By 1977, these boys from Jacksonville, Florida, were a fierce rock and roll band. As they would tell you, they were Southern by the grace of God, which blessed them as the finest Southern rock band going. They fought their way to the top, literally, toured non-stop, taking Europe and Japan by storm, and opened for the Rolling Stones. Afterwards most everyone agreed the Stones were outgunned by those rednecks with the quirky name, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The Street Survivors Tour kicked off on New Year’s Day 1977 in San Diego. This was their sixth tour, and the band was determined to make it their most memorable. After three shows in the United States, they took off to Japan for five shows. From Japan, they moved to London and toured the United Kingdom through the remainder of January and most of February. They moved to Switzerland and Germany to close out their European and Asian tour, where they completed an exhausting twenty-eight shows in less than two months.
With no break, they returned to the United States on March 2 and went straight to the studio to record the Street Survivors album. They returned to their grinding tour schedule in April after disappointing results in the studio, when they scrapped all recordings vowing to start over. They rebooted on April 22 in Bristol, Tennessee, and toured non-stop, with almost daily concerts, through May, June, July, and August. They were said to have sustained this maddening pace on a mixture of alcohol, cocaine, and Quaaludes, living up to the legend of a hard-living life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. They came through the Carolinas in April playing Charlotte, Greensboro, Fayetteville, and Columbia but missed a few cities and planned to get back. On the Carolinas leg of the tour, Spartanburg’s Marshall Tucker Band opened for them creating an all-star Southern rock revival.
Southern Souls // Lynyrd Skynyrd immortalized Southern rock and roll, catapulting to stardom in the 1970s. This month marks the 40th anniversary of the tragic plane crash that took the lives of lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, lead guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister and back-up singer Cassie Gaines, the band’s manager, and two pilots after the October 19, 1977, show at Greenville Memorial Auditorium.
They took a quick detour to re-record the Street Survivors album at Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. This time they got it right, and the record company planned to rush release the album in early October.
After a brief break, they picked up the tour on October 13 in Georgia and then did three quick shows in their home state of Florida. In the early morning of Wednesday, October 19, Lynyrd Skynyrd flew into Greenville from Lakeland, Florida, on a plane they recently leased for the remainder of the tour. The plane was a welcome perk from a hard-driving tour schedule. Just three days earlier, they released their Street Survivors album to mixed reviews.
It was good to be back in the Carolinas. Drummer Artimus Pyle had a home nearby in Campobello. The band had a strong following in North and South Carolina, and the Greenville audience was no exception. Playing to a near capacity crowd on a Wednesday night at Memorial Auditorium, Lynyrd Skynyrd pushed a hard set of twelve songs into free-wheeling jam sessions. The night ended with “Sweet Home Alabama” followed by the final encore, the newly christened Southern anthem, “Free Bird.”
After an all-night party, the band met at Greenville’s downtown airport at 4 a.m. to board their chartered Convair 240 airplane for Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they were scheduled to play that evening on the campus of Louisiana State University (LSU). More than twenty passengers boarded the plane, the band members, management, background singers, and supporting cast.
Simple Kind of Man // Ronnie Van Zant (above) was the lead singer and songwriter for Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, and one of six killed in the tragic crash in 1977.
Because of a suspected faulty engine, the plane was burning fuel fast. They were not going to make it to Baton Rouge and were diverted to southeastern Mississippi. But the fuel burned, and the pilots had no choice but to attempt an emergency landing near Gillsburg, Mississippi. The plane skidded over treetops and jerked nose first to the ground, crashing in a swampy wooded area eight miles short of the airport, instantly killing lead singer and songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, lead guitarist Steve Gaines, and his sister and backup singer Cassie Gaines along with the band’s manager, and two pilots. Twenty more were injured, with ten in critical condition.
It’s eerie that the last song Lynyrd Skynyrd played as a band in Greenville, South Carolina, was “Free Bird.” On their first live album, 1976’s One More from the Road, Van Zant can be heard asking the crowd, “What song is it you wanna hear?” The overwhelming response leads into the 14-minute version of the song that has become an iconic Southern anthem.
As Van Zant wrote and sang in “Free Bird”—“If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” Their music continues to inspire and reach new generations. His music was about his life, and the songs were his story, and we all still remember, forty years later.
LYNYRD SKYNYRD SET LIST
OCTOBER 19, 1977, GREENVILLE, SC
Workin’ for MCA
I Ain’t the One
Saturday Night Special
Ain’t No Good Life
Gimme Three Steps
Call Me the Breeze
Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)
Sweet Home Alabama