Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1973
“What song do you want to hear? vocalist Ronnie Van Zant asks the crowd before Lynyrd Skynyrd kicks off 14 minutes of “Free Bird” on their 1976 live album, One more from the road.
He spoke rhetorically.
By then the whole world knew what song everyone wanted to hear at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.
Shit, that’s what people still want to hear at everybody’s gigs. Haven’t we all heard someone yell “Free Bird” at a random show? More than one time?
It happened when Nirvana aired MTV Unplugged (they surprised with a bit of “Sweet Home Alabama”, something they had already done in a few stores); and one spring evening in 2016 at a Bob Dylan concert in Berkeley, Calif., the call went out for “Free Bird” — and he paid tribute, working a snippet in his closing performance of “Love Sick”. And then there is The Boy Who Cried Freebird: Rock & Roll Fables and Sound Talesa fiction in which MAGNET writer/NPR storyteller Mitch Myers imagines the guy who first asked for “Free Bird” at an unrelated gig.
Singer Ronnie Van Zant met guitarists Allen Collins and Gary Rossington in high school in the mid-60s in Jacksonville, Florida, and together they started a band called My Backyard. Over the next few years they built a circuit of small venues where they played under various names and formations until 1969 when they settled on a bastardy named after their gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, a man who had a penchant for making life difficult for the long-haired boys in her classes.
One evening in 1972, while Lynyrd Skynyrd was playing in an Atlanta bar, they caught the attention of Al Kooper (founding member of Blood, Sweat, & Tears and session player, it was Kooper who played this memorable organ line on “Like a Rolling Stone”); now he was looking for bands for MCA’s new Sounds of the South label, and he liked what he was hearing so he signed them to the label and signed to produce their debut album, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd.
America heard for the first time Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd on release day: August 13, 1973. “Tuesday’s Gone”, “Gimme Three Steps” and “Simple Man”, three back-to-back numbers from rock-radio playlists, were piled on the first side. It was a full-face opening, but those three songs were just placemats for the 9:08 guitar masterpiece that ended the second side of this impressive debut album.
“Free Bird”, sometimes spelled “Freebird”, was started by Collins, probably in 1970, shortly after he chose the name Lynyrd Skynyrd. Thing is, when he played it for Van Zant, Rossington recalls, the singer insisted he “had too many chords to write lyrics.”
A breakthrough came a few months later, Rossington said. Blender magazine. “We were seated, and [Ronnie] asked Allen to play those chords again. After about 20 minutes, Ronnie started singing “If I Leave By Tomorrow”, and it was going great.
“It wasn’t anything heavy, just a love song about leaving town, it’s time to move on. Al [Kooper] put the organ in front, which was a very good idea. It also helped me get the sound of the delayed slide guitar I play – it’s actually me playing the same thing twice, recording one over the other, so it sounds a bit muddy, in echo.
That opening line, “If I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me?” came courtesy of Collins’ girlfriend, eventually wife Kathy, who had asked Allen this question once in the middle of a fight.
“Free Bird” was recorded as a non-solo ballad as early as 1972. That triumphant 4-minute guitar workout that eventually brought “Free Bird” to its glorious climax was a pure function over form, added initially for the benefit of Van Zant’s throat at a time when Skynyrd was playing set after set every night in the clubs.
By the time “Free Bird” was released on that debut album in August 1973, the last four minutes had turned into rock & roll history. And despite having three guitarists in the band – Collins, Rossington and newcomer Ed King – Rossington said guitar world that “all along jam was Allen Collins himself. He was bad. He was super bad! He was bad to the bone. When we put together the solo, we liked the sound of both guitars, and I could have gone out and played with it. But the way he did it, he was so sexy! He just did it once and did it again and it was done.
At first, producer Kooper suggested an organ intro for “Free Bird” (as he did on “Like a Rolling Stone”) and it’s his playing, credited as “Roosevelt Gook”, that opens the Lynyrd Skynyrd’s signature song, a song that put Skynyrd at the forefront of the growing wave of Southern rock music in the 1970s, a song that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame calls one of the 500 songs that have shaped rock and roll.
Another connection between “Free Bird” and Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” was their exorbitant time consumption; at just over nine and six minutes, respectively, each song was far too long for radio back in the day, causing their record companies to initially balk at the idea of releasing them. Listeners put that nonsense to rest, though, and in the end, it’s the full length version of every song that rock radio has been playing for decades.
On October 20, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd was on a private jet en route to a show in Baton Rouge, Louisiana when it ran out of fuel and crashed in the woods just outside Gillsburg, Mississippi. Vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines (who had replaced Ed King), Steve Cassie’s sister, a backing vocalist, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, driver Walter McCreary and co-driver William Gray were impacted. The surviving members of the group were all seriously injured. Four years and five albums into a promising career that saw them pace to generational greatness, Lynyrd Skynyrd was no more.
Today, nearly five decades after its release, “Free Bird” remains one of the most classic classic rock songs. He left a lasting impression in many ways, including on a generation of rock audiences who found a new way to express themselves. “Free Bird” was released the same year BIC introduced the first adjustable flame lighter, and it helped turn “flick your BIC” into a thing at thousands of gigs over the years.
Cell phones may have replaced the BIC these days, but legend has it that if you touch your BIC at a concert today, you might hear someone shout “Free Bird.”