Nearly everyone would agree that Lynyrd Skynyrd is quite a popular band in American music history, but for a moment we’d like to acknowledge the most popular and yet mostly unknown high school gym teacher in American culture. Forby Leonard Skinner was a teacher who passed away seven years ago in Jacksonville, Florida. He is significant since a bunch of ragtag high-school rockers morphed his name into the name of a band that became a legendary Southern Rock outfit.
“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.”
During an interview in January 2009, Skinner stated how he was just following the rules about hair length. Skinner mentioned that the legendary story bothered him — that he was particularly tough on the band members — that he had them kicked out of school. Rossington had dropped out of school, tired of being hassled about his hair. “It was against the school rules. I don’t particularly like long hair on men, but again, it wasn’t my rule.” In The Times-Union of Jacksonville, Skinner remarked “They were good, talented, hard-working boys. They worked hard, lived hard and boozed hard.” Skinner’s son said, “I think he kind of ate it up. He didn’t like it at first, he had mixed emotions later, but I think he kind of liked it eventually.”
In the summer of 1964 the teenagers in question, Ronnie Van Zant, Bob Burns, Allen Collins, Gary Rossington, and Larry Junstrom, began their journey in Jacksonville, Florida as My Backyard. Soon the group became The Noble Five, then changed again when they settled upon One Percent during 1968. A year later Ronnie Van Zant wanted again a new name and the kid rockers did the rework on Skinner’s name and took it as their own.
After years of road shows and club gigs around the Jacksonville area, the group had become well-known, even performing as opening acts on several occasions. During 1971 the band made a visit to Muscle Shoals for some recording sessions and then went on their merry way. After some personnel changes in 1972, their ‘big break’ arrived in the person of Blood, Sweat, and Tears producer Al Kooper. He found them a record deal with Sounds of the South, a label distributed by MCA. Their first album was recorded with the help of The Boys from Doraville (Studio One and Atlanta Rhythm Section) and in August of 1973 (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) was on record store shelves.
Armed with the single “Gimme Three Steps” (and later “Free Bird”) the first album did very well and after a long tour, Lynyrd Skynyrd had achieved a Gold Record. They continued to gain more fans and publicity due in part to their opening slot for the U.S. leg of the Who’s Quadrophenia tour. On April 15, 1974, the second Skynyrd album with the fitting title was released by Sounds of the South and MCA Records.
The thirty-seven plus minutes of music are some of the finest Southern Rock cuts around. Nearly every song on this record is played on the radio every day somewhere in the United States (we assume). During their heyday, all of their records were million-sellers, but “Sweet Home Alabama” was the only single to crack the top ten (reaching number 8). Second Helping slowly made it into the Number 12 slot on the album charts during 1974, and in a matter of time, the record achieved multi-platinum sales. In July of that year, the boys were one of the headline acts at The Ozark Music Festival. (H-U-G-E bands played this event!)
After drummer Bob Burns left the band in January 1975 he was replaced by Artimus Pyle, and in March the group released their third album, Nuthin’ Fancy. The entire album was recorded in just thirteen days, and sales for the release were much lower than Second Helping. During the tour promoting Nuthin’ Fancy, guitarist Ed King decided to leave the band, citing the ‘exhaustion due to relentless touring’ syndrome that has claimed many fellow musicians. Backup singers were added to the lineup, and a third guitarist, Steve Gaines, joined up in time for the 1976 double-live album One More From The Road, which was compiled from tapes made during an appearance at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta.
Lynyrd Skynyrd enjoyed major success during the mid-seventies, however, on Labor Day weekend of ’76, both Allen Collins and Gary Rossington were involved in traffic accidents. Rossington’s experience, which he admitted to, was vocalized in the single “That Smell”, which ‘stars’ Rossington as ‘Prince Charming’, who crashed his car into an oak tree while drunk and under the influence of Quaaludes. (“Now they call you Prince Charming, Can’t speak a word when you’re full of ‘ludes.”)
In mid-October of 1977, just three days after the fifth album, Street Survivors, went on sale, the band’s chartered plane somehow managed to run out of fuel as they approached the end of their flight to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The band had just left Greenville, South Carolina and were scheduled for a gig at LSU. The pilots attempted an emergency landing on a small rural airstrip, but tragedy struck and the Convair airplane crashed in a forest near Gillsburg, Mississippi. Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and his sister backing vocalist Cassie, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray all died in the crash.
Following the disaster and from the attention focus by the ever-inquisitive media, Street Survivors went on to become Lynyrd Skynyrd’s second platinum album, gaining the Number 5 position on American charts. The original Street Survivors album cover was a photo depicting the band, particularly Steve Gaines, engulfed in flames. MCA Records did the right thing and withdrew the original sleeve design and replaced it with a similar image that shows band and uses a simple black background. The original album version was re-released in 2008.
In light of the tragic events, the band dissolved at the end of 1977, to remain inactive until a revised band began recording and touring ten years later. The latest edition of Lynyrd Skynyrd has gone through having a few original members to just one, Gary Rossington. After quite a few lineup changes the group continues to record and tour.
Today Lynyrd Skynyrd are busy jamming through the Eastern portions of the United States. Their popularity has not waned, and they are on top of the “Best Southern Rock Band” poll and currently sit at Number Five on the “Best American Rock Band” list at Ranker.com. They are scheduled to perform while at sea during a January 2018 “Southern Rock Crusie” setting sail from Montego Bay, Jamaica. More info can be had on the Skynyrd website as well as Twitter and FaceBook.