The guitarist Gary Rossington, who has died aged 71, was the last surviving original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, who formed in Florida in the mid-1960s. He was a pivotal part of the group as both musician and songwriter, his most arresting claim to fame being his slide guitar work on the band’s imperishable theme song, Free Bird. He also co-wrote their most successful single, the US Top 10 hit Sweet Home Alabama, and wrote songs regularly throughout the band’s career, up to their final studio album, Last of a Dyin’ Breed (2012).
Lynyrd Skynyrd reached the US Top 30 with each of their first five albums, three reaching double platinum status, but the group was plagued by a horrific litany of tragedies. Rossington, under the influence of drugs and alcohol, had survived a road accident in 1976 in which his car hit a tree, prompting Skynyrd’s lead vocalist, Ronnie Van Zant, to write the song That Smell – “Ooh that smell / The smell of death surrounds you”.
Then, in October 1977, Rossington survived an air crash in Mississippi in which Van Zant, the guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, the backing singer Cassie Gaines, died. The chartered aircraft in which they were flying had previously had engine failure; despite a mechanic having supposedly fixed it, both engines failed on the next flight.
“I remember most of it,” Rossington told Guitar.com in 2020. “The rapid descent, the screaming, my friends in pain like something out of Vietnam. Waking up with the plane door on top of me … The main thing is we lost our best friends – that’s the hardest part. Our motto when we started was ‘If we don’t make it we’ll die trying.’ And we made it but at a terrible cost.”
Rossington recovered, after having steel rods inserted in his right arm and right leg, but for several years fought an addiction to painkillers, acquired during his convalescence. He later formed the Rossington Collins Band with his fellow Skynyrd guitarist Allen Collins, but they split in 1982 after Collins’ wife died.
He then formed the Rossington Band with his wife, Dale Krantz-Rossington, before rejoining the rebuilt Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1987, with Ronnie’s brother Johnny Van Zant on lead vocals. The group continued to tour and make albums for the next three decades, despite the deaths of several members. They were due to embark on a 22-city tour with ZZ Top in July 2023, though Rossington’s participation was uncertain because of health problems.
He was born in Jacksonville, Florida. His father was serving in the US army but died shortly after Gary’s birth, leaving his mother, Berniece, to raise him single-handedly. He would later name his favourite 1959 Gibson Les Paul guitar “Berniece” in her honour.
A keen baseball player, he had an early ambition to play for the New York Yankees, but the arrival on US shores of the “British Invasion” bands, especially the Rolling Stones, fired in him a desire to become a musician.
His twin enthusiasms combined when he met Van Zant and the drummer Bob Burns while they were playing on rival baseball teams in Jacksonville. They formed a band, and the first song they attempted to play was the Rolling Stones’ hit Time Is on My Side. They added Collins on guitar and the bass player Larry Junstrom, and went by various names including the Noble Five, the One Percent and My Backyard, playing in clubs and bars across the south before becoming Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1969.
The name was adapted from their PE teacher, Leonard Skinner, at Robert E Lee high school in Jacksonville. Van Zant’s mother, Lacy, told the New York Times how she had asked teaching staff to allow Rossington to keep his long hair, since his musician’s earnings helped his mother pay the household bills and he could not rock successfully with short hair. On the other hand, as Rossington told Rolling Stone magazine, “some places we’d get into fights – they didn’t like us ’cause our hair was long”.
It was not until 1973 that they released their debut album, (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-’nérd). They had been rejected by nine record companies before the musician and producer Al Kooper signed them to MCA, after seeing them play a storming live show at a club called Funocchio’s in Atlanta. It was Kooper who helped the group turn Free Bird into a nine-minute epic, which became their anthemic calling card.
They had already made a couple of attempts at recording the song, but Kooper added the hymn-like organ passage at the beginning, and helped Rossington to achieve the distinctive sound of his mournful slide guitar theme. “It’s actually me playing the same thing twice, recording one on top of the other, so it sounds kind of slurry, echoey,” he revealed. He had taken inspiration from the slide wizard Duane Allman, of the Allman Brothers Band, who had also formed in Jacksonville.
The band’s single Sweet Home Alabama (1974), co-written by Rossington, became their biggest hit, reaching No 8 on the US chart and 31 in the UK. It was an irresistibly exuberant riposte to Neil Young’s songs Southern Man and Alabama, which the group deemed unreasonably damning of the American south, and in his 2012 autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, Young admitted he had been “accusatory and condescending”. The song was later used to promote tourism in Alabama as well as supplying the movie Sweet Home Alabama with its story and title.
The band scored four successive US Top 20 albums with Second Helping (1974), Nuthin’ Fancy (1975), Gimme Back My Bullets (1976) and Street Survivors (1977). Lynyrd Skynyrd were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. The event prompted Rossington to say: “I don’t think of it as tragedy – I think of it as life. I think the good outweighs the bad.”
In 2018, Stephen Kijak’s documentary about the band, If I Leave Here Tomorrow, was released. Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash was a dramatisation of the Mississippi air disaster, released in 2020.
Rossington is survived by Dale, whom he married in 1982, and their two daughters.
• Gary Robert Rossington, guitarist and songwriter, born 4 December 1951; died 5 March 2023