The song that would define, for better and for worse, Lynyrd Skynyrd's career, began one month after the band finished recording their first album, Lynyrd Skynyrd (Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd), and two months before it was released. The band was testing out its new line up because during the recording of their debut their bassist, Leon Wilkeson, left the band and was replaced by former Strawberry Alarm Clock guitarist Ed King. But during the recording everyone saw that King was an exceptional guitarist and that his chemistry with Gary Rossington and Allen Collins would make this band unstoppable, as well as starting what became known as Skynyrd's trademark, 'the three-guitar army'.
The fact is that Ronnie Van Zant decided to convince Wilkeson to return so that King could dedicate himself to guitar. The guitarist decided that to differentiate himself from the Gibson sound of his bandmates he would opt for a Stratocaster, in this case a '73 Sunburst, and began working with Rossington on a riff he had. Van Zant was inspired and began writing lyrics in which he lambasted one of his favorite singers, Neil Young, who the year before had released one of the best-selling albums of the '70s that had featured a song, Alabama, that had stung his southern pride.
So, despite the fact that none of its three songwriters were from there (Van Zant and Rossington were from Florida, and King from California), Lynyrd Skynyrd composed the definitive anthem for Alabama, with a splendid King as lead guitarist and a Van Zant ambiguous enough for a New York Yankee like Al Kooper to sing it, thinking Van Zant was against the segregationist George Wallace, but also for Ed King to think the song was totally in favor of the latter. Whatever it was, there's no denying the tremendous impact of it, one of the best rock songs ever, with an iconic riff and a great chorus. Even the song's own ‘negative protagonist’, Young, declared that he deserved the rap from Van Zant and his boys: "My own song deserved the touch that Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record. I don't like my words when I hear them. They're accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out and too easy to misinterpret."
The fact is that people would have to wait until April 1974, when Second Helping appeared, to be able to listen to it, but by the time they did, the band had climbed one more step in popularity by opening on the Who's massive Quadrophenia tour, in November and December '73. The reaction was so good that the song was released as a single, a year after being recorded, breaking into the top ten of the Billboard charts, despite the fact that Skynyrd were clearly a band focused on albums.
The wonderful Second Helping is proof of that and contains other gems such as the unstoppable Don't Ask Me No Questions, by Van Zant and Rossington, with wonderful work by the latter on his beloved Les Paul. Also of note are Collins' two contributions, The Needle And The Spoon, with a wonderful 'Hendrixian' solo on his Firebird with Vox Wah, and the thrilling The Ballad Of Curtis Loew, one of the best ballads of their career, with King and Rossington taking turns on slide. The new guitarist also has another great moment of brilliance on Workin' for MCA, with the '67 Strat on which he recorded the entire album (with the exception of Alabama).
This album consecrated Skynyrd as the best rock band of the moment and turned them into the absolute leaders of southern rock, which they were happy to boast about. It was not for nothing that southern rock was reiterative, as rock was southern - it had been born there with Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Buddy Holly. Lynyrd Skynyrd made sure that even the most dumb would remember it, and for those who accused them of being racist they made it clear that they were not. When the foolish George Wallace praised the song, for example, Van Zant answered: " "We're not into politics, we don't have no education, and Wallace don't know anything about rock and roll."