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Gary Rossington - surviving 40 years of Lynyrd Skynyrd

April 3, 2013
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Gary Rossington - surviving 40 years of Lynyrd Skynyrd Photo by Christopher Joles

Guitarist Gary Rossington, founding member of Southern rock pioneers Lynyrd Skynyrd, feels like the last of a dying breed. 'When you look at all of the bands - especially from the South - that were around when we started, there aren't many of us left,' he told me in a recent phone conversation. 

As the sole original member in the current Skynyrd lineup, Rossington may also have been referencing his own role in the band. The October 1977 plane crash that killed original Skynyrd lead vocalist and lyricist Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and singer and vocalist Cassie Gaines, signaled the end of the Skynyrd name for a decade. Rossington spent years recovering from the crash that shattered both of his arms, legs, wrists, ankles and pelvis. A broken heart took longer to heal. 

A reconditioned Lynyrd Skynyrd formed in 1987, led by Rossington with Ronnie Van Zant's younger brother Johnny assuming the lead vocal spot. 'Last of a Dyin' Breed,' the 14th studio album under the Lynyrd Skynyrd name, was issued last August.  

A survivor of not only a plane crash but quadruple bypass surgery in 2003, Rossington was recently hospitalized in Wyoming with a serious abdominal infection. When we spoke last week, there was no sign of illness in his voice. Sounding upbeat, healthy, refreshed and in good humor, Rossington says he can't wait to hit the road next week with Skynyrd to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the band's first album, 'pronounced 'lh-'nrd 'skin-'nrd.' For 12 dates this summer, Lynyrd Skynyrd will co-headline with Bad Company, also celebrating their 40th anniversary.

Dow: Over the last three years, you and the band have played some hugely successful shows here in Maine. What do you think of when you think of Maine and the people here?

Rossington: We just love America and Maine is part of that. We love y'alls lobster (laughing). Man, it's a different breed of people up there. It's great, and we love to come there and play and spread the name of Skynyrd. It's a long way from Florida, so we're just really pleased that they like us up there. You want to hear us play, and we can't wait to get back up there. It's too soon to know if we'll make it back this year, but I hope we do. We really like it there. 

Dow: Take us back to the mid '60s when you, Allen Collins and Ronnie Van Zant started playing together in various bands. What type of music were you guys playing then?

Rossington: We first met in Little League, and we started playing music together when we were in high school. Seeing The Beatles on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' - that just freaked me out and it changed everything for me. The next day, me and all of my friends started talking about forming a band. We didn't how to play anything or sing - we just started it. We taught each other and we taught ourselves. Seeing Elvis, The Beatles and the Stones on TV, that's what really got us. It was a big inspiration. Bands like Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience we had great teachers who really inspired us.  

When we formed the first band, we played a lot of cover tunes and went through a lot of different names. We had a band called The Noble Five, and then we were called The Pretty Ones (laughing) and The Wild Cats. After that, we were The One Percent that name stuck the longest out of the early ones. We got kicked out of school for having long hair by our gym coach, Leonard Skinner, so we named the band 'Lynyrd Skynyrd' after him, and that's when we started getting serious and working really hard. They were wild times. You know how crazy teenagers can be, especially playing music in a band. They were crazy times and we loved it. 

Dow: Any band would have been lucky to have Ronnie Van Zant out in front. In all of the stories I've heard and read about Ronnie, the thing that keeps coming up is that he was an honorable person and a man of his word.  

Rossington: Well, he was. Ronnie was just a great person - a real special guy who had a great aura about him. He demanded excellence out of himself and everybody around him. He wanted everybody to try as hard as they could, and he made sure they did it. He was an honorable man like you said - a man of his word. He was a simple man. We grew up together. We went fishing all the time when we weren't playing. We wrote a lot of songs together and spent most of our free time together. In my life, before the crash, he was my best friend.

Dow: I've been re-reading Al Kooper's great book ('Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards'), and there are some wonderful sections in there where he writes about working with you guys and producing the first three Skynyrd albums. How important was Al to the band?  

Rossington: Oh, he was very important. We were playing some clubs in Atlanta and he came in and 'discovered' us, so to speak. He was starting a new record label called 'Sounds of the South' through Universal and MCA. We got to be friends with him, and then he signed us and produced our first few albums. A few years before, he had played with Hendrix on 'Electric Ladyland,' so we were getting the scoop on that and listened to his stories about playing with Dylan. Man, we loved hearing those stories and all of the back-talk about how the songs were written. He was a great friend and he started us out good.

Dow: The latest Lynyrd Skynyrd album, 'Last of a Dying Breed,' has a real 'live in the studio' sound to it. Is that what you were going for this time? 

Rossington: Actually, yeah. With this album, we got in there as a band and kind of did it live in the studio with everybody playing together. We went back and maybe overdubbed the vocals a little bit or some lead guitar, but we were going for a 'band feeling' like we used to do back in the '70s. I think recording with everybody playing at once is really good for us. It sounds like a real song instead of a bunch of tracks overdubbed.

Dow: There have been a lot of books written about Lynyrd Skynyrd, but so far there is no official account of the group's entire career. Have you ever considered writing the definitive history of your band?  

Rossington: Yeah, I've thought about it, but I'm just waiting for a publisher to come and ask me, really (laughing). There have been a lot of books that kind of tell the story, but it's second hand things they've heard. I think that if I and some of the widows and people who were around back at the beginning told the real story, it would be really interesting. It's a great story about a bunch of kids who had a dream. It's a real story of 'in America, you can do anything.' We were from low-income families and we made it big - the American dream. And then (with the crash) you have the tragic end of it too, so it would be a great book. I'll start writing it right after this interview! (laughing). 

Dow: Who's making music today that you like to listen to?

Rossington: I still like old blues and The Beatles all the old classic stuff. I'm just hooked on that, and I love to keep hearing it. I like a lot of newer bands like Foo Fighters and Green Day. I'm more a 'band guy' than I am a fan of individual singers. I just like guitars.  

Dow: 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the first Lynyrd Skynyrd album. Will you be paying tribute to the first record in some way this year?

Rossington: Yeah, we might go into a studio or a hall somewhere and just do that album again live. We're happy that, 40 years later, people are still listening to it. The songs on there it's just music that will last forever.

The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow' can be heard each morning on Big 104 FM The Biggest Hits of the '60s, '70s & '80s - airing on 104.3,104.7and 107.7.

Last modified on Wednesday, 03 April 2013 12:25

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