On October 20th, 1977, a Convair CV-240 carrying the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd and their touring party went down just outside Gillsburg, Miss. The crash took the lives of the pilot, co-pilot, Skynyrd’s Assistant Road Manager, their guitarist Steve Gaines. his older sister Cassie , who sang back-ups, and the band’s charismatic lead-singer, Ronnie Van Zant, who was 29 at the time of the his death. In a horrible twist of fate Aerosmith’s management had, just prior, refused to hire the plane and crew for their tour citing fears of the professionalism and air-worthiness of both. The accident ended the lives of the band members a mere three years after their debut album had given the World one of it’s quintessential rock songs.
Is there any tune more maligned than “Free Bird”? I would proffer that the answer is a hard “No.” There may be songs that are mocked just as much, “Never Gonna Give You Up” would be on that list, but, I don’t think that there is any tune that has been as misunderstood as this CLASSIC. How many times a years does some douche-bag, at some random show, live event, wedding, bar-mitzvah, or ANYTHING, yell “Free Bird!!”? I am going to guess that the number is around 3.8 million. Although,I DID just make that statistic up.
There is only one member of the original line-up still alive, but the crew that worked on “Free Bird” is as follows:
Drums – Bob Burns. Passed-away in 2015
Bass – Ed King who plays bass on this album but soon after was replaced by Leon Wilkison’s return to the band as bassist which, in-turn, meant that King took over guitar duties and the bands “Triple Axe Attack” line-up was concreted. King passed away in August of 2018.
Piano – Billy Powell. He was originally a roadie for the band until they heard him playing keys during sound-check and immediately drafted him to the position. Passed away in 2009.
Organ/Mellotron – Al Kooper (who Produced the record) under the alias Roosevelt Gook.
Rhythm/Slide Guitar – Gary Rossington. Survived the plane-crash. He is the only member of this line-up to still be playing and touring with L.S.
Acoustic/Lead Guitar – Allen Collins. Passed-away in 1990.
Vocals – Ronnie Van Zant. Died in the plane-crash in 1977 at the age of 29.
The band entered Doraville, Georgia’s, Studio One in March of ’73 to record their eponymous debut album. It would go on to include “Tuesday’s Gone”, Gimme Three Steps”, “Simple Man”, “Things Goin’ On”, and the album, and every live show from that point on’s, closer, the 9 minute opus that is, “Free Bird.” This is a debut album that is partly responsible for the success of “Southern Rock” as a genre. Although Skynyrd is considered to be “Hard Southern Rock.” And, yes, according to those in The Know. there IS a difference.
Al Collins had been playing the chord progression to this song for, by all accounts, YEARS, but Van Zant always complained that it had “too many chords” and that he couldn’t find a melody to fit over the top of them. Then, in a rehearsal, Collins started to play the part and Ronnie had him loop it and in 5 minutes the lyrics were finished and the rest is, quite literally, HISTORY.
The drums on “Free Bird” are a beautiful example of “Playing to the song.” Bob Burns’ track is bedrock. But, each section of the song has its own part, its own vibe. I particularly love the ghost-note ruffs in the choruses. The use of the double-time hits at the 4:30 mark that allows for the start of the lead section is inspired. It is a fantastic bit of fluidity that feeds the energy to the rest of the band in order to get them to unleash the hounds of the latter FIVE MINUTES OF THE SONG. The pushed hits at 6:12 are perfectly placed. Then there is a break-down at 6:30 that is BUILT for crowd-pleasing in any arena! Then at 7:22 it is “Snare-Roll March Time” for 30 seconds and THEN rolls and cymbals hits and THEN it’s DOUBLE-DOUBLE TIME!! Then back to the hits AND double-double-time…and THEN “Big Fuck Off Rock Groove” to BIG ENDING!! AND HITS!! AND MORE HITS!! AND THEN BIIIIIG ENDING/ENDING!! Good grief. It’s nine-and-a-half-minutes where you get to play just about every Rock’n’Roll Drum Trope imaginable. And it never seems to be “too much.” That in itself is an accomplishment. Oh, and lest we forget, the live version is, generally, another FIVE MINUTES LONGER!! Fantastic work, Burnsie!
Ed King’s bass-part on this track is a mind-blower. Just listen to attached audio. It is absolutely gob-smacking. I had no idea that it was this beautiful. King wrote “Incense & Peppermints” while in The Strawberry Alarm Clock and you can feel the presence of Macca and James Jamerson all over this thing. This ain’t Southern Rock. Not at all. It is, almost, a 9 minute bass solo. I am in love with it. I know, and I’m sure you do too at this point, that I am huge fan of hyperbole, so, let me just say that I think this bass part might be the Best Kept Secret in all of Rock’n’Roll. There is NO way that even the BEST Bar Band in America is playing this friggin’ thing right! The peddles at the 7:20 mark are straight Iron Maiden. The rolling melody straight Macca. But, King is also playing chords, leads, countermelodies for days, booming bottom-end rides, and the walk-up thing that he does at around eight minutes is ABSURD! Amazing to think that by the end of the recording of the album Wilkison returns to the Bass Dept and King is off to play guitar with the other two. This is his Masterpiece, as far as i m concerned. Listen, you probably won’t disagree.
The next thing that we get to hear is the piano/organ/acoustic/guitar/mellotron stem. There’s a LOT of information to be found. The entire song can be heard in this one. There is more than a passing reference to Bowie in it. More than a little Mick Ronson. Rossington and Collins provide the rhythm guitars and acoustics, respectively. Perfectly “Tetris’d” together arpeggios and strums provide the sinuous back-bone to what seemed to be a simple Bar Rocker. It isn’t. Not at all. This song is so much more complicated than you’ve imagined. And then, at 3:40, Kooper fires up the Mellotron and a texture that you never would have thought would make an appearance shows-up and suddenly “Free Bird” becomes a much more “Three Dimensional” song, as far as I am concerned. It’s a VERY sophisticated choice and one that could only have been brought to the table by a bloke who worked with Hendrix on Electric Ladyland. And then we’re off to the races for the ending jam. Acoustics banging away. Honky-tonk piano. Gospel organ. The whole soup. Beautiful. Southern Rock.
Gary Rossington was one of the survivors of the plane crash, although its effects would ripple through his life in the form of a pain-killer addiction. Once again, i think that “Free Bird” is everything he does brilliantly in ONE song. The slide playing is the soul of this thing. It IS the song. That melody is impossible to imagine it existing without. The subtle bends, finger picks, bottle-slides, pinch-harmonics, finger-taps, it’s The Blues. Flawlessly executed. One would hope that Clapton was impressed. He should’ve been,
And then…THE LEAD! Holy smokes. Allen Collins earns his keep in the, close to five minute long, closing solo that moves from style to style, weaving from one to the next with ease and grace. Fireworks!! Wtf?! I can only imagine what it must’ve been like to be in the room to hear him laying this thing down live. What an experience. And then…THERE’S TWO OF THEM! And it just keeps going and going and going and going! There are more riffs to be found in this 5 minutes than most bands cram into an entire album! Of note is the fact that he was seriously injured in the plane crash and it was suggested that one of his arms be amputated, his father refused the procedure and Collins went on to heal and continued to play until January, 1986, when, while driving under the influence, he crashed his car, killing his girlfriend, and paralyzing himself from the waist down. He never played guitar on stage again. His death in 1990 was due to pneumonia related to his paralysis. A tragic, tragic, tale. It was Allen’s wife who asked him “If i leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me?” And that question has gone on to ring throughout rock history. Isn’t music amazing?
But possibly the greatest tragedy in all of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s legend is the death of Ronnie Van Zant. He was around 25/26 when he cut the vocal to “Free Bird” and, similar to the experience of hearing him singing “Simple Man”, it is hard to imagine how that is possible. He sounds ancient as he sings the words to this one. It is even more poignant, and dramatic, that his death would come a mere three years hence, in a plane crash. Sometimes the stories are too much to be able to imagine that they are real. And you would never believe them if they were in a movie. Van Zant had told many of his friends that he knew that he wouldn’t see his 30th birthday and his death at 29 proved that prophecy true. Listen to him sing these words and marvel at the ageless nature of the presentation. He wasn’t from around these parts. It’s a testament to the band that they went on without him. What a pair of boots to fill. Take a moment, turn off the phone, and listen to him. There is wisdom in those words.
“Free Bird” has become a part of the furniture at this point. A song that we just hear. But it requires more. You should LISTEN to it. As a closing track to an album it is perfect. As the closing track to a band’s debut album it is incredible. As the closing track to the debut album of a band who would go on to suffer such tragedy…it is implausible.
Gary is the only one left. And he’s still going. And he is still singing this one every night.
Heart-breaking. But, also, inspiring.
It was a Herculean task to try and accomplish breaking this song down in roughly 20 minutes. But, we gave it a whirl.
Please listen to “Free Bird” afterwards, you will appreciate it more, I promise…here’s your guide.
Thanks so much for reading!
See you at the next one,