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Lynyrd Skynyrd, when they exploded onto the American music scene in the 1970s, were the poster children for Southern rock. They had it all – the long hair, the Jacksonville drawls, the infectious riffs and the perfect, simple, working-class poetic lyrics of frontman Ronnie van Zant. They personified rock’n’roll offstage, as well, starting fights, trashing hotel rooms and generally wreaking havoc on the road.
Hits like Sweet Home Alabama and Freebird became beloved American anthems, and their fifth studio album, Street Survivors, released on October 17, 1977 – its cover defiantly depicting the members in flames – looked set to be equally hot.
Just days later, however, the band came to personify not an up-by-the-boot-straps success story but an American tragedy. Their plane, ferrying them to a Louisiana tour date, plummeted from the sky, killing three band members, their road manager and the two pilots – and injuring 20 more.
The horror crash gave an eerily prophetic quality to some of the band’s earlier hits, with lyrics about death, and to van Zant’s own declaration that he’d never make it to 30 years old.
Now, 40 years later, a new documentary is telling the story of the hell-raising band, its remarkable work ethic, and how members picked themselves up ten years after the tragedy to reassemble and tour again. Fronted by van Zant’s brother, Johnny, Lynyrd Skynyrd has been playing to admiring crowds for 30 years – and they’re about to embark on their farewell tour.
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Lynyrd Skynyrd - which originated in Jacksonville, Florida - pose in California in October 1976; (left to right, back row Artimus Pyle, Gary Rossington, Ronnie van Zant, Allen Collins and Steve Gaines, front row Leon Wilkeson and Billy Powell)
Gary Rossington, right, and van Zant, left, grew up together in Jacksonville; Gary laughs about playing baseball together as kids in a new documentary about the band
The group expanded to include female backup singers Cassie Gaines, left, Leslie Hawkins, center, and Jo Jo Billingsley, right
The band was known for its passion for Southern rock, releasing American ballads such as Freebird, Simple Man and Sweet Home Alabama - which remain classics to this day
Director Stephen Kijak had always liked the band’s music but never paid Lynyrd Skynyrd much attention, though he was hounded for years by his friend – a Georgia man – to work on a project about the incredible story behind Lynyrd Skynyrd. Kijak was eventually approached by CMT to make a documentary, and If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd, will hold its world premiere on Tuesday, March 13 at the South By Southwest film festival in Texas. (The title takes its name from the first line of one of Skynyrd's most famous songs, Freebird.)
He found himself captivated by the story and worked hard to do the band justice –especially to give viewers a new understanding of Lynyrd Skynyrd, particularly people who enjoy the music but are unaware of the history. That was a reality he observed firsthand while filming footage of one of the band’s recent concerts.
‘It’s not in the movie, but we filmed a lot in the parking lot, like the tailgaters,’ Kijak tells DailyMail.com. ‘We were in Raleigh, North Carolina, and there were a whole bunch of younger fans that had no clue. They didn’t know who Ronnie van Zant was, they didn’t know anything about a plane crash – and they’re going to see Skynyrd and they don’t know anything about them!’
He adds: ‘There truly was no one quite like them. They were our Rolling Stones in a lot of ways – but in a way that they came from the musical culture that they were inhabiting, as opposed to a lot of the British bands … blues was imported to England; they kind of appropriated it and then sold it back to white America.
‘Skynyrd were poor white kids; they were from the ghetto, they were from the wrong side of the tracks. These guys came from nothing. That music was all around them.’
Hits like Sweet Home Alabama, he says, have been ‘calcified in the culture in a way that’s almost not about the band anymore, people’s awareness is so advanced that it almost has nothing behind it. You know, it’s just everywhere.’
He says the film aims to ‘scrub that off and get way down into the roots of this band ... I wanted to make it a real discovery – so how do you take something as set in the culture as Freebird or Sweet Home and shake it up and make people reevaluate and have some kind of shock of the new to it?’
One way to achieve that was interviewing friends, family members and the plane crash survivors; early on in the film, guitarist and survivor Gary Rossington joins van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny – now Skynyrd’s lead singer – as they return to Jacksonville and reminisce. They point out the baseball field where they used to play and laugh about Ronnie hitting a line drive straight at another future Skynyrd member, drummer Bob Burns.
They laugh even more when they explain how another member, Allen Collins, fled when the fledgling band approached him to borrow his amp; Ronnie had a bit of a reputation for knocking heads, so Collins shimmied up a tree to get away from him, convinced Ronnie was there to give him a beating.
As the band developed, they devoted more and more time to music, quitting school, playing teen dances and parties and eventually settling on a name. (A previous moniker had been One Percent, but people joked that stood for ‘one percent talent.’) The name Lynyrd Skynyrd developed as a play on a character mentioned in the lyrics of the popular song Camp Granada and the name of one of the members’ high school gym coach.
To emphasize their Southern roots, Lynyrd Skynyrd often performed against the backdrop of the controversial confederate flag - but guitarist Gary Rossington says in a new documentary: 'We never one time meant the Confederate flag to offend anyone, but I know it's naive to say that, too, because it does hurt people. It does remind them of the war and slavery and all that - but we weren't into it for that ... We were just showing where we were from: Southern music.'
The band were known offstage for their pranks and their wild behavior, including starting fights and trashing hotel rooms
Lynyrd Skynyrd released its fifth studio album on October 17, 1977; the cover featured the band engulfed in flames - perhaps eerily prophetic, given that their plane crashed days later. The cover was later replaced at the request of family members
The band's twin engine Convair CV-240 took off from South Carolina and was on its way to Louisiana, where the band had a show the next day, when it ran out of fuel and crashed in the woods in Mississippi on October 20, 1977
‘Our road manager, Dean Kilpatrick, he knew of a cabin on the creek that was for rent,’ Gary says in the film, standing where the cabin used to be. ‘He said we could rehearse there. So that started the whole thing, right here. We wrote Freebird here, all the so-called hits. People used to come up in boats and come in and steal mics; not big things but little things.’
Until the band arrived at the cabin to find a window broken and an entire amp stolen.
‘We started staying out here with guns to protect our equipment every night,’ he says. ‘Mosquitos biting you all night, roaches everywhere, gators, rattlesnakes, water moccasins … anything you could find. We didn’t have any money for food or drinks or nothing. It was hell; we called it Hell House.’
Kijak describes Ronnie ‘as this kind of rock and roll Napoleon, like driving the troops to rehearse nonstop in the sweat and the heat and, you know, with the snake and the gators … it was really mythic.
‘And then they suddenly emerge, like fully formed, as the greatest Southern rock band.’
Throughout their career, the band did remain unabashedly Southern and true to their roots - and, in an attempt to distinguish themselves from other regional bands or music movements, they controversially performed against the backdrop of the Confederate flag.
'It's like the flag got kidnapped by the KKK,' Gary says in the film. 'They carried and all these evil people used the confederate flag as a hate thing - it's them against the world. We never one time meant the Confederate flag to offend anyone, but I know it's naive to say that, too, because it does hurt people. It does remind them of the war and slavery and all that - but we weren't into it for that.
'We were just showing where we were from: Southern music.'
Ronnie, in particular, had an unusual knack for poetry and lyrics; one childhood friend explains how he was the only teenage boy he knew writing poems in a binder kept in his bedroom. And, for all his rockstar antics and appearance, there was something of an air of prophecy about him, many say.
‘His songs were really prophetic,’ says backup singer Jo Jo Billingsley, who died in 2010 but appears in the documentary in archive footage. ‘Everything he ever wrote was a true story or it came true later.
‘Ronnie van Zant … he’s a prophet.’
Director Stephen Kijak interviewed surviving members as well as friends and relatives for his documentary If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd, which premieres next week at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas
As they skyrocketed in popularity, both in the US and abroad, they truly lived the raucous rockstar lifestyle, however. Ronnie, in particular, loved a drunken brawl; band members came and went and Skynyrd’s manger cleaned up their messes.
Drummer and crash survivor Artimus Pyle, explaining how promoters provided the band with drugs and booze, says the musicians went wild overindulging.
‘I think they felt they were supposed to smoke every cigarette and drink everything provided and eat whatever they wanted and throw the rest against the wall,’ he says in the film. ‘That was our road manager’s duty – to carry a briefcase with probably $250,000 in cash’ to bail people out of jail and placate hotel owners.
Ronnie was sobered, however, by the birth of his daughter Melody and by a horrific car crash Gary survived (which knocked out his teeth). The frontman wrote the prophetic song That Smell, with lyrics including ‘the smell of death surrounds you,’ referring to ‘angel of darkness,’ and warning: ‘Say you’ll be all right come tomorrow/but tomorrow might not be here for you.’
Those tragic lyrics were realized on October 20, 1977, following the band’s performance in Greenville, South Carolina. They were flying to Baton Rouge for a show the next day; by this point the band had grown to include several female backup singers: Jo Jo Billingsley, Cassie Gaines and Leslie Hawkins. Gaines’ brother, Steve, had also joined the band as guitarist, and the full male Lynyrd Skynyrd lineup that boarded the band’s battered old Convair CV-240 were: Ronnie van Zant, Gary Rossington, Artimus Pyle, Billy Powell, Allen Collins, Leon Wilkeson and Steve Gaines.
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Source : http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5482537/New-film-tells-story-Southern-rock-legends-Lynyrd-Skynyrd.html