If you’d like to start an argument, find yourself a pair of music enthusiasts and ask them, about the origins of rock ‘n’ roll. And then sit back because I guarantee you, hours of entertainment.
If you’d permit me a gross oversimplification, the answer may be found in the collision of black and white culture of the 1940s and 50s, an amalgamation of style and instrumentation exceeding the sum of its parts and resulting in nothing short, of cultural revolution.
Religious leaders, government officials and parents’ groups decried the new style, as the “devils music. The FBI launched a year-long obscenity investigation directed at the Jamaican sailor’s ballad “Louie Louie”, as performed by an obscure Portland Oregon outfit, called the Kingsmen. The G-Men could have saved themselves a lot of trouble and asked lead singer Jack Ely about those lyrics, but that would have made sense. As it is, the FBI’s archival website contains no fewer than 119 pages, covering the investigation.
Witnesses were interviewed and Louie Louie played forward, backward and at varying speed. In the end, the song was ruled “unintelligible at any speed”.
Rock ‘n’ roll music, was here to stay.
Before the “British invasion“ of the 1960s, rock ‘n’ roll music remained largely a product, of the American south. Artists such as Bo Diddley, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis all hailed, from the deep South.
Popular music changed in the 1960’s from the “Land of Cotton” to large cities like Liverpool, New York, London, Toronto, Los Angeles and San Francisco. A generation of youth the world over “turned on, tuned in and dropped out” in the words of Timothy Leary while bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Canned Heat and a Canadian folk rock group called The Band featuring Arkansas’s own Levon Helm preserved a Southern blues, boogie woogie and country music heritage which would come to be known, as Southern rock..
For a man tragically taken from among us at the age of 24, few have brought about the tectonic cultural shift of a man called “Skydog” by his friends, Howard Duane Allman, by the rest of us. As a session musician with established artists such as Aretha Franklin, King Curtis and Derek and the Dominoes, Rolling Stone ranked Allman #2 guitar player of all time in 2003 second only, to Jimi Hendrix.
The Allman Brothers Band established in 1968 never played so much as a single gig before cutting their first album and yet, went on to become “the best damn rock and roll band this country has produced in the past five years,” according to George Kimball of Rolling Stone. Following session work on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, Eric Clapton himself described Allman as the “musical brother I’d never had but wished I did.”
On October 29, 1971, a motorcycle crash on the streets of Macon Georgia ended the life of Duane Allman. A year later, bassist Berry Oakley was himself killed in a motorcycle crash only three blocks from the spot, where Allman had perished. He too, was only 24.
“You can’t help the revolution, because there’s just evolution … Every time I’m in Georgia, I eat a peach for peace”Duane Allman
Up to this point, the Allman Brothers’ sound may be described, as blues rock. The 1972 double album “Eat a Peach” turned the corner to a more “Southern Fried” sound led by guitarist Dickey Betts’ epic, “Blue Sky“. The band led the 1970’s Southern rock phenomenon with hits like “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica“, both from the Brothers and Sisters album. Groups like Marshall Tucker, ZZ Top and Molly Hatchet rocketed to stardom during this period but none so much, as Lynyrd Skynyrd.
In the insanity that was the summer of 2021, the Robert E. Lee High School of Jacksonville Florida was renamed, Riverside High. Back in 1969, five Lee High school buddies, were in a band. Ronnie Van Zant (guitar), Bob Burns (drums), Gary Rossington (guitar), Allen Collins (guitar) and Larry Junstrom (bass) went through several band names from ’64 on, including The Noble Five, The One Percent, and My Backyard. In 1969, the boys took a backhanded swipe at a flat-topped gym teacher who didn’t care for all that hair. Forby Leonard Skinner was his name, the band at first calling itself Leonard Skinnerd and later morphing into, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“It seems a physical education teacher named Leonard Skinner didn’t cotton to long hair or loud music. A run-in with him helped get the boys suspended. As a way of getting back, they named the band for Skinner, changing the vowels to avoid a lawsuit and becoming famous enough to make the story a rock legend.Associated Press
Skinner went on to sell real estate and even had his sign and phone number (for which he gave permission) included in the cover art for the band’s third album. Fans would call him up at all hours to ask “who’s speaking”? What followed was invariably “far out” at the response “Leonard Skinner”, but the retired PE teacher said such calls at 4:00am tended to be, anything but.
In 1972, songwriter, musician and record producer Al Kooper of Blood, Sweat and Tears saw the band on performance in Atlanta and signed them to his “Sounds of the South” label to produce their first album: “Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd” featuring the hit song “free bird“ debuted in August 1973. The band never looked back.
An opening slot on the Who’s Quadrophenia tour of late 1973 cemented the band’s popularity proceeding to the follow-up album “Second Helping”, in 1974. Much was made at the time (and since), of the so-called “feud” between Neil Young and these sons of the south but that drama may be a wee bit, overblown. Everyone concerned describes themselves as fans of the other’s work. Neil Young later described his own lyrics in “Alabama” and “Southern Man” as overly accusatory. Ronnie van Zant said the man was shooting all the ducks when he only wanted to kill, one or two. The song “Sweet Home Alabama” they claimed, started out as a joke and was, after all, just a song.
Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow
Be that as it may, the song rocketed up the charts scoring Gold and/or Platinum certifications in Denmark, Italy, the US and the UK. Lynyrd Skynyrd was on the way to becoming one of the most popular Southern rock bands of all time, but such popularity does not come, without a cost.
There were brushes with the law and band defections much of it steeped, in drugs and alcohol. Allen Collins and Gary Rossington were involved in serious car crashes only hours apart over Labor Day weekend 1976, prompting Ronnie van Zant’s ominous warning in a song called, “That Smell”.
Angel of darkness is upon you
Stuck a needle in your arm (Ya fool you)
So take another toke have a blow for your nose
One more drink fool would drown you (Hell yeah)
Guitarist Ed King left the band in 1975. Looking to restore the signature three-guitar front-end Lynyrd Skynyrd, went looking for a replacement. Back up singer Cassie Gaines recommended her younger brother, Steve. Steve Gaines proved to be a prodigiously talented singer, songwriter and musician. The band was headed for greatness, in 1977. The Street Survivors tour brought the band to sold-out concerts throughput Europe and all the way to Asia and a first-ever appearance for a Southern rock band, in Japan. The same group who had once opened for the Who was now playing the same venues, as headliners.
With the release of the Street Survivors album on October 17, Lynyrd Skynyrd rebranded the next leg of the tour with the ominous name, “Tour of the Survivors“. The October 19 show in Greenville South Carolina followed a three day run through their native Florida and ended with a 20 minute rendition of the now famous rock anthem, “Free Bird“. A bright future lay in wait. A future, never meant to be.
26 people boarded the Convair CV-240 chartered from South Carolina on October 20, bound for Baton Rouge and the next concert, at LSU.
“Whiskey bottles, and 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 … The smell of death surrounds you.”Lynyrd Skynyrd
Realizing the aircraft was running out of fuel, the pilots attempted to reach the airport outside McComb, Mississippi. Visibly distressed and losing altitude, pilot Walter McCreary instructed passengers, to strap in. Gary Rossington describes a sound like baseball bats on the aircraft’s aluminum skin as tree branches began to strike the fuselage.
Keyboard player Billy Powell, deeply lacerated with his nose all but torn from his face later described Van Zant being hurled from the plane, his head striking a tree as the aircraft, broke apart. Despite broken ribs, former United States Marine-turned drummer Artimus Pyle extricated himself from the wreckage and walked to a nearby home to notify the inhabitants.
Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and his sister Cassie, road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot McCreary and co-pilot William Gray were all killed in the crash. Everyone else on the aircraft, all 20 of them, were seriously injured.
This was to be the band’s last flight in this particular aircraft. Everyone agreed the Convair was well past its prime, unbefitting a band some have called, the best in the world. Pyle said the thing looked like it belonged to the Clampett family, referring to the Beverly hillbillies. Aerosmith had previously looked at the same aircraft and flight crew and rejected it for the 1977 American tour, despite objections from Steven Tyler and Joe Perry.
Lynyrd Skynyrd went on hiatus for over a decade after the crash but eventually, reformed. The band remains on tour to this day including original member Gary Rossington and now featuring Van Zant’s brother Johnny, as a lead singer and lead guitarist.
“I don’t like my words when I listen to it today. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, too easy to misconstrue.”Neil Young in his 2012 book, “Alabama”
As for that so-called feud with Neil Young it never was anything more, than a good-natured brushback pitch. “I think “Sweet Home Alabama” is a great song” Young would later say, “I’ve actually performed it live a couple of times myself. My own song “Alabama” richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record. I don’t like my words when I listen to it today.” There were even plans to collaborate on Young’s upcoming song “Powderfinger” recorded on the 1979 “Rust never sleeps: album, but it wasn’t meant to be.
In later life, Leonard Skinner opened a bar in Jacksonville called “The Still” and his namesake rock group, played there. Skinner died in 2010 leaving a New York Times obituary to call him, “Arguably the most influential high school gym teacher in American popular culture“. Other music fads of the 1970s would come and go. Today, the Funk and Punk movements of the period make for good trivia questions. The disco craze is more of a punchline.
Ain’t nobody making fun of Sweet Home Alabama…