Gary Rossington, who has died aged 71, was the last surviving original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the southern rock band responsible for the popular and enduring chart hits Free Bird and Sweet Home Alabama. In addition to his songwriting skills (he helped write the aforementioned hits), Rossington’s talent for guitar ensured he was a crucial part of the band’s success.
He was born in Jacksonville, Florida to John Robert Rossington and Margaret Berniece McGraw Rossington. His first passion was playing and watching baseball, especially his favorite team, the New York Yankees. But listening to the Rolling Stones as a teenager changed his focus from wannabe Yankee to aspiring rock star.
The band that became Lynyrd Skynyrd was formed in 1964 around a core of five members who banded together as youths under the name The Noble Five and later The One Percent. They first toured locally and regionally and made their breakthrough in 1973. The band’s name was taken from former PE teacher Leonard Skinner, who was notorious at their school for criticizing students with long hair.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first studio LP was released in August of the same year. Titled (Pronounced ‘LÄ•h-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd), the album featured the hit single “Free Bird” and went gold in December the following year. Rossington later recalled, “We had written all these songs, and ‘Free Bird’ was about five or six years old when we recorded it… Allen Collins wrote the beginning and I wrote the ending.” The anthemic song has been among the favorites ever since Legendary to fans of the group for his live renditions, which often stretch to 15 or 20 minutes.
Their 1974 follow-up hit “Sweet Home Alabama” was written in response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” a critique of racism and slavery in the American South, and includes the acerbic line: “Well, I hope Neil Young will remember/Man from the south doesn’t need him anyway.” This single, which peaked at number 8 in the US and number 31 in the UK, has remained an all-time favorite ever since.
Recalling the making of the song, Rossington said, “I had this little riff. It’s the little picking part and I played it over and over again as we waited for everyone to come to rehearsal. Ronnie and I sat there and he kept saying, “Play that again”. Then Ronnie wrote the lyrics and Ed and I wrote the music.”
But this pinnacle of fame and fortune for the band would soon turn into tragedy. In October 1977, the band lost three of their members in a plane crash that killed vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines (his sister). Their travel plane ran out of fuel and crashed into a wooded area during an attempted forced landing. Road manager Dean Kilpatrick and two crew members were also killed, while Rossington and 19 other passengers survived.
Hospital treatment for injuries sustained in the accident left Rossington with metal pins in his right arm and leg and led to an addiction to painkillers that took years to overcome. After the crash, Rossington and Dale Krantz, along with Allen Collins, formed the Rossington-Collins Band, later renamed simply The Rossington Band after Collins’ departure.
Lynyrd Skynyrd were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. If I leave here tomorrow: A film about Lynyrd Skynyrdchronicling the band’s career was released in 2018. Her last world tour, partially delayed by the epidemic, began in 2018 and was still ongoing at the time of Rossington’s death.
Artimus Pyle, the band’s drummer for a time in the ’70s, said in honor, “When Bob, Gary and Ronnie got together in Bob’s carport on the west side of Jacksonville, Fla., they put together something that went global. Everyone will remember Gary as a street dog, trouper, songwriter and one of the greatest guitarists of all time. He just loved being on stage.”
He is survived by Dale Krantz Rossington, whom he married in 1982, and their two daughters, Mary and Annie.
Gary Rossington, musician, born December 4, 1951, died March 5, 2023