The crown of Southern Rock

By Sergio Ariza

In 1972 Al Kooper discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd in concert and didn’t hesitate in signing them to his label and produced their first record, Pronounced Leh Nerd Skin Nerd. It was the crowning moment of what was known as ‘southern rock’, the Allman Brothers came first but their music was from a different approach, with blues and jazz being as important parts as rock in the equation. Lynyrd Skynyrd was pure 100% rock, in music, and attitude. Ronnie Van Zant and his boys were capable of rivaling The Who live (Pete Townshend didn’t doubt it, and signed them on as opening act after hearing this record) and of eclipsing the Stones themselves. The same energy they had on stage is what is heard on this record, from the heartfelt ballads by Van Zant, Tuesday’s Gone, and Simple Man, to the power pieces like I Ain’t the One and Gimme Three Steps. And then, in its own magic space, you find Free Bird, the SONG in capitals of their career (yep, even bigger than Sweet Home Alabama, which is on the next album), an absolute landmark for guitar rock where Allen Collins is possessed by Duane Allman’s ghost and delivers one of the 2 or 3 best solos in rock history.

Being a site especially interested in the electric guitar, we have to take exception with this song, Collins had composed the chords in the first part two years before but Van Zant thought there were too many changes to make it melodious, until Allen replayed them and Ronnie said “ that’s very nice, play it again “. A few minutes later they had the words and tune down pat, well, except for the iconic first line “If I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me?“, which was something Collins’ girlfriend ( wife to be) had asked him one day. This first part, without the long ending solo, was recorded in 1972, and the singer asked his players to do something to the end when onstage to give him time to rest his voice, so Gary Rossington came up with the final chords over which Collins found the perfect mold to give it his best and his iconic Firebird ( the ‘58 Explorer wouldn’t get here till ‘76 ). To round the piece off, one of the band’s roadies, Billy Powell, did an introduction to the song on piano, which made him an immediate band member.   

The song starts with Kooper on organ and Rossington displaying a magnificent solo on slide with his SG, the legendary ‘Bernice’ Les Paul he uses on rhythm, while Collins plays acoustic, then Van Zant’s voice and we have an incredible heartfelt ballad up to minute 4:30 when the temperature rises and Van Zant screams “Lord help me I can’t chaaaaaange“, the song then turns into pure rock glory that is let loose when Collins decides the time is right to make history with an absolutely amazing solo. It was the 3rd of April, 1973 and normally, in live shows, Rossington has a big role, but on that day, he saw that Collins was lit up d, as if Duane Allman himself ( who he always dedicated the song to onstage ) had possessed him, so he let him go and the history of the electric guitar was magnified with one its grandest moments.