Fly high, free bird
By Sergio Ariza
Allen Collins' story is one of the saddest in rock & roll, of course the story of his band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, is not a bed of roses either. We have already talked about two of his companions here, Gary Rossington and Steve Gaines, of the first we said that he was surrounded by a strange smell of death and the second perished, along with his sister Cassie and singer Ronnie Van Zant, in the plane crash that the band had in 1977. But the former still lives to tell the tale and the latter has been (deservedly) exalted to the heavens like all those who die young. Collins, on the other hand, survived the accident only to see his wife die, along with his unborn child, from complications in childbirth. A few years later he suffered a traffic accident that claimed the life of his girlfriend and left him paralyzed, without the possibility of playing the guitar again. When he died from the complications of his paralysis, the world did not know how to recognize that one of the best rock guitarists of all time was leaving them. In addition, despite being responsible for one of the solos that is never missing on a list of the best in history, his name was gradually forgotten, something that we will try to remedy here at Guitars Exchange, paying this modest tribute.
Allen Larkin Collins was born on July 19, 1952 in Jacksonville, Florida, into a poor family. His mother would remember that before being able to take a step, Allen couldn’t sit still, exuding an energy that would always accompany him on stage. His first passion (which would last a lifetime) would be cars and racing, but when a neighbor received a Silvertone guitar as a gift in 1963, his priorities immediately changed. Although his parents had just divorced, and his mother had two jobs to try to support Allen and his sister, Eva Collins managed to save enough to buy her son a Truetone, a guitar with three pickups, which came with an 8-inch amplifier. That gift, obtained with sweat and tears, would change his life forever and a self-taught Collins would learn to play it easily.
One day he saw a schoolmate, Gary Rossington, coming along with Ronnie Van Zant, a guy a few years older than them who had a very bad reputation. Collins took his beloved guitar and was ready to run away, but Gary assured him that they just wanted to play something. After performing the Stones' Time Is On My Side, a big smile spread across their faces, and the nucleus of Lynyrd Skynyrd was born.
But the road to fame, as AC/DC would point out, was going to be long and hard. Years and years of poorly paid gigs and hard rehearsals at the ‘Hell House’, the unrefrigerated booth in which they rehearsed, had turned them into an incredible live band, but fame was far from knocking on the door. Still, the gear had been improving and Collins had gradually acquired a Gibson Melody Maker, a Les Paul Gold Top and a Gibson Flying V black 67 or 69, where he would begin his romance with pointed guitars.
In 1970 Collins married Kathy Johns, his lifelong girlfriend. It had been Kathy who had inspired one of her first songs when she asked him "If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?", so in that ceremony the band performed the immortal Free Bird for the first time, but they had to do by hiding their long hair with wigs to avoid scandalizing the girl’s conservative family.
When the family began to grow, with two daughters in no time, Collins barely earned enough to support them all. But everything was going to change when in the summer of 1972, already with his legendary‘64 Gibson Firebird and an SG Standard, they played at Funochio in Atlanta. Among the audience was Al Kooper who had been part of Blood, Sweat & Tears and played with Dylan and The Who. Kooper couldn't believe what he was hearing, a three-chord rock band with perfect mastery and energy to fill the void created by the spread of prog rock. He then sat down with them and signed a contract in which he became the producer. By the time the band started recording their first album, Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd, it was so flawless that every note they touched seemed to have been sculpted for a long time. Collins puts his songwriting ability on three of the band's greatest classics, Tuesday's Gone, Gimme Three Steps and Free Bird. In the first two he cedes the leading role to Rossington but in the third he will claim his place in rock history.
As we've already said, the song had been around for a long time and had evolved, with Billy Powell adding an introduction on the piano that earned him a place in the band and an improvised final part so that Ronnie Van Zant could have a break during the concerts. The song opened with Kooper playing the organ and Rossington offering a magnificent slide solo with his SG and the mythical 'Bernice' Les Paul used as a rhythmic guitar, while Collins plays an acoustic, then Van Zant's voice comes in and we have an incredibly heartfelt ballad until in 4:30 when the tempo starts to pick up and Van Zant shouts "Lord, help me I can chaaaaaange" then we move on to another song of pure rock glory that is unleashed when Collins decides to cut loose with an absolutely spectacular solo. It was April 3, 1973 and normally, Rossington also participated in the live shows, but that day he could see that Collins was on fire, as if Duane Allman himself (to whom they always dedicated the song live) had possessed him, so he let him go and the history of the electric guitar was magnified with one of its great monuments.
It wasn't his only moment of glory, just listen to his solo on I Ain't the One, but it was the most important. The song became the definitive anthem of southern rock and the band was definitely annointed. In addition, during the recording of that album, bassist Leon Wilkeson temporarily left and was replaced by Ed King, the former guitarist of Strawberry Alarm Clock, but when they were finishing recording it Van Zant got Wilkeson back and King went over to the guitar, creating the famous 'Three guitar Army', making Lynyrd Skynyrd a triple guitar threat. Since Rossington and Collins were Gibson men, Les Paul and Firebird respectively, King switched to a Fender Stratocaster and gave the band their second anthem when he composed the Sweet Home Alabama riff. Their late 1973 tour, opening for The Who, must have been something like nirvana for rock and guitar fans.
Second Helping would consecrate them as the fittest rock band of the day, becoming a tremendous commercial success. Collins would return to leave samples of his class as a composer signing two of the best songs on the album, The Ballad of Curtis Loew and The Needle and the Spoon. In the second he would leave another incredible moment as a lead guitarist with a wonderful solo in which he uses a Vox Wah, in addition to his Firebird.
The band was at its peak but things began to twist on the 1975 tour, King, the only non-southern of the group, began to have trouble with temperamental Van Zant and, after recording the band's third album, Nuthin' Fancy, he decided to leave. The next album, Gimme Back My Bullets, required an extra effort from Collins as a composer, with seven of the songs bearing his compositional skills, but the initial flame seemed to have gone out.
Everything would change when they decided they had to return to the 'Three Guitar Army' attack and started looking for a replacement. In the end, the chosen one was Steve Gaines, the brother of the chorus girl Cassie Gaines, who would again blow the necessary fire into the rest of the band. His presence is noticeable from the get-go, recording the live One More From The Road a few days after joining. His collaboration with Collins on Free Bird would take the song to new heights.
Shortly after recording One More From The Road Collins began using another of the most important guitars of his career, his ‘58 Explorer and began to bring out the best in it with his brand new Peavey amps. The band had regained the best vibes of the early days and everyone was eager to get into the studio with the new addition. In this state of euphoria they recorded Street Survivors, the third masterpiece of the band, with the fundamental That Smell, another classic of the band composed by Collins and Van Zant, in which the singer gave an omen that, unfortunately, was going to become reality.
Despite the good atmosphere in the band, Collins and Rossington were still playing cards with the devil, mixing drugs, alcohol and speed with a logical result, several car accidents. Van Zant, tired of seeing the two men with whom he had started the band risk their lives, wrote the lyrics as a warning to both, "Ooooh that smell, the smell of death surrounds you”. No one could have imagined that he was not mistaken in the least. But the victims would be him and the Gaines brothers.
On October 20, 1977, three days after Street Survivors appeared on the market, Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane crashed and killed Van Zant, Steve and Cassey Gaines, the band's manager, Dean Kilpatrick, and the two pilots, leaving the rest of the band members seriously injured. Collins and the rest of the band would take almost three years to recover physically and mentally from the accident. When they were ready again Collins and Rossington formed the Rossington-Collins Band, with Dale Krantz, ex .38 Special, as the singer. KraNtz's choice was because both Allen and Gary didn't want a male singer to suffer comparisons to Van Zant. But after a successful first album, Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere released in 1980, the presence of that strange smell Van Zant was talking about reappeared as if it were a curse. Collins' wife Kathy died during her son's pregnancy.
Allen returned to the bad habits and stopped going to rehearsals and concerts, Rossington and Kratz left to form the Rossington Band and Collins formed his own band releasing Here, There & Back in 83. Among the members of his band were former Skynyrds like Powell or Wilkeson, but it seemed clear that his demons were still accompanying him. We don't know if on January 29, 1986, when he got on his brand new Ford Thunderbird, he smelled of death again, but what did happen is that Collins went off the road killing his girlfriend and becoming paralyzed from the waist down.
He was never able to recover but in 1987 he was behind the meeting of Lynyrd Skynyrd's remaining members, those concerts served to explain to the public the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. It was his last act of service but that force of nature that never stopped moving on stage could never overcome not playing the guitar again on top of one. On January 23, 1990 that strange smell reappeared, this time definitively. The man who had been Lynyrd Skynyrd's heart saw how his own stopped forever. Rossington, Gaines, and even King may have had more moments to show off than he did but Allen Collins was the real engine of the band. His compositions and his incredible rhythmic work sustained it all. On live shows he was the main focus, with that incredible energy he was always full of, whether he was soloing or accompanying one of his incredible companions.
On the back of his Explorer you could read: "My dream is to see all my people happy. That would mean that everyone is doing well and that's all that matters". And that says more than anything I can write about him. Maybe I just need to add, wherever you are, fly high, free bird…