Gary Rossington, who has died aged 71 after suffering from heart problems, was the last surviving original member of the maestros of Southern rock Lynyrd Skynyrd, and played the distinctive slide guitar on their biggest hit, Free Bird, as well as co-writing Sweet Home Alabama; he was badly injured in the 1977 plane crash that killed three of his bandmates.
Gary Rossington was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on December 4 1951; his mother Berneice brought him up single-handedly, his father having died just after Gary was born. Attending Robert E Lee High School, his dream was to play baseball for the New York Yankees – but after seeing the Rolling Stones take The Ed Sullivan Show by storm he began to gravitate towards rock music.
He got to know Ronnie Van Zant – who, a couple of years older, became a mentor – and Bob Burns when they played for rival junior baseball teams. They persuaded Allen Collins and Larry Junstrom to join them in a band they named My Backyard, then the Noble Five, followed by the One Percent. Van Zant took vocal duties, with Collins joining Rossington on guitar, Burns on drums and Junstrom on bass.
“We came from English music,” Rossington recalled. “We’d listen to the Yardbirds and Clapton, Jeff Beck, The Beatles and the Stones, the Animals, all those groups. They were our idols and gods.”
They eventually called themselves Lynyrd Skynyrd, inspired by a high school PE teacher, Leonard Skinner, who was notorious for going after boys with long hair (Rossington dropped out of school at 17, tired of being hassled by him).
Developing a hard-driving, bluesy style and a fierce live reputation, the band released their debut album – (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-’nérd ‘Skin-’nérd) – in 1973, which included the nine-minute epic Free Bird. “We always said we had a lot of balls back then, or gumption, whatever you call it, for playing a song that long,” Rossington recalled.
More storming albums followed, and in 1974 Sweet Home Alabama – a response to Neil Young’s song Southern Man – gave the band their first UK hit.
But with rock-god status came the attendant excesses, and in 1976 Rossington, out of his head on booze and Quaaludes, passed out at the wheel of his new Ford Torino, knocking down a telegraph pole, splitting an oak tree and damaging a house. Van Zant fined him and Allen Collins – who crashed his car the same day – $5,000 each.
Van Zant wrote a song about the incidents, That Smell – “Oak tree you’re in my way / There’s too much coke and too much smoke / Look what’s going on inside you / Ooooh that smell” – which appeared on the next album, Street Survivors.
But on October 20 1977, three days after the album’s release, following a gig in Greenville, South Carolina, the band were on a chartered plane headed for Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Three hours into the flight one of the pilots announced: “We’re out of gas – put your heads between your legs and buckle up tight.”
He attempted an emergency landing but crashed in woods near Gillsburg, Mississippi. Van Zant, the guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister Cassie, one of the backing singers, died, along with a roadie and the two pilots. Rossington, who suffered broken arms, a broken leg, a punctured stomach and liver damage, recalled: “I remember most of it – the rapid descent, the screaming, my friends in pain like something out of Vietnam.”
The band fell apart, the survivors only reforming 10 years later and continuing to tour and record since then. Rossington became addicted to his prescription drugs but pulled through thanks to his Christian faith. He founded the Rossington-Collins Band with Allen Collins, and then the Rossington Band with his wife, Dale Krantz.
Gary Rossington, who died a few months before Lynyrd Skynyrd were due to hit the road again, is survived by his wife and two daughters.
Gary Rossington, born December 4 1951, died March 5 2023