October 20, 1977 That Other day, the Music Died

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”.

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
Leonard Skinner, in later life

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…

February 3, 1959 The Day the Music Died

There’s a popular story that the 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza was called “American Pie”, but the story is a myth. The single engine airplane bore only the tail number: N3794N.

Jiles Richardson was a Texas DJ in 1958, the year he found recording success of his own with a song called “Chantilly Lace”.

Richie Valenzuela was only 16 when Del-Fi Records producer Bob Keane discovered the singer in California. “Donna”, a song he had written for his high school sweetheart Donna Ludwig, was on the way to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, right alongside the 45’s “B” side, an old Mexican standard turned Rock & Roll tune called “La Bamba”. By 1958, Valenzuela was one of the hottest young recording artists of his time.

Charles Hardin Holley, “Buddy” to his friends and family, learned guitar, four-string banjo and lap steel guitar from his older brothers, Travis and Larry. The boy took to music at an early age, winning his first talent contest at age five.   One music critic would describe the Lubbock Texas native as “the single most influential creative force in early rock and roll.” Contemporary and later musicians claiming inspiration from Holley’s work include the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Elvis Costello.download (98)58 years ago, his name changed as the result of a misspelling in a recording contract, Buddy Holly was headliner of the “The Winter Dance Party Tour”. Richardson, performing as the “Big Bopper” and Valenzuela, professionally known as Ritchie Valens, were on the tour, along with Dion and the Belmonts, Holly’s friend from Lubbock and fellow musician Waylon Jennings, and a young Owasso, Oklahoma Rockabilly musician and former “Crickets” band member, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation named Tommy Allsup.

The musical tour included 24 cities in 3 weeks, a grueling schedule under the best of circumstances.  This were anything but the best of circumstances. The tour bus had no heat.  A three-week winter bus tour of the upper Midwest is no place to be without heat. It was so cold that Holly’s drummer, Carl Bunch, suffered frostbite in his feet and left the tour in Clear Lake, Iowa.download (96)Holly was sick of it, and decided to charter a plane for himself and some of his guys. At least that would give them time to do laundry before the next performance.

Dwyer Flying Service got the charter with a 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza, at $36 per person. There’s a popular story that the four-seater aircraft was called “American Pie”, but the story is a myth. The single engine airplane bore only the tail number: N3794N.

Richardson was running a fever at the time, so Waylon Jennings gave up his seat so the Big Bopper could ride in comfort. Allsup and Valens flipped a coin for the last seat, the coin landing heads up. Ritchie Valens had won the coin toss.

On learning that Jennings wasn’t going to fly, Holly said “Well, I hope your old bus freezes up.” Jennings replied “Well, I hope your plane crashes.” It was just a good ribbing between friends.  None could know that Jennings’ joke, would come true.  The comment haunted Waylon Jennings for the rest of his life.

HighFlight-TheMusicDied6N3794N left the ground in a snowstorm, shortly after 1:00am on February 3. The pilot, Roger Peterson, may have been inexperienced with the instrumentation.  He may have become disoriented in near-whiteout conditions. One wing hit the ground in a cornfield outside of Clear Lake and the aircraft corkscrewed into the ground, throwing the three musicians clear of the plane. There was no fire, barely a sound.  Just a small aircraft swallowed whole, by a snow covered cornfield.

The bodies would lie in that field until late in the afternoon.

The show would go on. Needing to fill in at the next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota, they found a 15 year old talent across the state line in Fargo, and so began the musical career of Bobby Vee.

download (97)A boy named Don McLean heard about the plane crash while doing his morning paper route. One day, the future singer/songwriter would pen the words “February made me shiver, with every paper I’d deliver”.

Allsup returned to Odessa, resuming his musical career and opening a club in Dallas, in 1979. He called the place, “Tommy’s Heads Up Saloon”.  A nod to the “lost” coin toss that had saved his life.

Distraught, Buddy Holly’s widow miscarried their only child, shortly after the wreck.  His last song reached #1 on the UK charts on April 24, 1959, the first posthumous release ever to do so.  In the US the song charted at 13 on the Billboard Hot 100.  It would be Buddy Holly’s last top 20 hit in the nation.

The name of the song, was “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”

Inscribed on Ritchie Valens’ gravestone are the words, “Come On, Let’s Go.”

The last surviving member of Buddy Holly’s 1959 tour band passed away at the age of  85.  Tommy Allsup was a big fan of Western Swing, and member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.  Tommy’s son Austin is himself a singer/songwriter, that’s him in the picture.  Austin received messages of condolence on the passing of his father, including one from Ritchie Valens’ sister. “I told her in my message back“, he said “now my dad and Ritchie can finally finish the tour they started 58 years ago.”

Tommy Allsup
Hat Tip Texashillcountry.com for this image, and for the anecdote told above

 

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