Gary Rossington, guitarist and founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, has died aged 71

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Gary Rossington, guitarist for Lynyrd Skynyrd and the last surviving original member of the band, has died at the age of 71.

No cause of death was given for Rossington, who died on Sunday, almost four months before the band was due to embark on their next tour.

The guitarist has battled health issues for decades, including a heart attack in 2015 and emergency heart surgery in 2021.

In an official statement, Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote: “It is with our deepest sympathy and sadness that we announce the loss today of our brother, friend, family member, songwriter and guitarist Gary Rossington. Gary is in heaven now with his Skynyrd brothers and family, playing it up nicely like he always does.”

In 2016, Rossington told Billboard magazine that despite his health issues, he decided to keep playing.

“It’s just in my blood, you know?” he said. “I’m just an old guitarist and we’ve spent our whole lives and 10,000 hours of work trying to understand how to play and how to do it. So I think once you’ve got something going for yourself, you should stick with it and keep your craft going. When you retire, what’s next? I like to go fishing, but how much of it can you do, right?”

Related: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s teacher who inspired name dies

Rossington was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1951 and has been in the band since 1964 when it was a trio called Me, You, and Him with bassist Larry Junstrom and drummer Bob Burns. Rossington wanted to be a baseball player but turned to music instead after hearing The Rolling Stones.

Baseball, however, led to Lynyrd Skynyrd: Rossington, Burns and Junstrom met singer Ronnie Van Zant, who played on a rival baseball team, at a game and they jammed together in the carport at Burns’ childhood home.

After some name changes, they finally settled on Lynyrd Skynyrd, named after Leonard Skinner, a strict teacher at 16-year-old Rossington’s school. Skinner had a zero tolerance policy for boys with long hair – like Rossington, who was suspended and soon dropped out of school.

The band’s debut album was released in 1973 and featured the nine-minute track Free Bird, which became one of Skynyrd’s most famous songs. Rossington co-wrote Sweet Home Alabama, a hit from her second album, as well as several other Skynyrd tracks including I Ain’t The One, Things Goin’ On, Don’t Ask Me No Questions and Gimme Back My Bullets.

In 1977, a plane carrying the band crashed in Mississippi, killing Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister and backup vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, and both pilots. Twenty people on the plane survived, including Rossington, who was knocked unconscious; he woke up with the plane door on him.

Gary Rossington performed with Rickey Medlocke and Johnny Van Zant in 2009. Photo: Lehtikuva/REX/Shutterstock

Although he broke both his arms, legs, wrists and ankles, as well as his pelvis, Rossington made a full recovery but battled a drug addiction for years that began with his heavy reliance on painkillers during his recovery.

“We couldn’t imagine going on after something like that,” he once said. “We were a brotherhood and when you lose your brothers you can’t just move on.”

Skynyrd disbanded but re-formed in 1987 and have since gone on with several line-up changes, but Rossington was the only member of the band to appear on all of their albums. Johnny Van Zant – Ronnie’s brother and Skynyrd’s frontman since 1977 – once said, “I don’t think you can have Lynyrd Skynyrd without Gary Rossington.”

Rossington outlived several of his fellow Skynyrd guitarists including Allen Collins, Ed King, Hughie Thomasson and Rickey Medlocke.

In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Lynyrd Skynyrd #95 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, and the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s upcoming US tour with ZZ Top is expected to continue despite Rossington’s death.

Rossington is survived by his wife Dale Krantz-Rossington, their two daughters and several grandchildren.

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