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The flight of another Free Bird is over.
Gary Rossington, the last surviving original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, died on Sunday March 5 at the age of 71, nearly four months before the band were scheduled to embark on their next tour.
No cause of death was given, although the guitarist has struggled with health issues for the past two decades and particularly since the mid-2010s, when heart ailments sidelined Rossington and the band at times.
In an official statement, Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote: “It is without the deepest sympathy and sadness that we must inform you that we have lost our brother, friend, family member, songwriter and guitarist, Gary Rossington today. today. Gary is now with his Skynyrd brothers and family in heaven and he’s playing great, as he always does. Please keep Dale, Mary and Annie and the entire Rossington family in your prayers and respect the privacy of the family at this time.
In a 2016 interview with Billboardpromoting his Take it on faith album with his wife Dale Krantz-Rossington – who is also a Skynyrd backing vocalist – Rossington said that despite his health battles, he made the decision to keep playing and die with his proverbial boots on.
“It’s just in my blood, you know?” he explained. “I’m just a former guitarist, and we’ve spent all of our loves and 10,000 hours of work figuring out how to play and how to do it. So I think once you have something for yourself, you should go on and continue your craft. When you retire, what’s next? I love to fish, but how much of that can you do, right? So I want to keep doing what I’m doing now.
Rossington was the last man standing in a band that formed in 1964 in Jacksonville, Florida, beginning with bassist Larry Junstrom and drummer Bob Burns in a trio called Me, You, and Him. Signer Ronnie Van Zant, who played on a rival baseball team, jammed with the team after one of their games, playing the Rolling Stones’ “Time Is on My Side,” and the rest was history.
Skynyrd chose his name around 1970, taking it from Leonard Skinner, the strict high school physical education teacher Robert E. Lee; Skinner was particularly hard on boys with long hair, which led Rossington to drop out of school.
After working on the local and regional scene, Skynyrd was discovered by Al Kooper, founder of Blood, Sweat & Tears, who signed the band to his Sounds of the South label. “We were a bit of everything, really,” Rossington said of the burgeoning group’s approach. “We loved all the British Invasion stuff and of course the Allman Brothers and Stax and all that. There were just a lot of things that we mixed up.
The band’s debut album, (Pronounced Len-‘nerd ‘Skin-‘nerd) was released on August 13, 1973 and featured the long anthem “Free Bird”, which would become Skynyrd’s signature song. The band continued to build a following through hard touring and tracks such as “Sweet Home Alabama” – its response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man”. Rossington co-wrote this track along with other Skynyrd favorites such as “I Ain’t the One”, “Things Goin’ On”, “Don’t Ask Me No Questions”, “Gimme Back My Bullets” and “What’s Your Name.”
The first phase of Skynyrd ended on October 20, 1977, when a Convair CV-240 carrying the group from Greenville, SC to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, crashed near Gillsburg, Mississippi, killing three members of the group ( Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his older sister, backup vocalist Cassie Gaines), assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick and the two drivers. Rossington and others suffered serious injuries and put the group on hold immediately afterwards.
“We couldn’t imagine continuing after something like this,” he said. “We were a brotherhood, and when you lose your brothers, you can’t go on.” He and guitarist Allen Rossington formed the Rossington Collins Band, which lasted nearly four years and two albums before splitting up in 1982. Skynyrd, meanwhile reformed in 1987, ostensibly to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the crash of ‘plane ; The band has since continued, recording nine more studio albums and undergoing a number of line-up changes.
Rossington – part of a nucleus of guitarists that included Collins (died 1977), Ed King (died 2018), Hughie Thomasson (died 2007), Rickey Medlocke and others – was the only Skynyrd member to appear on all of his albums.
Rossington said that despite the health issues, he was motivated to carry on in order to pay tribute to his fallen bandmates, including longtime bassist Leon Wilkeson and keyboardist Billy Powell. “These guys created so much great music that people still love today,” Rossington noted. “I’m the last one here, so to be able to tell their story and make sure they’re remembered, I’m lucky to be able to do that. It’s like my responsibility. He had, however, missed some shows and only played parts of them in recent years.
In 2016, Krantz-Rossington noted that she and her husband agreed that continuing to play music was the best thing for him. “He said to me, ‘I would much rather go out kicking’ than sit here in my chair, and that was the last time we talked about it,” she said. “After that, we just decided to ask for God’s mercy and do it until we fall.”
Tributes to Rossington began hitting social media immediately after the band’s announcement. Longtime friend Charlie Daniels wrote: “The last of the free birds has gone home. RIP Gary Rossington, God Bless the Lynyrd @Skynyrd band. Prayers to Dale and the rest of his family.
Skynyrd is considering partnering with ZZ Top to The visit of the simple man dressed in pointe from July 21 in West Palm Beach, Florida, it should continue, although Johnny Van Zant – younger brother of Ronnie Van Zant and leader of Skynyrd since 1977 – said: “I don’t think you can have Lynyrd Skynyrd without Gary Rossington.
Besides Krantz-Rossington, the guitarist is survived by their two daughters and several grandchildren. No funeral or memorial information has been announced.