Free Bird” that still tops classic rock stations’ listener polls. Clocking in at more than 11 minutes, its three-guitar assault behind Van Zant’s plaintive vocal thrills audiences to this day.
The group was riding high on the live disc’s success when it embarked on another concert tour, just ahead of the release of fifth studio LP, Street Survivors. After playing a show in Greenville, SC, the band members and some crew boarded a chartered plane bound for the next tour stop in Baton Rouge, LA. The aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed in a rural area near Gillsburg, MS. Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his older sister Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot John Gray died on impact.
The crash occurred just three days before the release of Street Survivors, which would become the highest-charting disc of Skynyrd’s career, reaching No. 5 and going double platinum. It featured the band’s second-biggest pop single in “What’s Your Name,” which chronicled the often-debaucherous life on the road, complete with fights, boring down time and, especially, groupie meet-ups. The song remains popular on classic rock radio.
While the crash would mark the end of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s recording heyday, it continued to sell albums. And the group would re-form in 1987 with Rossington, Johnny Van Zant and key ’70s members Leon Wilkeson, Artimus Pyle, Billy Powell and Ed King. The band continued to record and tour, with various personnel changes and was featured in the 2018 feature-length documentary, If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The band’s legacy in rock in secure, leaving behind a catalog of classics that, along with “Free Bird” and the other tracks noted above, includes “Saturday Night Special,” “I Know A Little,” “Call Me the Breeze,” “That Smell” and many others.
Information about Rossington’s survivors was not immediately available.
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