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Ronald Wayne "Ronnie" Van Zant (January 15, 1948 – October 20, 1977) was the lead vocalist, primary lyricist, and a founding member of the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. He was the older brother of .38 Special founder and vocalist Donnie Van Zant and current Lynyrd Skynyrd lead vocalist Johnny Van Zant.

Early life

Born and raised in Jacksonville, Floridamarker, to Lacy (1915-2004) and Marion (1929-2000) Van Zant. Van Zant aspired to be many things before finding his love for music. Notably, Ronnie was interested in becoming a boxer (as Muhammad Ali was one of his idols) and in playing professional baseball. Ronnie also tossed around the idea of becoming a stock-car racer. In fact, he would say that he was going to be the most famous person to come out of Jacksonville since Lee Roy Yarbrough.

Lynyrd Skynyrd

Van Zant formed Skynyrd late in the summer of 1964 with friends and schoolmates Allen Collins (guitar), Gary Rossington (guitar), Larry Junstrom (bass), and Bob Burns (drums). Lynyrd Skynyrd's name was created in spite of a gym teacher the boys had in high school, Leonard Skinner, who disapproved of students with long hair.

The band's national exposure began in 1973 with the release of their debut album, , which has a string of hits and fan favorites including: "I Ain't the One", "Tuesday's Gone", "Gimme Three Steps", "Simple Man" and their signature song, "Free Bird", which he later dedicated to the late Duane Allman of The Allman Brothers Band.

Lynyrd Skynyrd's biggest hit single, although "Free Bird" was a close second, was "Sweet Home Alabama" which came off the album Second Helping. "Sweet Home Alabama" was an answer song to Neil Young's "Alabama" and "Southern Man". The common belief that Van Zant and Young were rivals is incorrect; they were actually fans of each other and considered collaborating on several occasions. Young's song "Powderfinger" on the 1979 album Rust Never Sleeps was reportedly written for Skynyrd, and Van Zant is pictured on the cover of Street Survivors wearing a T-shirt of Young's Tonight's the Night.

Personal life

In 1972 the band was discovered by musician, songwriter, and producer Al Kooper of Blood, Sweat, and Tears, who had attended one of their shows at a club in Atlanta. They changed the spelling of their name to "Lynyrd Skynyrd",[4] (pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd) and Kooper signed them to MCA Records, producing their first album the following year. 1973's featured the hit song "Free Bird", which received national airplay, eventually reaching #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and is still considered a Rock and Roll anthem today.

Lynyrd Skynyrd's fan base continued to grow rapidly throughout 1973, largely due to their opening slot on The Who's Quadrophenia tour in the United States. Their 1974 follow-up, Second Helping, was the band's breakthrough hit, and featured their most popular single, "Sweet Home Alabama" (#8 on the charts in August 1974), a tongue in cheek response to Neil Young's "Alabama" and "Southern Man." (Young and Van Zant were not rivals, but fans of each other's music and good friends; Young even wrote the song "Powderfinger" for the band, but they never recorded it[5]). The album reached #12 in 1974, eventually going multi-platinum. In July of that year, Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the headline acts at The Ozark Music Festival at the Missouri State Fairgrounds in Sedalia, Missouri.

In 1974, Burns left the band and was replaced by Kentucky native Artimus Pyle on drums. Lynyrd Skynyrd's third album, Nuthin' Fancy, was released the same year, though guitarist Ed King left midway through the tour. In January 1976, backup singers Leslie Hawkins, Cassie Gaines and JoJo Billingsley (collectively known as The Honkettes) were added to the band. Lynyrd Skynyrd's fourth album Gimme Back My Bullets was released in the new year, but did not achieve the same success as the previous two albums. Van Zant and Collins both felt that the band was seriously missing the three-guitar attack that had been one of its early hallmarks. Although Skynyrd auditioned several guitarists, including such high-profile names as Leslie West, the solution was closer than they realized.

Soon after joining Skynyrd, Cassie Gaines began touting the guitar and songwriting prowess of her younger brother, Steve. The junior Gaines, who led his own band, Crawdad (which occasionally would perform Skynyrd's "Saturday Night Special" in their set), was invited to audition onstage with Skynyrd at a concert in Kansas City on May 11, 1976. Liking what they heard, the group also jammed informally with the Oklahoma native several times, then invited him into the group in June. With Gaines on board, the newly-reconstituted band recorded the double-live album One More From the Road in Atlanta, Georgia, and toured the UK with The Rolling Stones.

Both Collins and Rossington had serious car accidents over Labor Day weekend in 1976 which slowed the recording of the follow-up album and forced the band to cancel some concert dates. Rossington's accident inspired the ominous "That Smell" - a cautionary tale about drug abuse that was clearly aimed towards him and at least one other band member. Rossington has admitted repeatedly that he's the "Prince Charming" of the song who crashed his car into an oak tree while drunk and stoned on Quaaludes. Van Zant, at least, was making a serious attempt to clean up his act and curtail the cycle of boozed-up brawling that was part of Skynyrd's reputation.

1977's Street Survivors turned out to be a showcase for guitarist/vocalist Steve Gaines, who had joined the band just a year earlier and was making his studio debut with them. Publicly and privately, Ronnie Van Zant marveled at the multiple talents of Skynyrd's newest member, claiming that the band would "all be in his shadow one day." Gaines' contributions included his co-lead vocal with Van Zant on the co-written "You Got That Right" and the rousing guitar boogie "I Know A Little" which he had written before he joined Skynyrd. So confident was Skynyrd's leader of Gaines' abilities that the album (and some concerts) featured Gaines delivering his self-penned bluesy "Ain't No Good Life" - the only song in the pre-crash Skynyrd catalog to feature a lead vocalist other than Ronnie Van Zant. The album also included the hit singles "What's Your Name" and "That Smell". The band was poised for their biggest tour yet, including fulfilling Van Zant's lifelong dream of headlining New York's Madison Square Garden.

Death

On October 20, 1977, a Convair 240 carrying the band between shows from Greenville, South Carolinamarker to Baton Rouge, Louisianamarker crashed outside of Gillsburg, Mississippimarker. The passengers had been informed about problems and told to brace for impact. Van Zant died in the crash. Bandmates Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray were also killed. Remaining band members survived, although all were seriously injured.

Van Zant's younger brother, Johnny, took over as the new lead singer when the band reunited in 1987.

Van Zant was buried in Orange Park, Floridamarker in 1977, but was relocated after vandals broke into his and bandmate Steve Gaines' tombs on June 29, 2000. Van Zant's casket was pulled out and dropped on the ground. The bag containing Gaines' ashes was torn open and some scattered onto the grass. Their mausoleums at Orange Park remain as memorials for fans to visit.

According to the cemetery listing website Find-a-Grave, Van Zant was reburied at Riverside Memorial Park in Jacksonville, near the grave of his father Lacy and mother Marion. Both his current resting place and the empty mausoleum in Orange Park are listed. The following statement was made on the Find-a-Grave entry of his current resting place in Jacksonville: "Due to the June 29th, 2000 vandalization of his original grave site, his casket was moved to this new location and buried in a massive underground concrete burial vault. To open the vault would require a tractor with a lift capability of several tons. It is also patrolled by security."

Quotes

Reference

Notes

  1. Social Security Death Master Index 2007.
  2. SKYNYRD
  3. US National Transportation Safety Board 1978, p6.
  4. Check-Six 2007.
  5. Anderson 2000.
  6. Soorus 2002.


References



External links



Ronnie Van Zant's hat of choice: The High Roller - available from Texas Hatters.http://texashatters.com/Store/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=1&products_id=46


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