American singer-lyricist Ronald Wayne "Ronnie" Van Zant was born on January 15, 1948. In the summer of ’64 he and four of his buds founded a band named the Noble Five. They played their first paying gig that December at an auto parts store’s Christmas party. They were paid 10 dollars which after splitting the cost of gas left them with 1.75 each.
They practiced incessantly, continuing to perform whenever and wherever they could. Eventually they would change the band name to Lynyrd Skynyrd which was a play on words. Specifically, it was a take-off of the name of a P.E. teacher, Leonard Skinner, whom they disliked because of his strict enforcement of the school dress code policies regarding long hair and sideburns.
As 1973 dawned, the Southern-fried, rebel rock band had become big in Florida, scored a contract with MCI and released their premier platter, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd with its chartbuster “Free Bird”. They were chosen to be the opening act for The Who’s tour that same year and by 1975 they had scored two more hit albums—Second Helping (with its big single, "Sweet Home Alabama" ) and Nuthin' Fancy (featuring “Saturday Night Special”).
They were soon one of the country’s hardest-working, hottest bands. As can be expected, the temptations of touring took hold of the boys in the band and soon they were known as a bunch of redneck, rockstar drunkards. Surprisingly, they still managed to stick to the music enough to release guitar-driven singles such as “Gimme Three Steps” and “Double Trouble”.
The band would go through a line-up change in 1976 to solidify its signature sound. Steve Gaines would sign on and the band would even add a female backup group called The Honkettes. They reached a record high in 1977 and hit the road on their Street Survivors tour. (The album had spawned hits such as “What’s Your Name?” and “You Got That Right”.)
Unfortunately, on October 20, 1977, after the fourth of what was to have been an 80-concert tour, the Convair CV-300 carrying the group and its twelve-person entourage from Greenville, South Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana crashed outside Gillsburg, Mississippi. The pilot had radioed that the plane was for unknown reasons dangerously low on fuel and had informed passengers that there was a problem with one of the plane's engines. They were told to brace for impact as the aircraft was soon cutting an 800-foot path through the trees.
Fortunately for some onboard, the plane had run out of fuel. When the plane finally crashed to a stop against a tree the plane did not explode. Nevertheless, Van Zant died in the crash along with fellow band members Steve Gaines, Honkette Cassie Gaines, the assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray.
Van Zant, who had recently speculated that he would die by the time he was 30, was dead at the age of 29. He was buried in Orange Park, Florida wearing his trademark black Texas Hatters cowboy hat along with his favorite fishing pole. In 2000 his body was exhumed and reburied at Riverside Memorial Park in Jacksonville close to his parents’ resting place. His casket was sunken into a concrete burial vault but the mausoleum at Orange Park remains open for fans to visit. While Lynyrd Skynyrd has gone on without him there is no doubt that in the end he will still be remembered for his lyrics and his inimitable introduction to "Free Bird”: “What song is it you want to hear?”
My name is Phoenix and . . . that's the bottom line.