Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Among the most iconic groups to ever rock the world sat a small band down in Jacksonville, FL with an unstoppable three-man guitar army. Led by Ronnie Van Zant as the lead vocalist and primary songwriter, Gary Rossington on guitar and as a songwriter, Allen Collins on guitar, Leon Wilkeson on bass, Billy Powell on the keyboard and Bob Burns on the drums, Lynyrd Skynyrd exploded onto the great American rock n’ roll scene with an unforgettable debut album. The group formed in 1964, centered around core members Van Zant, Rossington, Burns, Collins and Larry Junstrom, a former bassist, under several different names until they agreed on the iconic title Lynyrd Skynyrd. When the band set out to record their first album, Wilkeson left the band temporarily and was replaced by bassist Ed King. King wrote songs on the first album. This album sold over 1-million copies and contains the most of the bands’ greatest hits. “Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd” encapsulates the gritty, fun-loving southern-rooted image of American rock in addition to the hidden meanings and touching pieces that reach out as a guiding hand to listeners.
Leading off the 43-minute musical compilation is “I Ain’t The One” which begins with a cymbal roll into the buzzing guitar backing Van Zant’s vocals. The song tells the brief story of a man urging his lover that, contrary to her beliefs, he is not “the one” for her. In this tune, like many Skynyrd works, the guitar army weaves a masterful web of rock to the ear, instantly corralling listeners to their speakers or headphones.
Following “I Ain’t the One” is a mournful farewell. “Tuesday’s Gone” paints the sad portrait of leaving a loved one. Van Zant’s narrator bids a farewell to his wife as he approaches the unknown, aboard a train, leaving her “gone with the wind.” The instrumentation behind this ballad is nothing short of heart-wrenching with the perfect balance of electric guitar backed by the Mellotron strings.
Picking up the pace next is the lively and catchy “Gimme Three Steps.” Van Zant’s character has found himself in trouble as he encounters the boyfriend of the girl he is dancing with at the local bar. The man pleads for one wish of his to be granted: to be given “three steps toward the door.” The story is told in the original Skynyrd style with the guitar army leading the way while the occasional “whoo” meets the listener’s ears. Contrasting this bumpy tune is the reflective yet still electric-guitar-filled piece “Simple Man.” Rossington and Van Zant wrote this piece as a remembrance of Van Zant’s grandmother. In the story, a mother speaks to her son about the hardships of life and her advice for him to be kind and grow not into a man of the world, but one of genuine benevolence. The song was originally rejected by the producer of the album who said it was too “weak” for the tone of the album. The band unanimously disagreed and the story goes that Van Zant made stubborn producer Kooper wait in his car until the band finished recording the song. It has since become one of the most well-known Skynyrd songs and a fan favorite even to this day.
“Things Goin’ On” takes the fifth slot and provides a southern tone with the bass backing a guitar intro sounding like a classic country song. Soon, however, the tune adds an upbeat old-west-esque piano element to the chorus. The instrumentation showcases the mastery with which Lynyrd Skynyrd formulates the majority of their songs. Immediately following this example of musical magnificence is a series of acoustic guitar riffs backed by a bass guitar and some electric guitar. “Mississippi Kid” offers a different style than the rest of the album with the acoustic element and the introduction into a harmonica solo later in the song. It truly grasps at the southern-country influence Skynyrd writes and plays with through their works.
With an emphatic stroke of the keyboard, backed by guitar and a steady beat on the drums, “Poison Whiskey” plays out on the second to last slot on the album. The final piece on the album belongs to the band’s most popular song and one of the most iconic pieces of rock n’ roll in American history: “Free Bird.” From Powell’s keyboard introduction to the intricate and masterful weaving of electric guitar, this song has been named among the greatest rock songs of all time on several occasions. Van Zant’s power ballad takes the listener on the journey of the great will to be free, or what he called in an interview “what [America is] all about.” At the 4:40 mark, the song hits overdrive and never turns back as the unforgettable solo roars. Skynyrd utilizes this song in every live performance and can even make it last over 14 minutes. It is an American staple that has stood the test of time and would find a place on the Mount Rushmore of rock n’ roll.
Lynyrd Skynyrd burst onto the music scene with this album thanks in part to the success of “Free Bird.” Tragically, in 1977, a plane crash killed then members Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines. It also killed one of the founding members and the heart and soul of the group, Ronnie Van Zant. Guitarist Collins was paralyzed by the crash. Following this horrific incident, Lynyrd Skynyrd faded from their ascension to the forefront of the rock world. In 1987, the group reformed with many of the core members and Ronnie’s younger brother, Johnny Van Zant, as the primary songwriter and lead singer. Following Collins’ death in 1990, Rossington was left as, and remains, the sole founding member of the original Jacksonville group that rocked the world with an unstoppable three-man guitar army.
Joseph Gill is a first-year English major in the writings track. JG923276@wcupa.edu