Guitarist and songwriter Gary Rossington, the last surviving founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, died Sunday at the age of 71.
No immediate cause of death was given. Rossington had dealt with serious health issues in recent years, including emergency heart surgery in 2021, almost two decades after undergoing quintuple bypass surgery in 2003.
“It is with our deepest sympathy and sadness that we have to advise that we lost our brother, friend, family member, songwriter and guitarist, Gary Rossington, today,” Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote on its official Facebook page. “Gary is now with his Skynyrd brothers and family in heaven and playing it pretty, like he always does. Please keep Dale, Mary, Annie and the entire Rossington family in your prayers and respect the family’s privacy at this difficult time.
The guitarist was known for contributing one of the most famous rock guitar solos of all time to the band’s anthemic “Free Bird,” as well for co-writing Skynyrd classics such as “Sweet Home Alabama.”
In December, Lynyrd Skynyrd had announced an upcoming 22-city co-headlining tour with ZZ Top that was scheduled to begin in July. However, Rossington had not been performing at the group’s recent concerts. A week ago, in response to online fan queries about when or whether the guitarist would be returning to the touring lineup, the official Skynyrd Facebook account replied: “Gary will come to shows for guest appearances as he is feeling well and able. He is planning to be in Plant City next month.” At some 2022 shows, Rossington played for only the second half of the concerts, due to his health issues.
Rossington did not make any apologies for keeping the group going, years after he became the last original member to be part of the lineup. “Me, Allen [Collins] and Ronnie started this band with a dream of making it big, and that dream came true. They’d love it if their music was still being played when they’re gone,” he told Rolling Stone late last year.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the group’s debut album, “Pronounced Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd.”
Rossington had a number of “cheating death” experiences over the decades — most famously surviving the 1977 plane crash that killed the Florida rock band’s lead vocalist, Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines and several members of their road and flight crews. Before that, Rossington survived a horrific 1976 Ford Torino car accident that inspired their roaring cautionary tale, “That Smell.”
“I don’t think of it as tragedy, I think of it as life,” Rossington told Rolling Stone upon the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. “I think the good outweighs the bad.”
Though the Allman Brothers Band and groups led by Charlie Daniels and Marshall Tucker preceded Lynyrd Skynyrd, the group was an avatar of the Southern rock brand, scoring platinum and gold albums lodged atop Billboard’s Top 200 and Top 10 pop singles starting with 1974’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” Co-written by Rossington and lyricist-singer Ronnie Van Zant, that song humorously responded to Neil Young’s cutting putdowns of the South in “Alabama” and “Southern Man” with “I hope Neil Young will remember / A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”
After the plane crash, but before Skynyrd regrouped, Rossington formed the Rossington-Collins Band with his future wife, Dale Krantz, and fellow Skynyrd guitarist Allen Collins, which lasted only two years but resulted in two albums, 1980’s “Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere” and 1981’s “This Is the Way.” Splitting with Collins, the guitarist then formed the Rossington Band with Dale Krantz-Rossington, releasing two albums in 1986 and 1988.
A decade after the plane crash seemed to have forced the group into emeritus status, Lynyrd Skynyrd roared back to life in 1987, for what was initially planned to be just one reunion tour. Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny, took over as lead vocalist, joined by five members who survived the crash — Rossington, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson and Artimus Pyle, plus guitarist Ed King, who had left the band two years before the crash, and new member Randall Hall. Collins, who had become disabled in a 1986 car accident, served as musical director but did not play with the reassembled group. The Johnny Van Zant-led edition of the band never did stop touring, and they resumed recording, as well, in 1991.
Stylistically, Rossington liked to say, “Guitar playing is really about what you don’t play; that’s what matters.”
Gary Robert Rossington was born December 4, 1951, in Jacksonville, Florida, and was raised by his mother after the death of his father. More interested in baseball than rock ‘and’n’ roll in his youth (he aspired to play for the New York Yankees), Rossington turned to music in his teens after falling in love with the Rolling Stones. In 1964, Rossington met Ronnie Van Zant and drummer Bob Burns while they were playing on rival Jacksonville baseball teams.
Van Zant immediately became something of a father figure to the guitarist, according to filmmaker Stephen Kijak’s 2018 documentary “If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
The threesome jammed together and formed a cover band, My Backyard, that featured Rossington, Van Zant, Burns, guitarist Allen Collins and bassist Larry Junstrom. As told to the New York Times by the vocalist’s mother, Lacy Van Zant, she once had to talk to Rossington’s teachers at West Jacksonville’s Robert E. Lee High School to allow the guitarist to keep his long hair; as playing in bands helped earn money for his mother, she explained, that long hair was part of the hard job of rocking.
My Backyard spent five years touring bars and small venues throughout the South, with Rossington’s instrument of choice being a 1959 Gibson Les Paul named “Berniece” (in honor of his mother). In 1969, the band became Lynyrd Skynyrd, and in 1973, the group released its debut album, “(Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd)” on MCA Records. Produced by Bob Dylan keyboardist Al Kooper, the album delivered country-inspired, Southern R&B rockers such as “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man,” “Tuesday’s Gone” and the epic closing track, the nearly 10-minute “Free Bird.” With its blustery slide guitar courtesy of Rossington, the legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd had begun.
The triple-guitar approach of Skynyrd was not completely novel, though Rossington proudly noted the extent to whcih they popularized it. “I think a lot of bands are just copying us,” he told Music Radar in 2012. “When we got started, we were influenced by the Allman Brothers, but at the beginning they had two guitar players. They used to jam a lot, and different guitar players would get up and play with them, so they’d wind up having three guitarists. Buffalo Springfield had three guitar players, and we thought they were so cool. So we started doing the three-guitar thing, and people started calling us the ‘guitar army’ and all this stuff. … We didn’t start it — it just seemed like the way to do things down there.”
But the magic of the extended coda of “Free Bird” was nearly all Rossington’s. Although he rarely got technical or liked to brag about technique, he eventually gave Guitar World magazine a full explanation of just how he arrived at a sound on that signature song’s solo that was a little trickier than most fans might have imagined.
“Around 1970, when we wrote the song, I had just started playing slide,” Rossington said. “Allen had these chords, but Ronnie couldn’t figure out any melody or lyrics to go with them. We kept playing the chords over and over, until Ronnie figured out some lyrics, and I came up with the slide part. But when I played, the bottle kept clinking against the frets because the strings were too low. I took a screwdriver, of all things, and stuck it under the strings up at the nut, so it would raise the strings up like a steel guitar. Then, I tuned the B string down to G — so the G and the B strings were both tuned to G. With the two Gs, it creates a drawling, doubled sound.”
When it came time to play “Free Bird” live years later, he replaced the screwdriver with a five-inch piece of wire, and then found a workaround for that — but didn’t abandon the wire, which he said “I just do out of sentimental reasons. I’ve never played that song live without it – it just reminds me of the way I did it originally. It’s like Jimi Hendrix on ‘All Along the Watchtower.’ He played the slide solo with a Zippo lighter. He couldn’t get it to sound right with a steel slide or a bottle, so he used a Zippo. Each guy has his own little tricks.” Rossington also borrowed his idol Duane Allman’s habit of using a glass Coricidin bottle for the slide effect. “He told me that a bottle sounds different than a steel slide, and I think it does, so I copied him.”
Of the plane crash, Rossington said in a 2020 interview with Guitar.com, “I remember most of it — the rapid descent, the screaming, my friends in pain like something out of Vietnam. “Waking up with the plane door on top of me. Cassie and Steve died. They were right next to me and Allen, yet we didn’t die, so we had unanswered questions as to why them and not us? We all believe in God because we’ve been through so much and yet we carried on… The crash has been brought up every day to us, since then. The main thing is we lost our best friends – that’s the hardest part. Our motto when we started was ‘If we don’t make it we’ll die trying.’ And we made it but at a terrible cost.
“We had a second chance to do this and we continued,” he added What else is life about than to live it? You’re a fool to not to live your dream. It’s unbelievable people still love our music and come out for us every night. We’re thankful.”
Of the other original members, Collins died in 1990, Wilkeson died in 2001, Powell passed away in 2009, Burns died in 2015 and King passed in 2018.
In the 21st century, the group took on more of an image as politically right-leaning, between playing for a Republican convention event, putting out a 2009 album titled “God and Guns” and, as they had since the beginning, displaying the Confederate flag on stage. Although they didn’t exactly renounce conservatism after all those things became controversial, Rossington did say a few years after the “God and Guns” record that they would be refraining from anything so polarizing or political in the future, and they put aside the flag, with Rossington saying they had no desire to be hurtful in their use of what they considered a regional single.
In 2018, the group began its Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour. With the group having booked two tours since then, the “farewell” tag would seem to have been hasty.
But Rossington knew he didn’t really intend to call it quits with that tour, despite the branding. In a 2018 interview with the Tampa Bay Times, the guitarist said he’d “had heart attacks on stage a lot” and expressed some practical, candid thoughts about why they were billing their then-current tour as a farewell trek. “That’s why I was calling it a farewell tour — I don’t know if I’ll be here,” he said. “I don’t want to just say, ‘Well, we’re never going to end,’ because I don’t want to die and then it end that way. Which is a heavy thing to talk about, but I have to.”
Promoting the would-be goodbye tour, Rossington told Uproxx in 2018, “It’s been a dream. It’s great. I still can’t believe we did what we set out to do. I’m so proud of it. That’s why I keep talking about Ronnie, Allen, Steve [Gaines], Leon [Wilkenson], Billy [Powell] and all the boys, to keep our memory and music alive. As far as writing, the songs stand for themselves. That’s why people come. The songs and the music. I’m prouder than a peacock and am honored to still sell out crowds. You know, I’m in bad health. I got a bad heart, and that’s why we’re quitting touring so much.”
Asked how he was holding up at the time, Rossington said, “I’m doing great right now. I just had some heart surgeries some years back and I’ve had a few stints put in since then. It’s just that. My doctors keep telling me to quit, but I just can’t. Musicians never quit, they fade away.”
Rossington further acknowledged the severity of his heart problems but said, “I don’t know how to do anything else but play… Since Ronnie and Steve didn’t live to see the new songs get massive, they’d never know how big this got and that 40 years later we’d still persevere. We call the stage a miracle zone where all your problems go away up there. Physical pain, your heartache all goes. The professionalism comes out and we blaze away. That’s when music speaks a powerful language.”
Rossington is survived by his wife of 40 years, Dale Krantz-Rossington, and two daughters.
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