A Simple Man

By Sergio Ariza

Gary Rossington's life has always been surrounded by a strange scent, the unique stench of death. From the time that his father died when he was a child, his life has been shaken by cruel visits from the lady of the scythe. In 1971 his mother died, the person he was closest to and in honor of which he named his Les Paul Standard of 59, Berniece; in 1976 a car accident came close to costing him his life, which led his comrade Ronnie Van Zant to dedicate the song That Smell to him; and then shortly after a plane crash took Van Zant and other members of his band. Then, little by little, the rest of his Lynyrd Skynyrd companions died leaving him as the only survivor. In recent years he has suffered several heart attacks and is currently on a farewell tour. It could be said that he is a cat living his seventh life but for someone who has always appeared to be surrounded by tragedies, Gary Rossington has fulfilled most of his dreams and his mythical Berniece hangs flanked by the guitars of his two greatest idols, Duane Allman and Eric Clapton, at the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame.  

Rossington was born on December 4, 1951 in Jacksonville, Florida; his first passion was baseball but everything changed when he saw the Rolling Stones on television. At 13 he bought his first guitar, an acoustic Silvertone, which cost him 8 dollars and that he still keeps. At that age he began to play, although he continued playing the national sport. It was on the playground where he met a boy three years older that had terrified the city, Ronnie Van Zant. Zant had a reputation as a tough guy but he was also interested in music. One day he approached him and proposed that they play together. The guitarist was accompanied by his friend Bob Burns who played the drums, but before playing music they decided to play baseball for a while and Van Zant almost killed Burns after hitting him with the ball after a strike. With such a reputation it was not so surprising that when they appeared at the house of another classmate from Rossington, Allen Collins, Collins ran away when he saw Van Zant. He had to be convinced that Zant was there only to play some music. The first song they played was one from the Stones' repertoire, Time Is On My Side.

The result was so good that they left baseball to dedicate themselves to music. Van Zant was like a kind of father figure to the two guitarists, Rossington and Collins, who did nothing but play together. So great was their passion that they joked about finishing their days together in prison so that they would have nothing else to do but play the guitar. Each day that passed was better but they were still far from their absolute local idol, Duane Allman, of the Allman Joys. Every time they had a chance they went to see the band play and, each time, the eldest of the Allman played better than the last time. Their band played their own songs composed by Gregg Allman, while The Noble Five, that's what they called themselves, only did covers. In 1966 they managed to open for their idols and even prepared an Allman cover, and at the end of the concert the brothers approached them and told them they were good, and recommended that they write their own songs. Years later they were able to prove to them that they had followed their advice when they devoted the best of them, Free Bird, to the late Duane.

In 1968 they changed their name to The One Percent and started rehearsing in an abandoned house in the woods that they called 'Hell House' because it was terribly hot. They ended up there after the police always showed up at the different places they had played in the city. They had it clear that more than the volume of the music, the police’s presence was more to do with their long hair and their hippie looks, something that had already caused them problems in the College, mainly with the gymnastics teacher, Leonard Skinner. When Rossington definitively left the College, in 1969, the band began to be called Leonard Skinnerd, until, at the beginning of 1970, they adapted it to Lynyrd Skynyrd. By that time the hours they had spent rehearsing had turned them into an incredible live group. And when that year they supported Strawberry Alarm Clock, their guitarist, Ed King, was so delighted with them that he told them that if they ever needed someone, they sould not hesitate to call him.

Their roots blues and country sound mixed with the influence of British rock of the time and led to their first great songs, things like Simple Man or Tuesday's Gone. In 1971 Rossington started playing the guitar with which he had always dreamed of since he saw it in the hands of
Keith Richards, a Les Paul Standard ‘59. Soon after the band would compose the most important song of their career, Freebird. Collins had composed the chords for the first part two years prior but Van Zant believed that there were too many changes to make the melody, until one day he played it again and Ronnie said "that's very nice, play it again". In a few minutes he came out with the melody and lyrics, well, less the iconic first phrase "if I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me?" - which was something Collins's girlfriend (later wife) had asked him one day. Rossington was in charge of the magnificent initial solo with slide on his SG. They were polishing the song little by little at concerts but the singer asked his guitarists to do something at the end in the live shows to give him time to rest, so Rossington came out with the final chords on which Collins found the perfect mold to give the best of himself and his iconic Firebird (the Explorer of 58 would not arrive until 76). To finish the song, one of the roadies of the band, Billy Powell, added an introduction to the song on the piano, which made him a permanent member.

Van Zant kept pushing his guitarists to give the best of themselves; it did not matter who had written the song, the one who did best was left with the solo. Rossington, in addition to the slide part of Freebird, was in charge of Tuesday's Gone, Gimme Three Steps, Things Goin 'On and Poison Whiskey, while Collins did the same with I Ain’t The One and Free Bird. In 1972 Al Kooper discovered them in concert and did not hesitate to sign them for his label and produce their first album, Pronounced 'Lĕh' nérd 'Skin' nérd. This was the culmination of what was known as 'southern rock'; the Allman Brothers had arrived before but their music was on another level, with blues and jazz being as important elements in the equation as rock. Lynyrd Skynyrd was pure rock 100%, in music and attitude. Van Zant and his guys were able to rival the Who live or to eclipse the Stones themselves. But that same energy of their live shows can be seen on this record, from the heartfelt ballads, Tuesday's Gone or Simple Man, to the most powerful songs like I Ain’t The One or Gimme Three Steps. And then, in its own magical place, is Free Bird - the SONG in capital letters of their career. The recording was extremely easy because the band had completely sorted the song, with arrangements prepared for a long time, so much so that, despite the fact that bassist Leon Wilkeson temporarily left the band, his replacement, who was none other than Ed King , limited himself to simply playing his lines.

Their great opportunity came when Pete Townshend chose them as the opening act for the Who for the American tour of Quadrophenia. The band lived up to their billing and their fan base grew exponentially. Their live presentations were a success and they presented their definitive formation with the ‘triple attack’ of the guitars of Rossington, Collins and King that came after the turn of Wilkinson. At that moment was born 'the three guitar army'. One of the first things Rossington and King did together was the riff of Sweet Home Alabama, a song to which Van Zant would add lyrics dedicated to Neil Young, whose recent songs Southern Man and Alabama had particularly stung them, as they were declared followers of the Canadian. Its challenging anthem-like character gave them their greatest success to date and made the band one of the most popular of their time. Especially because the album that contained it was at the level of the first and, in addition to the great classic, contained songs like Don’t Ask Me No Questions with excellent work on the guitar by Rossington. Second Helping was again produced by Kooper and during his recording they had a very special visitor, John Lennon himself. The album was an absolute success and it represented the first appearance in the studio of the 'the three guitar army' composed by Rossington, Collins and King.

But things did not progress in the right way, the tour of 1975 was a torture and took with it drummer Burns, who had a nervous breakdown. Their third album, Nuthin 'Fancy, was one step below the first two and things with King were not going in the best way either. The only non-southerner in the group felt like a hippie among hard cowboys. After an incident with Van Zant he decided to resign and go to California. The following album was ballasted by his departure, in spite of having great songs like the title track, Gimme Back My Bullets, composed by Rossington and Van Zant. Almost everyone in the band was convinced that the three guitars had to be recovered so they started looking for a replacement for King. There were names on the list as big as
Leslie West but the position was filled by the little brother of Cassey Gaines, one of the members of the Honkettes, the female backing singers of the band. The arrival of Steve Gaines and his Stratocaster was a breath of fresh air for the band, which then regained the shape of the early days, as can be seen in the splendid live One More From The Road, recorded shortly after the incorporation of Gaines.

Everything was back in its place and both Rossington and Collins were inspired by the arrival of the new guitarist, something that was reflected in Street Survivors, the best record of the band since the times of Second Helping. Rossington contributed the classic What's Your Name and left clear his huge class on other songs such as the prophetic That Smell. This was the song that his ‘classmates’ had dedicated to him, in a bid to make him take care of himself. In the end the smell of death turned out to be real and a plane crash took the life of Van Zant, the Gaines siblings and three other people, and seriously injured the rest of the band.

Due to the physical and emotional pain, Rossington seriously considered leaving music altogether but Alan Price of the Animals visited him and convinced him not to do it. It was hard at the beginning but little by little the passion returned, but instead of reuniting the rest of the band, the two guitarists who had started it all with Van Zant, formed the Collins Rossington Band, recruiting Dale Krantz as a singer from .38 Special. His first album, (Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere released in 1980) was a success and in his concerts they always included an instrumental cover of Free Bird. But tragedy crossed his path again when Collins' wife, Kathy, died while pregnant. Collins stopped going to rehearsals and concerts. Rossington and Krantz, who would end up marrying, formed the Rossington Band shortly after. Just as conversations began to resuscitate Lynyrd Skynyrd, Collins suffered a traffic accident that left him paralyzed. Even so, in 1987, four original members from before the accident, Rossington, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson and Artimus Pyle, plus Ed King, joined Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie's brother, with Collins acting as musical director.

Since then Rossington has continued to keep the flame of Lynyrd Skynyrd alive and, therefore, of southern rock, while the rest of his companions fell by the way. The smell of death continues to accompany him, and since 2015 he has overcome several heart attacks. When Gary Rossington’s time comes, he will be ready, as he has decided to hit the road once again on the farewell tour of this second stint of Lynyrd Skynyrd. He is just a simple man who has already fulfilled all his dreams, but he knows that there are still many people dreaming of listening to Free Bird or Sweet Home Alabama live. And he's willing to please them, not only for himself, but, more importantly, for Allen, for Steve, for Ronnie...