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Lynyrd Skynyrd: The devastating story of Street Survivors

Three days after releasing Street Survivors, Lynyrd Skynyrd were crippled by the plane crash that killed three of their number. Here's the story of that album...

For Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1977 was both the best and worst of times. The seven-piece from Jacksonville, Florida, had been touring relentlessly for the previous five years and were now poised to become one of the biggest bands in the world. But behind the scenes there was unease. Guitarist Gary Rossington had even been known to weep at the strain of the constant touring, and management were continually attempting to douse the group’s firebrand flame of craziness that threatened to consume them.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s undisputed leader – he once claimed he’d “hand-picked all these boys to play for me” – was frontman Ronnie Van Zant, a violent, tyrannical boozer whose unpredictable rages had already driven guitarist Ed King from the band mid-tour. Anything from an over-loud amplifier to a minor stage collision could apparently tip the singer over the edge, resulting in fist fights and lingering bad feeling. When Van Zant wasn’t brawling with his own band he was getting into scrapes with anyone who got in his way. He’d been arrested for drunkenness five times already on tour, with nine shows being cancelled. Van Zant’s short fuse was something that Skynyrd always had to tolerate. It was his car that the band had used to transport their gear in the early days, and although he wasn’t responsible for naming the band after Leonard Skinner, the gym teacher who persecuted them for their long hair, Ronnie had whipped them into shape for many of their earliest successes.

It had all come to a head with Nuthin’ Fancy, an aptly titled collection for which Skynyrd fans were mostly unprepared. In choosing to call their next release, in 1976, Gimme Back My Bullets, Ronnie had made it plain that it was time for the group to recapture former glories – bullets being the symbol that US magazine Billboard awarded to albums that had sold more than a million copies in the US.

But it hadn’t worked. The switch of producer from Al Kooper to Tom Dowd, who had also overseen Skynyrd’s One More From The Road double live set, made ...Bullets the group’s fastest-selling release, yet it still took five years to sell half a million. One notable critic even referred to it as an album from “a great band in limbo”.

“We weren’t really in limbo, we just didn’t have any material written,” Rossington shrugs now. “We’d write a song in the morning and record it in the afternoon, which wasn’t ideal. Ed departing the way he did, that also made things really hard for us, because it changed the sound from a three-guitar band to a two-guitar.”

The combination of three guitarists – Rossington, Allen Collins and the now absent King – had long been a Skynyrd trademark, and the band appreciated the urgency in finding a replacement. Mountain’s Leslie West was among those considered for the job. In fact West had deputised for Rossington at a New York gig after the latter broke his hand in a fist fight. “We did try Leslie but we didn’t get along,” Rossington explains. “He’d wanted to call the band Lynyrd Skynyrd & Leslie West – to be half-and-half. That’s not what we were about. Leslie was a little too egotistical and wild for us, and I don’t think it would’ve worked.”

The new guitarist was eventually hired at the recommendation of backing vocalist Cassie Gaines. Her little brother Steve, she’d been telling them, was a natural and they really should check him out. Finally, with minimal expectations, they were persuaded to listen to what Steve Gaines could do. Amid the kind of surreal circumstances that could only have occurred in the 70s, the 26-year-old was invited to audition for the band on stage in front of an audience in Kansas City. Sound engineer Kevin Elson was told: “Just turn him off if he’s bad.”

“Cassie kept saying we should hear her brother, but nobody thought he’d be good enough,” Rossington recalls fondly. “We told him to jam with us on Call Me The Breeze, because that was just a [chord] progression, he couldn’t screw that up too much. But he tore it up like you wouldn’t believe. He had a slide in his pocket, and when he pulled that out he really impressed Allen and I. Right after that show we told him to quit the band he was with, he was coming with us. We threw him in the van. He didn’t even have a suitcase.”

When Gaines appeared on One More From The Road (recorded live at the Fox Theater in Atlanta in ’77) he had played just three gigs with the band. But there were many more gigs ahead, the most glamorous of which was an opening slot for the Rolling Stones at Knebworth Park. An estimated crowd of half a million people had gathered to see the Stones play what was rumoured at the time to be a farewell show, along with Todd Rundgren’s Utopia and Hot Tuna, but it was Skynyrd’s 90-minute ‘special guest’ spot that was the best-received on the day.

“Whenever this band goes on stage our only goal is to blow everyone else’s doors off,” says piano player Billy Powell. “To me that’s exactly what we did to the Stones at Knebworth. They made the audience wait for three hours, and when they did play they were too Quaaluded [powerful downers] out. It was the same when we played with The Who. I was only 22 years old at the time. Roger Daltrey’s voice wasn’t up to par, so our whole attitude was to just take ’em out. But I’ll never forget that day at Knebworth – backstage I met Paul and Linda McCartney, Rod Stewart, Billy Preston... you name them. Leon [Wilkeson] and I even got to share a joint with Jack Nicholson in our trailer – and you can quote me on that.”

“As a live band it was definitely an incredible time,” Rossington remembers. “We were selling out everywhere we went. We’d started playing small dance halls for a few hundred people, now suddenly we were opening for the Stones and The Who. But, sure, everybody knew it was time to come up with something really super-duper. That’s why we wrote Gimme Back My Bullets, although not everyone understood. In some places they threw bullets at us on stage – .22 shells and .38 bullets. We had to quit doing that song for a while.”

But if things for Skynyrd looked rosy from the outside, behind the scenes tensions continued to mount. During the latter half of 1976 Van Zant had begun to tell people he was quitting the booze – or at least reducing his intake. With fatherhood on the horizon, the 29-year-old had realised it was time to consider settling down. And he had seemed to be as good as his word. That is, until a show in Florida when, noticeably the worse for wear, Van Zant slugged bassist Leon Wilkeson, causing the band to have to leave the stage for 20 minutes. Worse, at another gig, in North Carolina, Van Zant lost his voice following a lengthy booze and coke binge, and stumbled offstage midway through the performance.

In September 1976, two weeks after the band’s Knebworth triumph, Rossington and Collins were both involved in serious drink-driving incidents. Blasted on a mean combination of whisky and Quaaludes, Rossington had passed out at the wheel and slammed into an oak tree. His car was going so fast it also took down a telegraph pole and careered into a private residence. Rossington, who says his party motto was “If you ain’t pukin’, you ain’t high”, was fortunate to emerge from the wreckage reasonably unscathed; passenger and assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick required surgery on a broken spleen.

For Van Zant, who never drove while under the influence, Rossington’s stupidity was the last straw. Earlier that same year, Powell had come a cropper on his motorbike, Collins had driven a jeep over an embankment, fracturing his skull in the process, and drummer Artimus Pyle had shattered his leg in another alcohol-related ‘incident’. After admonishing Rossington in his hospital bed, Van Zant took his security guard Gene Odom aside and told him things would have to change. Using all the discretion he could muster, Odom made it his business to arrive first at each venue, removing one of the two bottles of whisky and another of the three bottles of champagne supplied on the group’s backstage rider.

“Believe it or not, this seemingly mild deprivation made a difference in their demeanour and also helped their performance,” Odom recalled in Remembering The Free Birds Of Southern Rock, a fascinating book written with Frank Dorman. “Once they realised what I’d been doing, Allen and Billy would get in their usual share of licks at the hotel bar, [but] Gary and Leon, and even Allen and Billy, expressed their appreciation.”

Powell laughs when reminded that Collins once claimed they never knew how to “play in front of 15,000 people sober”.

“The alcohol had become a tool that took us to that rowdy state,” he says. “But we were constantly fighting each other – on one occasion I even got my teeth knocked out by Ronnie. We also had a reputation for tearing up hotel rooms, and there were a few backstage areas demolished.”

Rossington: “We’d been taught by the best. When we played with The Who, Moonie was with them and he was out of control. They’d give us Scotch and we’d drink up a storm with them.

“We’d wanted to stop, and we did manage it for a while. Ronnie and I would go fishing instead. But then we’d get through a few shows and me, Ronnie and Allen would sneak off and pull a drunk somewhere. You can’t keep that away from folks unless they want it themselves.”

More than ever before, Skynyrd found themselves walking on eggshells when they were around Van Zant, whose wife Judy had given birth to their daughter, Melody. “He was hard to get along with,” Rossington sighs ruefully. “The redneck in him made him want to fight a lot. Myself and him got in around six big, bad knockout fights, but that’s just the way we’d been brought up.

“It was hard at times because he would scream from his throat instead of his diaphragm when he sang, and [he’d lose his voice and] we’d have to cancel shows. He’d wait till an hour before the show [to make a decision], and it put us on the spot. Sometimes we even had to play without him, we’d get Charlie Daniels or whoever was around to sing with us a bit to make it up [to the fans]. That was never easy.

“But we did our best to understand,” Rossington continues. “Ronnie was a mean drunk, but before that meanness there was another, nicer stage – he’d have given you the shirt off his back; he’d give you his watch, or buy you drinks all night... until something came along to make him mad.”

Powell concurs: “He was kinda scary when he was drinking, because it made him like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I always tried to keep out of Ronnie’s way when he was drunk, or avoid pissing him off at the very least. But when he was sober he was the neatest, coolest guy I’ve ever met. You could sit there all night and listen to him telling true stories about the things he’d done. He was a gentlemen till he started drinking. But the same was true of the rest of us in those days. And therein lies the problem.”

Drugs, it seems, were less of a concern than alcohol and violence, but their presence still lurked in the background. “We’d just started to do cocaine. And I hate myself for that now,” Rossington frowns. “Back in those days cocaine was the drug – it was everywhere we went. We never bought it, people just gave it to us. We knew that it was causing us to stay up too late, and physically it made us sick. But comparing it to the standards of today’s rock stars we were barely doing it at all.”

With Steve Gaines installed as their secret weapon, Lynyrd Skynyrd began working on what would become – though no one knew it then, of course – their last album with Van Zant, Street Survivors. Van Zant had already said of the band’s newest recruit: “I expect we’ll all be in Steve’s shadow one day. This kid is a writing and playing fool. He’s already scared everybody [in the band] into playing their best in years.”

And Van Zant was right. When Skynyrd and producer Tom Dowd were recording at Miami’s Criteria Studios in April 1977, it was Gaines who brought in some of the best new material. He chipped in with I Know A Little and the country-blues workout Ain’t No Good Life. Rossington still recalls the “freshness that Steve brought to the sessions,” adding: “He was a great picker, and such a great guy to hang with, and his natural enthusiasm rubbed off on all of us.”

Gaines’s presence also had the knock-on benefit, Powell says, of “taking some of the pressure off Ronnie [because] Steve was a great singer, too.” However, what the band previously thought of as their unassailable relationship with producer Dowd began to unravel as heated arguments broke out during the mixing of the Street Survivors album. It was Kevin Elson (who would later produce records for Journey, Night Ranger and Mr Big) who suggested Skynyrd’s career would be over if they released what was on tape.

And although only Gaines agreed at first, according to Gene Odom “the original version was tossed in the trash” before Skynyrd set off for an already scheduled summer US tour with Santana, Peter Frampton and The Outlaws. Returning to a smaller studio in Doraville, Georgia, to wind things up, the band were less than amused to find that Dowd was absent. Van Zant was, perhaps inevitably, the most irate that Dowd had fled to Toronto to work on Foot Loose And Fancy Free with Rod Stewart, and insisted that Dowd’s name be stripped from the credits. And although Dowd had sent engineer Barry Rudolph in his place, Elson played a huge role in the re-recording process. Just about everything for the album except opener What’s Your Name? was eventually reworked.

“Maybe Tom was getting too old, or his ears weren’t as good as they’d been,” Powell says. “Either way, we put a stop to it.”

Rossington: “We didn’t like the tones and sounds that Tom was getting. There wasn’t a fight, but there was a big disagreement. The booze and drugs had been creeping in a little bit. But Barry was a tremendous help, and when we put him together with Kevin... damn, those tunes started to come out great!”

By way of celebrating the album’s triumph-over-adversity conclusion, Skynyrd entitled it Street Survivors, and organised a photo session which symbolically saw them standing tall while everything around them was smothered in flames. The album was released on October 17, 1977. A mere three days later, three band members were dead, killed in the plane crash that, ironically, painfully, stupidly, turned them into a legend. The saddest irony was that not only was Street Survivors their best album in years, it also turned out to be their most successful. It shipped gold in 10 days flat and had sold a million by the end of its first month in the chart, eventually becoming their biggest seller. Skynyrd were finally getting their bullets back. But Ronnie wasn’t around to savour it.

The band were four dates into an intended 45-show trek, dubbed The Tour Of The Survivors, when disaster struck. More than a quarter of a century later, Rossington still recalls the tour’s few completed gigs in Miami, St Petersburg, Lakeland and Greenville with a strange mixture of warm contentedness and chilling foreboding.

“We were playing a lot of the new tunes,” he remembers, “things like That Smell and I Never Dream, and they were going over really good with the audience. We’d been playing the same set for a long time, so we decided to do most of Street Survivors, with Sweet Home Alabama, Free Bird and a couple of others, but mostly it was the new stuff. Our egos were all kinda boosted by people liking what they were hearing, pretty much for the first time.” Powell describes what happened next as a “rude, rude awakening” for them all. “We were starting to realise that our career was heading to a peak and that soon we’d be up there alongside the Rolling Stones and The Who,” he says, “when the carpet was torn right out from underneath us.”

Skynyrd and various crew members had been aboard their private 1947 Convair 240 turbo-prop plane when its 21 tons fell from the sky. According to Rossington, “it had been acting up for a day or two”, and pilots Walter McCreary and William Gray had announced their intention of getting it checked out at the next port of call in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Official reports afterwards said that the pilots had miscalculated the amount of fuel bought before take-off in Lakeland, Florida, and when they refuelled in Greenville, South Carolina, they believed the tank to be fuller than it was. When the plane began experiencing problems which required the pilots to operate the plane’s starboard-side engine in the 'auto-rich' position, the fuel they did have burned away at an excessive rate. It was calculated that some 207 gallons were unaccounted for.

As the reality of their plight had dawned, the pilots informed air traffic control in Houston that the aircraft’s altitude had dropped from 12,000 feet to just 4,500. The pilots were told to alter course to an airport near McComb, Mississippi. But the likelihood was that by the time that message was received they’d overshot McComb by 17 miles. When the fuel gauge eventually hit zero, all the hydraulics ceased working; the aircraft stalled, and plummeted into swampy woods near Gillsburg, Mississippi.

The corpses of McCreary and Gray were found still strapped inside their cockpit, which in the crash had been separated from the rest of the aircraft. Van Zant, Steve and Cassie Gaines and band crew member Dean Kilpatrick were all said to have been killed on impact. With the plane’s fuel tanks empty there were at least no fires or explosions, but most of the passengers who survived suffered serious injuries that caused them permanent physical damage. Every seat but one had been ripped from the floor and some victims had been thrown through the shattered fuselage. Powell’s nose was almost torn from his face, and when Gene Odom crawled towards him in the dark and tried to touch it Powell pushed him away, fearing he might lose it in the mud.

Those survivors who were still able to walk away from the wreckage, including Artimus Pyle, did so. But as the dazed and blood-splattered collective approached a private house they were astonished to receive shotgun fire. The farmer later explained that he’d heard reports of escaped prisoners on the loose in the area.

As helicopters arrived to rescue the survivors, so did the gangs of rubber-neckers and souvenir hunters. The curiosity-seekers sometimes got in the way of those administering medical treatment; one disgusted doctor pulled a woman down into the swamp with him when she refused to help carry a victim to safety. More sickening still, as a crowd of around 3,000 gathered on the edge of the swamp, criminals were busy stripping the impact area of jewellery, wallets, cash and even airplane seats.

Rossington: “For a long time I wouldn’t talk about the plane crash. It hurt to keep going back to it in interviews or whatever. After I spoke for a while about it I’d have the blues for the rest of the day. Then I would go out and get drunk. But I’ve realised that it’s part of my career. We can talk about it a little if you like.”

Despite the traumas, it hasn’t stopped him, or indeed anyone else in Skynyrd, from getting on planes again. (Indeed, Artimus Pyle once told Classic Rock that he’d been in two more plane crashes since then.) “I’m okay [with flying], I suppose,” Rossington says. “Right after the crash, I actually had to fly to two or three different hospitals for special operations. So I was flying again the very next day. It’s like having a bicycle accident when you’re a kid: you have to get right back on. But it still bothers Billy a lot, I believe.”

There were rumours that some band members had been forced onto the plane on that fateful morning in Lakeland. Rossington now acknowledges and confirms those rumours: “That’s true. Allen and Billy didn’t wanna get up on it, but Ronnie was gung-ho and told ’em if it was his time [to die] then it was his time; we were going. Ronnie said as long as they got to the next show he didn’t care how they managed it. And everybody followed the leader.”

Asked whether he blamed anyone for the fact that the plane fell just 28 miles short of the McComb airfield, or perhaps even that Skynyrd were travelling on a day off from the tour, he replies philosophically: “There was no one to blame. The plane ran out of gas. There was a leak, so when the pilot cut out the one engine to use the other it had been spewing fuel. Nobody knew that. People have to get blamed when people die, but I don’t hold anyone responsible. You can’t blame the pilots; they obviously wouldn’t have flown if they knew what was gonna happen.”

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Among the main recipients of Van Zant’s bullying, Billy Powell makes an astonishing admission of the thoughts he was having as he lay dazed and wounded in that Florida swamp twilight: “You want the truth?” he asks. “I’ve never shared this with anybody...” There’s a pregnant pause before he continues: “As time went by I’d kinda forgiven Ronnie for [knocking out] my teeth, but right before the plane crash I was getting really fed up with it all. The strangest memory of my life is that when that plane came down I wasn’t knocked unconscious like all the rest. One of my first thoughts was: ‘Thank God it’s over – I don’t have to get beaten up anymore.’ “Even without asking anyone, I knew in my heart that Ronnie was dead,” Powell continues quietly. “And it was a relief. It didn’t last long, of course. I wanted the beating to stop, but not like it did. I knew that Steve was dead, too, but I didn’t know about Cassie. It took three years for all the survivors to collect our thoughts and get over the bitterness. Although both pilots paid with their lives, it took a long time for me to stop being mad at them.”

According to Powell, the negativity brewed on despite Allen and Gary’s formation of the Rossington-Collins Band, whose two early 80s albums (Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere and This Is The Way) also starred Billy himself and Leon Wilkeson, plus backing vocalist Dale Krantz, now a member of Skynyrd and married to Gary Rossington. “It was always me and Allen Collins that fought,” Powell explains. “Then Gary would come to Allen’s defence and I’d end up fighting them both.”

While the piano player was in jail in 1983, he discovered God and joined a Christian bar band called Vision, then ended up backing former Grand Funk Railroad vocalist Mark Farner. It was four years later, while Powell was both grappling with the futility of “trying to turn drunk people on to the Lord” and in debt to the taxman that his thoughts turned to organising a Lynyrd Skynyrd reunion tour.

“People would yell for Skynyrd songs, which embarrassed Mark Farner but felt real good to me,” he smiles. “When we started adding those songs, that’s when the light-bulb went off. Even 10 years after the crash, people still loved the band and those songs of ours.” Ronnie’s younger brother Johnny Van Zant was happy to deputise at the microphone – except during Free Bird, the epic track which at the start of the reunion the band ritually dedicated to Ronnie, Steve and Cassie Gaines and Dean Kilpatrick, performing it each night as an instrumental. The tour also featured Ed King, Leon Wilkeson, Artimus Pyle and guitarist Randall Hall. Allen Collins wasn’t present, but gave the venture his blessing. “It took a while to get Gary to agree,” Powell nods. “And at first it was only supposed to be a six-week tour, but nobody expected the magnitude of its success. So here we are, more than 15 years after that tribute tour in 1987... and still there’s no sign of us going away.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd said their 2003 album Vicious Cycle was “of the same calibre” as Street Survivors, and that Ronnie Van Zant would have wanted them to keep on rocking.

The free birds were still flying, but considerably older and wiser. Gary Rossington and Billy Powell had both recently turned 50 years old, were currently clean of drugs – and thoroughly proud to be so. When the band played That Smell, Johnny advised the audience to take a cab home if they’d been drinking.

“I’ve personally totalled three trucks,” Gary says. “It’s pretty bad to live through that and still not get the message. The first time I knocked out all my teeth, which was pretty devastating for a 20-year-old. I broke my finger the second time, and the third I got pretty messed up... but nothing like the plane crash.”

Even of late, Rossington hadn’t enjoyed the best of health – in February 2003 he'd undergone open heart surgery – but he vowed that if anything happened to him he’d want Skynyrd to continue. Indeed, it’d often been suggested that before the crash Ronnie had himself considered passing the baton to Johnny.

“That’s the truth,” swears Gary. “Ronnie had nodes developing on his vocal cords, he didn’t want to sing for too many years longer. He wanted us to break Johnny in. Ronnie was gonna write for the band and co-manage us.

“When it comes to Skynyrd continuing without Ronnie, he’d still want his music to be heard,” he continues. “I promise you, he used to tell me, ‘If anything should happen to me, keep the band going.’ The thing people sometimes forget is that we’ve always paid the estates of Steve Gaines, Ronnie and all those who died – they still get their regular share. Their families get a point or two [percentage of the royalties] on all the albums, so they can take care of their kids. I have two daughters. I would hope and pray that if anything happened to me, the guys would carry on playing [without me], so my wife and kids would be helped out.”

It was strange to think that Johnny Van Zant had been with Skynyrd for twice as long as his brother, fronting them for 16 of their 30 years thus far. “At the beginning I had my doubts about doing this,” he admits. “I thought, ‘I’m gonna see Ronnie again one day, I don’t want him to whup my ass,’ but as the years went by I’ve realised it’s the right thing to do.”

The most recent band member to pass away had been Leon Wilkeson, the charismatic bassist from Street Survivors and many of their best recordings. Wilkeson had been in and out of the band since their first album, and as frequently to rehab in recent years. The subject had frustrated Johnny immensely the last time he spoke to Classic Rock. Back then he told us: “I’m so disappointed in Leon. He lived through a plane crash, how can he let booze screw it up for him?”

Wilkeson passed away during the recording of Vicious Cycle, but he appears on two of its tracks, Lucky Man and The Way. The band also recorded a tribute called Mad Hatter to their fallen brother, famous for his legendary eccentric headgear. Leon’s replacement was ex-Outlaws man Ean Evans, who joined former Damn Yankees drummer Michael Cartellone in the group’s engine room. Like most of the group’s fans, Gary and Billy were happy to cite Street Survivors as Skynyrd’s best ever album, but the guitarist even compared it to Vicious Cycle.

“The new album’s definitely of the same calibre,” insists Rossington. “It’s the best one we’ve done since then, and I’m hoping it could do for this line-up what Street Survivors did for the original band. Of course, lots of people still talk about the old band with Ronnie, Steve and everyone, but this band has played for even longer than the original one. The audience has grown to love the new guys, too.”

Few would’ve been able to take such claims even remotely seriously until the Edge Of Forever album in 1999. The first to feature a red-hot new guitarist duo of former Blackfoot star Rickey Medlocke (who actually played drums on Skynyrd’s First And Last album) and ex-Outlaws man Huey Thomasson, it made a complete mockery of their risible post-reunion studio albums (Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991, Twenty) and the glut of live records (Southern By The Grace Of God: Tribute Tour, Southern Knights, Lyve From Steel Town) that had blighted their catalogue.

Fortunately, Johnny guffaws when I suggest that with Edge Of Forever Skynyrd had reached the point of shitting or getting off the pot. “That’s right,” he hoots, adding: “After so long away, we kinda felt the same with this one, but it’s much better than the last one.”

Certainly, as Rolling Stone recently reported, they’re now having their first hit single “since Jimmy Carter was in the White House” in the shape of Red, White And Blue. The band call the track, with its chorus of “My hair’s turning white/My neck’s always been red/My collar’s still blue”, a celebration of the American working class. However, the Gulf war gave it a whole other significance.

“It’s a shot at anybody that wants to be against the United States and our troops,” Van Zant said. “It makes me angry whenever I see people going out of their way to cause us trouble. Say stuff about our president later or don’t vote for him, but right now stick behind him.”

Among the band’s new celebrity fans is Kid Rock, who guests on a re-vamped Gimme Back My Bullets. Rossington: “It’s the same song, but done in a modern style,” with Van Zant adding: “Bobby – I love to call him Bobby! – brought Pamela [Anderson] to one of our shows in Michigan, and we asked him if he’d do it.”

The band’s sole remaining founder, Gary Rossington offered a unique perspective upon their continued existence, and you knew darned well he had no regrets. He was well aware that ex-members like Artimus Pyle had gone on record as saying: “Lynyrd Skynyrd shouldn’t exist without Ronnie Van Zant. They should have the courage to use another name. They still play the old hits, but none of their new material has gone gold or platinum.

“Artimus is mad at us and has tried to cause trouble, but he quit the band,” he shrugs. “Now he just wants to come back. There’s a handful of people like that, but there’s also hundreds of thousands of people that just want us to go on.

“I’ve been through a whole lot of shit in my life, but I wouldn’t change a day of it,” adds Rossington. “It’s all part of my story and it’s made me who I am.”

Skynyrd were thrilled at the prospect of playing shows in London, Birmingham, Dublin and Glasgow with Deep Purple in June. The two bands bonded when Purple opened for Skynyrd in the US two years previously, though it was Ian Gillan and company that would be headlining in Europe.

“We’ve no ego about all that stuff,” Billy concludes. “Last time when we shared a bus with Deep Purple, I ended up getting their autographs. When people ask me what it’s like to be a star, I tell ’em to look up into the sky. I’m just a better than average keyboard player.”

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