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Gary Rossington: Last original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd

Gary Rossington and Ronnie Van Zant at the Apollo Theatre in Glasgow, 1977 (Redferns)
Gary Rossington and Ronnie Van Zant at the Apollo Theatre in Glasgow, 1977 (Redferns)

Gary Rossington, who has died aged 71, was the last surviving original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Southern rock band responsible for the popular and enduring chart successes “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama”. As well as his skills as a songwriter (he helped pen the aforementioned hits), Rossington’s talent for guitar ensured he was a pivotal part of the band’s success.

He was born in Jacksonville, Florida, to John Robert Rossington and Margaret Berniece McGraw Rossington. His first passion was for playing and watching baseball, especially his favourite team the New York Yankees. But hearing The Rolling Stones as a teenager changed his focus from wannabe Yankee to aspiring rockstar.

The band that became Lynyrd Skynyrd was first formed in 1964 around a core of five members who got together as youngsters, under the name The Noble Five and later The One Percent. Touring at first locally and regionally, they made their breakthrough in 1973. The band’s moniker was adopted from former gym teacher Leonard Skinner, notorious at their school for criticising students with long hair.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first studio LP was released in August of that year. Titled (Pronounced ’Lĕh-'nérd ’Skin-’nérd), the album included the hit single “Free Bird” and went gold in December of the following year. Rossington later recalled: “We had written all these songs and “Free Bird” was like five/six years old when we recorded it ... Allen Collins wrote the beginning and I wrote the end.” The anthemic song has since become legendary amongst the group’s fans for its live renditions, often extending to 15 or 20 minutes.

Their 1974 follow-up hit, “Sweet Home Alabama”, was written as a riposte to Neil Young’s “Southern Man”, a critique of racism and slavery in the American South, and includes the sharply-worded line: “Well, I hope Neil Young will remember/A Southern Man don’t need him around anyhow”. That single, reaching No 8 in the US charts and peaking at 31 in the UK, has since remained an evergreen favourite.

Rossington remembered the song’s genesis: “I had this little riff. It’s the little picking part and I kept playing it over and over when we were waiting on everyone to arrive for rehearsal. Ronnie and I were sitting there, and he kept saying, ‘Play that again’. Then Ronnie wrote the lyrics and Ed and I wrote the music.”

Rickey Medlocke (left) and Gary Rossington during Kaaboo Texas in Arlington, 2019 (AFP/Getty)
Rickey Medlocke (left) and Gary Rossington during Kaaboo Texas in Arlington, 2019 (AFP/Getty)

But this peak of fame and prosperity for the band would soon turn to tragedy. In October 1977 the band lost three of its members in a plane crash that killed lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines (his sister). Their touring aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed into a wooded area during an attempted emergency landing. Road manager Dean Kilpatrick and two crew also perished, whilst Rossington and 19 other passengers survived.

Hospital treatment for injuries sustained in the accident left Rossington with metal pins in his right arm and leg and led to a dependency on pain medication that took years to overcome. Following the crash, Rossington and Dale Krantz formed the Rossington-Collins Band, together with Allen Collins, later renamed upon Collins’s departure as simply The Rossington Band.

Lynyrd Skynyrd were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. The biopic documentary, If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd, charting the band’s career, was released in 2018. Their final world tour, delayed in part by the epidemic, began in 2018 and was still running at the time of Rossington’s death.

Artimus Pyle, the band’s drummer for a period in the Seventies, said in tribute: “When Bob, Gary and Ronnie got together in Bob’s carport on the west side of Jacksonville, Florida, they put something together that went worldwide. Everyone will remember Gary as a road dog, trouper, songwriter, and one of the greatest guitar players that ever lived. He just loved being onstage.”

He is survived by Dale Krantz Rossington, whom he married in 1982, and their two daughters Mary and Annie.

Gary Rossington, musician, born 4 December 1951, died 5 March 2023