Overcoming Tragedy: 10 Lynyrd Skynyrd Members Lost But Never Forgotten
Rest In Peace
Over the last 40+ years it has been no secret that Lynyrd Skynyrd has suffered loss after loss, however, it is public knowledge that the southern legacy is strong, alive and thriving regardless of the hardships endured along the way.
To commemorate, honor and reflect on the genius lost during the ruthless and unforgiving evolution of Skynyrd, we would like to acknowledge each and every piece of the Jacksonville brother- and sister-hood.
Ronnie Van Zant
What needs to be said about Ronnie Van Zant? Other than the fact that he was Lynyrd Skynyrd: the heart, soul and voice of the brotherhood and the enforcer of all things perfection; the loss of Ronnie Van Zant still hurts. From the minute Ronnie auditioned for the band’s vocalist position in high school, to wowing the world and stealing the show at the Who’s Quadrophenia tour, Ronnie was always a strong-willed force to be reckoned with.
As the moving voice of the southern legacy, Ronnie fabricated true and beautiful stories without ever once putting a pen to paper; he was a born lyricist and legend and every single member knew it. Very rarely does a rock artist come around that has the ability to command as an unstoppable powerhouse with a soft, smooth vocal texture that can rock you to sleep; Ronnie was just that.
Whether you are looking at the solo work that Steve Gaines accomplished before Ronnie got his hands on him, or his incredibly brilliant composition and guitar work on Street Survivors, all Skynyrd fans will agree that Steve pushed every single member of the band to be better with hard work and passion.
Unfortunately for the band and world, Steve’s presence on Skynyrd was beyond short-lived as the possibilities were practically endless with the combination of him and Ronnie on stage. Only being able to rock the southern stage for a year, Steve Gaines’ life was lost with the crashing blow of the plane on October 20, 1977. Forever will the world remember the musical mark and impact Steve Gaines left as a part of this historical legacy.
The key(s) to Skynyrd was none other than pianist and keyboard master Billy Powell. Billy was an indispensable part of the band, linking together the guitar work and vocals with consistently sweet melodies against softly pitched key notes that tied the whole southern musical motif together. Ironically, even though Billy made contact with Skynyrd through friend Leon early on, Billy traveled with the band on tour for a year as a roadie before anyone ever realized they were missing his signature sound.
During a break at an event in ’72, just one year after Powell started working for the band, Billy sat down and performed a stunning rendition of “Free Bird” that blew Ronnie away. He shook the man and said “You mean to tell me you’ve been playing the piano like that and you’ve been workin’ for us for a year….” and they never looked back.
As a result of the plane crash, Powell suffered several facial injuries that almost cost the man his nose. In the following years, Billy joined band Vision until his presence was requested at the Lynyrd Skynyrd reunion in 1987 where he remained until his devastating heart attack in 2009, that unfortunately took the piano prodigy from this world. Rest in peace Billy….
Legendary drummer Bob Burns took some blows over time, including one to the head the day he met Ronnie Van Zant in ’64. Convinced he had murdered the guy at their baseball game, Ronnie ran over to Bob to check on him and left the conversation with a drummer, good friend and brother.
With some complications over time, Bob experienced homelessness, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, stayed in the dreaded hell house and struggled with life on the road with his mental stability. After almost a decade of playing with the southern brotherhood, Bob was replaced by drummer Artimus Pyle in ’74 and only rejoined the band’s side for one performance in 2006, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
Unfortunately, Bob passed away after crashing into a tree last year off a sharp curve in Georgia. Bob’s instrumental drum work on the earliest demo versions of the epic and timeless ballads of Lynyrd Skynyrd will forever be remembered and cherished.
Allen Collins, as one of the original members of My Backyard, One Percent and eventually Lynyrd Skynyrd, made contributions to the band that could never be touched. Collins did not have it easy throughout the evolution of the band however, losing his wife, future girlfriend, his best friends and bandmates and experiencing his crippling accident that left him paralyzed until his very end.
Although it is well known that Ronnie was the mental master of the lyrical pieces, Allen was a significant co-writer in songs like “Free Bird,” “Gimme Three Steps,” and “That Smell” accented with stunning guitar work in each track.
Following the scraping survival of the crash, Allen was left with a severed arm at the brink of amputation, as well as a few broken vertebrae in his neck.
Allen and band mate Gary Rossington formed duo band The Rossington- Collins band, but were short-lived by the sudden passing of Allen’s wife Kathy to a devastating brain hemorrhage. After returning to Lynyrd Skynyrd years later, Allen was unfortunately left paralyzed after his killing his girlfriend in a horrific car accident and spent the rest of his years preaching about drinking and driving from a wheel chair. It was not until 1990 that Allen’s paralysis got the best of him with an awful case of pneumonia and left the brotherhood lacking a member once again.
Allen’s most noted work was his life changing “Free Bird” solo that manages to continue to touch the hearts of the world with ease. We miss you Allen…
Founding member, plane crash survivor, Jacksonville brother and incredible guitarist Leon Wilkeson was a large piece of the band’s history from start to finish. Although Leon started playing bass for Ronnie in high school, Leon’s parents made him drop out of school due to poor grades which led to his joining the King James Version.
Leon did not return to the band until Greg Walker departed in the early 70’s and after suffering from a mangled arm from the infamous plane crash, it took him some time to redevelop his comfortable and signature form.
After the crash, Leon joined Gary and Allen in the Rossington- Collins band for their short ride and eventually took a seat back at the Skynyrd table in 1987 with Johnny on lead vocals. Following another successful ride with the reunited brotherhood, Leon was found deceased on July 27, 2001 after suffering from chronic liver and lung disease. The “mad hatter” of Skynyrd will forever be known as not only the bassist, but a piece of the heart and soul of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Bassist Ean “Donald” Evans, inspired by greats John Paul Jones and Leon Wilkeson, was Hughie’s right hand man on the Outlaws and joined the guitarist when he joined Skynyrd in the mid-90’s for the brief period of time.
After starting band Noon in ’97 and following Leon’s passing in 2001, Ean returned to Skynyrd as the bassist until his cancer got the best of him in 2009.
Guitarist and lyricist Hughie Thomasson played a major role in Lynyrd Skynyrd all the way up until his last years as a bandmate and family member. From the temporary disbandment of The Outlaws in the mid-90’s, Thomasson’s original group, Hughie was a major contributor to the resurrection of Lynyrd Skynyrd not only musically, but lyrically, until his decision to bring back the Outlaws in 2005.
Hughie’s loyalty to Skynyrd lasted until his final years with the masterpiece of powerful ballad “Still Unbroken,” from the God & Guns album. The talented musician passed away at 55 years old in 2007 due to sudden and devastating heart attack.
Although many fans would assume that Steve came before Cassie Gaines, it was quite the opposite. Starting out her career as a backing vocalist for the Honkettes, through JoJo’s connection, Cassie was invited to the exciting and hectic world of the southern legacy in 1975.
With the departure of guitarist Ed King, Cassie suggested successful brother Steve, that was pursuing a solo career at the time, to replace Ed.
We still mourn the tragic loss of beloved Honkette Cassie and will miss that sweet voice although we know she’s backing Ronnie in the clouds as we speak…
Honkette JoJo Billingsley joined the band in her 20’s as an indispensable piece of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Honkette package, along with Cassie and Leslie Hawkins. Without even having to audition for the band, Ronnie took one look at JoJo and hired her on the spot as a part of the exclusive, melodic background spread and she never looked back.
After a successful, rocky and beautiful on-and-off vocal career, JoJo unfortunately passed away at the age of 58 with cancer and was survived by her wonderful husband, son and daughter.
Fallen, but never forgotten… RIP Skynyrd artists, angels, and free birds….