Fanning the flame of southern rock

By Sergio Ariza

On the cover of the only studio album that he was given time to record with Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steve Gaines, like the rest of the band, appears in the center surrounded by fire. And there may not be a more graphic definition of what he did for this band, by re-igniting the fire that seemed extinct and putting them back in their place as one of the best rock bands, southern or not, in US history. But his flame was as intense as it was short, as his life cut short in a tragic plane crash, together with that of Van Zant; the man who had predicted that one day everyone in his band would be in the shadow of Steve.

Gaines replaced Ed King and along with Gary Rossington and Allen Collins composed what is possibly the best trio of guitarists that any band in the history of rock has had at the same time (possibly the second is formed by Rossington, Collins and King). But before he got there he already had a long career behind him.

Gaines was born on 14 September 1949 (curiously the same day as Ed King, the man he would replace), a year after the birth of his sister Cassie, who was one of the most important figures in his life. In 1964 they went to see the Beatles live and on the return trip Steve did not stop until he convinced his father to buy him his first guitar. Soon after, with his guitar in his hands, he formed his first band in high school, The Ravens. But it would be later when he formed his first professional band, Manalive, on which he would be joined by Cassie. By that time he had already bought his famed Les Paul Black Beauty, a guitar that would not leave his side, to the point that his friends called the guitar his ‘third arm’. With Manalive he recorded a single in 1971 distributed by Stax. He also reached a huge milestone when the band played in Memphis along with ZZ Top.

Later Gaines joined bands like ILMO Smokehouse and Detroit, a band formed by Mitch Ryder (and which had had Steve Hunter in its ranks). But Steve Gaines wanted to succeed on his own and in 1974 he founded Crawdad, a band that would eventually record at the Capricorn studio in Macon, Georgia, the sacred Mecca of southern rock. Those recordings did not appear at the time but they would be released in 1988 under the title One In The Sun, with songs like Give It to Get demonstrating his enormous potential as a composer and guitarist.

In December 1975 Cassie joined Lynyrd Skynyrd as one of the backing singers, the Honkettes. At that time the band was looking for a new guitarist to replace King, who had left in mid-75. Cassie started campaigning for her brother but nobody paid much attention until 11 May, 1976, in Kansas City, when they decided to give her the pleasure of letting her brother play. Steve received the call, and although his sister did not confirm to him that he was going to play, he picked up his Black Beauty and a small Fender Twin Reverb amplifier and went to the concert. Nobody in the band took him very seriously and they told the sound technician: "Cassie's brother is going to come up and play with us, if he does not have the level, unplug him".

The sound technician did not unplug him during the version of T For Texas, in which he was invited to go up, and Gary Rossington and Allen Collins began to exchange solos as usual. So Gaines decided to use the slide to do something different, and the two guitarists fell in love with the new man instantly. Two weeks later Gaines received the call from Ronnie Van Zant telling him that the position was his. With only three concerts behind him, Steve Gaines locked himself up with the rest of the band for three days at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, from July 7 to 9, to record the new live album by Lynyrd Skynyrd, One More From The Road.

In order to find a different sound to that of Rossington, Gaines started playing his 65 Stratocaster more and plugged it into a Peavey Mace (as you can see in the final licks of Call Me The Breeze, where his Strat responds with exceptional class to Van Zant, or on the excellent and iconic Sweet Home Alabama). But he also does not forget his Black Beauty as on T For Texas, which became a vehicle for his slide show, or the final passages of Free Bird, where he joins the Firebird of a Collins in a trance to double his legendary guitar solo and take the song beyond 13 minutes.

The album slipped into the top of the charts and allowed them to indulge in certain luxuries, such as replacing their tour bus with an old plane. It was during this tour when Van Zant realized, with immense joy, that Gaines was getting everyone to give their best and the band was revitalized. So much so that by the time they arrived at the legendary Knebworth festival on 19 August, 1976, they were unstoppable. The big stars of the day were the Rolling Stones but also on the bill were 10CC and Todd Rundgren's Utopia. In the end however people would only talk about Lynyrd Skynyrd...

In front of an estimated audience of between 150,000 and 200,000 people, the new Skynyrd took a definitive step forward. Their performance was pure fire and when Van Zant told his guitar players "Play for Duane Allman", in the midst of Free Bird, guitar delirium broke out, almost like a re-run of the day when Jerry Lee Lewis burned his piano on stage and then Chuck Berry decided that after that he would not leave. The Stones did come out but the battle was already won. Not that it is a special affront to Jagger's band, because during the year and a half that Steve Gaines was in the band there was not a single rock band better than them on stage.

But the ‘Gaines effect’ would also be reflected in the studio. In the summer of '77, in the legendary Muscle Shoals studios (the same that they talked about on Sweet Home Alabama), Lynyrd Skynyrd locked themselves in to record their fifth studio album, the only one that can withstand comparisons with the first two. Gaines was the great protagonist, contributing four compositions, two solo and two with Van Zant, and taking the lead vocal in Ain’t No Good Life; and sharing it with Van Zant on the wonderful You Got That Right. His incredible guitar work can be enjoyed on pieces such as I Know A Little, the cover of Honky Tonk Night Time Man and the wonders that come out of his Strat on That Smell.

Everything seemed prepared to fulfill the prophecy of Van Zant and the band began a second golden age led by Gaines. The album was released on 17 October, 1977 and in a short time it went gold. But the prophecy of Van Zant that would be fulfilled would be another. The singer had been saying for a long time that he would not reach 30 years of age. That Smell's lyrics, a warning to Rossington and Collins, also made it clear that death surrounded the group in some way.

On 13 October they began a new tour to support the album, and they did it with that old plane that had already given them some problems the previous year; but Allen Collins did not want to know anything about that old pile again. The band all felt it was time to buy a new one now that they were back on the top and embarking on their most ambitious tour to date, with a gig at Madison Square Garden included. On October 19 they gave a concert in Greenville, with the last song being Free Bird (how could it be otherwise). The next day they boarded the plane but several of them would not see the light of day again. Ronnie Van Zant, the Gaines siblings, their manager Dean Kilpatrick and the two pilots died after the plane crashed.

Before that terrible accident, Ronnie Van Zant had said: "One day everyone in this band will be in the shadow of Steve." It could not be, but those months together helped the world see that Gaines could fly like a free bird and carry one of the most important bands of all time. Steve Gaines was the last flare of southern rock, brief but intense. The cover of Street Survivors had to be quickly changed, as the photo in which Gaines appears in the center with his eyes closed and surrounded by flames was too gloomy after the accident ... it might be that it was also prophetic.

Bassist Leon Wilkeson, who was one of the worst off among the survivors (his heart stopped twice on the operating table), said, after recovering, that he had been sitting on a cloud with Van Zant and the Southern God of rock in person, Duane Allman. But, according to Wilkeson’s story, Ronnie Van Zant said to him "Boy get yourself out of here, it’s not your time yet, get on out of here". Van Zant may have been in such a hurry to send him away because he could not wait any longer to start the celestial 'jam' that awaited him with Duane and Steve. You could not fly any higher…