Lynyrd Skynyrd had been playing it for about five decades; it’s a popular concert closer for the band. But Free Bird was written by founding members Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins back in 1970 in Jacksonville, Florida.
After Van Zant died in the famed plane crash of ’77, the song took on a whole new meaning – not just for the fans, but for the band’s surviving members. So, how did Van Zant’s younger brother come to sing his late big bro’s words? To understand how the song come to be and evolved into a fan favorite with concert goers traditionally yelling “Play Free Bird!” you should know the whole story.
The Song That Never Ends (in a Good Way)
Free Bird (the studio version) runs about nine minutes long. At Skynyrd concerts, the song might go on for an extra five minutes, which is why fans always yell out for the track to be played (as if it wasn’t already on the band’s set list). But how did Free Bird become such a run-on song?
On the Ultimate Classic Rock Nights radio show, guitarist Gary Rossington recounted how the track came to be so long. “Allen Collins had the chords all written, and he had planned a lot and he was trying to get Ronnie Van Zant to write lyrics to it…” As Rossington recalled, Van Zant didn’t like how many chord changes there were, so they spent a few weeks “trying to achieve creative harmony.”
A Real Simple Love Song
If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
In the beginning, Free Bird was written as a “real simple love song about leaving you,” Rossington noted. The first two lines of the song – “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” – that was actually something that Collins’ then-girlfriend, Kathy, asked him at the time.
It may have started with love in mind, but the song’s creation went on and the band’s jam sessions, “got longer and longer,” according to Rossington. “At first it didn’t have the end, the long guitar end; it was just the slow love song.”
It All Began in 1964
Then, of course, the guitar solo was added. “We came up with the end, and as we practiced every day, it came along.” The way Rossington sums it up may be a bit simplified, but who can blame him? It was a long time ago and he’s said all he needs to say about the song.
But we’re not tired of the song; we want more. So, let’s dive a little deeper. It all began in 1964 when a group of teenagers – Van Zant, Collins, and Rossington included – started doing regular jam sessions in Jacksonville.
Take That, Skinner
The group knew they were onto something, and, naturally, they needed to call themselves something. After vetoing a few names thrown around, they came up with Lynyrd Skynyrd – a humorous homage to their high-school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, who always gave the boys sh*t for having such long hair.
By the ‘70s, the bona fide band had already developed a following, and the guys were writing what would become their most popular songs. Free Bird was one of them. Around this time, musician Rickey Medlocke joined the band, playing drums and recording.
“Fix That,” He Said From the Couch
Rossington remembered how on one rehearsal day, which took place at the house where they would hang out after school (before they quit school altogether), Collins started playing the chords to Free Bird. Van Zant was lying on the couch, as he typically did after two or three hours of rehearsing.
Rossington recalled Van Zant lying there, hearing mistakes, and saying, “Let’s fix that.” Then, when one of them would get a good idea, Van Zant would call out, “Play it, play.” Collins had all these chords that he would play over and over…
Play That Again, Man
For I must be traveling on now
‘Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see
Van Zant, as Rossington noted, took an issue to so many chord changes. After all, he was the one who was going to write the lyrics to them. It came to a point when Van Zant said, “Play that again.” And so, Collin played the chords. Then Rossington did.
Meanwhile, Van Zant sat there listening and writing lyrics to what he considered to be a love song. According to Rossington, it was more than that, though. It was also about how they were traveling on the road.
It’s Not Bye-Bye Forever, Baby
It’s been sweet love, yeah, yeah
“We hadn’t really made it yet,” the guitarist shared. “We were playing everywhere we could play. It wasn’t so heavy or nothing to us at first.” The thing is with Free Bird, is every band member had his own thoughts about what the song meant.
Rickey Medlocke said how the way Van Zant wrote lyrics, “you got out of it the meaning in your own way.” For him, the line “Bye bye, baby, it’s been a sweet love” doesn’t mean a goodbye forever; rather “it means goodbye until I return.”
Minute by Minute
The song was basically ready, so the band started playing it – the slow part – at clubs. After a few sets, as Rossington recalled, Van Zant said, “Y’all play a little longer, my throat’s hurting and I need a break.”
The reason the song came to be longer and longer is because they would play one minute longer one night, and then another two minutes longer the next night. And so on… They found themselves playing Free Bird at shows for five minutes or more. I guess you could say they felt like free birds (I had to…).
Can Y’All Play That Firefly Song?
‘Cause I’m as free as a bird now
And this bird you cannot change
Rossington recalled how at one club in Atlanta, some guy in the audience said, “Would y’all play that song Firefly that has a big ending? That one we can all dance to at the end?” Medlocke added that it wasn’t until they added the famous ending that “Free Bird was let loose.”
Soon enough, the song was soaring at the clubs. Before they knew it, they were signed to a record company. In 1972, Lynyrd Skynyrd signed with MCA Records, and a year later their debut album, Lynyrd Skynyrd, was released.
It Was, Like, 17 Minutes Long at First
Free Bird was the final track of the second side. They cut the very first recording in Alabama’s Muscle Shoals studio. The truth is, by the time Medlocke joined the gang, the song was already ready. When they played him the full version, he said it was “like seventeen minutes long.”
It was the classic scenario that happened to many popular bands of the time: the song’s length was too long for radio airplay. Rossington noted that MCA told them they couldn’t release the full version seeing as no one would play it on the radio.
This Bird Is Not Gonna Change, Man
And the bird, you cannot change
And this bird, you cannot change
Lord knows, I can’t change
So, if you think nine minutes is (too) long for a song, imagine about double that. The track was simply too long. “They said to do the slow part and fade out,” Rossington recalled.
But he and the guys were like, “No, you’re not going to change our song because we like the end part.” They cut the full version, but still, the record companies had the power at the end of the day.
From 17 to 9 Minutes
Somehow, they managed to cut the track down to three minutes. But Rossington said that the song was “stagnant” until they stretched it out to a longer 10-minute runtime. Eventually the studio version reached nine minutes, and Free Bird, with its extended ending, became a fixture of the band’s live shows.
Throughout the ‘70s – up until that fateful plane crash – the original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd were playing the track with pleasure. During their shows, Van Zant liked to dedicate the song to someone.
This One’s Dedicated to the Free Birds
After Berry Oakley and Duane Allman died from motorcycle crashes, Rossington revealed, the song was dedicated to them. “Because as Ronnie said, they were free birds.” Rossington said that the late artists Oakley and Allman were their friends – their influences – and their deaths broke their hearts.
“We would say, ‘This song is for them tonight,’” Rossington shared. Decades later, with Van Zant replaced by his younger brother Johnny 10 years after the crash, the band’s live shows featured the originally recorded vocals of Ronnie Van Zant during the song’s third verse. Then, Johnny would step back in.
Grown Men, Weeping
“Johnny brings out Ronnie’s hat, the black one, and puts it on top of the microphone stand, and the whole third verse and chorus is Ronnie on the screen singing with the band,” Medlocke told Q104.3. These shows would get pretty emotional.
Even before the band would be about to play Free Bird, the audience would get emotional. “I’ve seen grown men in the audience weeping,” Medlocke disclosed. “It’s a very powerful thing,” he admitted. Medlocke has a photo of one of those moment in his home…
A Very Special (Almost Religious) Moment
Speaking of the framed photo he has in his home, Medlocke explained, “Gary and I are standing right at the microphone stand with the lights on it…. you can see Gary and I looking at each other with the hat right there, and with the lights down on it, and it’s almost religious to me.”
“It’s a very special moment,” Medlocke said, “I get chills from it every night.” It’s no wonder the fans and surviving members find the song – and performing it – so emotional…
If It Weren’t for That Damn Crash
If it weren’t for the plane crash, which took six lives, Van Zant would (likely) still be up there, performing the song with his longtime buddies. Other than Van Zant, guitarist and vocalist Steve Gaines and his older sister Cassie Gaines died as well.
The other three casualties included assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray. There were 20 survivors in total.
It happened on October 20, 1977, as the band was flying from show to show, from South Carolina to Louisiana.
The (Other) Crash That Ruined Allen Collins’ Life
What happened was the charter plane ran out of fuel and crashed into a forest in Mississippi. While Collins survived the crash, albeit with serious injuries, he ended up dying in 1990. Collins’ death was tragic in its own right. After a drinking-and-driving car accident, which took his then-girlfriend Debra Watts’ life, the guitarist was left paralyzed from the waist down.
Soon enough, he stopped performing. His last performance with the band was at their first reunion after the plane crash, in 1979. He eventually died from chronic pneumonia, which was a complication of his paralysis.
Johnny Van Zant Never Wanted to Join the Band
Rossington, the band’s sole living original member, also survived the plane crash of ’77. Ten years later, he and other pre-crash members decided to embark on a reunion tour, which is when they approached Johnny Van Zant about joining them as the lead vocalist.
At the time, Johnny was a solo artist. “I had never wanted to be in the band,” Johnny admitted in an interview. “Lynyrd Skynyrd was going to go on with my brother forever.” But that call ten years after the fact changed everything.
The Song Was Meant to Be Sung
After the crash, Rossington remembered, their live shows consisted of Van Zant’s microphone with a hat on it. “We played Free Bird instrumental and let the audience sing it.” But Rossington knew people wanted to hear the words.
“I knew Ronnie wrote it to be sung,” Rossington said. As Johnny recalled, he was called into a meeting. “I walked into a room, and here are these guys who survived the crash with my brother.” He was honored by the offer, but he couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable singing Free Bird on the tour.
The Words That Changed Johnny’s Mind
He told Rossington in that meeting, “Ronnie is the guy who should be singing this.” Despite his discomfort singing his late brother’s lyrics, he accepted the offer and joined his brother’s band for the tour.
It didn’t sit right with him, that is, until Rossington said something that changed Johnny’s mind. After one show in Alabama, Rossington turned to Johnny and said, “The crowd’s raising heck and I’m not going back out there unless you sing it.” He added, “Ronnie was a singer and a songwriter, and the song needs to be sung.”
Medlocke Adds Flavor to the Bird
“That hit me,” Johnny admitted. “And I’ve been singing it ever since.” After Collins died in 1990, Medlocke reunited with the band (he was the front man of the band Blackfoot for a while), picking up the guitar once again.
According to Medlocke, his musical style was similar to Collins’, “so it was pretty well laid out that I was going to play Allen’s parts.” For Medlocke, the easiest one was Free Bird “because the ending is put together in sections.” Still, he put his own “little twist” on it here and there.
“Play Free Bird!”
As the band continued to tour and play the popular song, Free Bird sounded “a little different” every night. “The audience can’t tell it, but I can,” Medlocke confessed. As he described, a night wouldn’t go by where the audience wouldn’t stay after the whole set was done to hear Free Bird.
Concertgoers shouting “Play Free Bird!” is only one way the song entered rock music folklore. And the funny thing is, the loud requests (or demands) at live shows to play the song doesn’t only happen at Lynyrd Skynyrd shows.
It Became a “Thing” at Other Artists’ Shows
“We weren’t aware of people yelling “Free Bird!” at other shows till after it was a thing,” Rossington remarked. During other shows, after the performances were over, the crowd would yell out, “Free Bird! Free Bird!”
Johnny recalled one time at a Cher concert in Jacksonville (he was there with his wife), he suddenly hears the audience hollering, “Free Bird!” “Free Bird!”… at Cher! For Rossington, the song’s legacy will always have a dark cloud over it. “Ronnie and Allen didn’t live long enough to see it turn into a classic,” he explained.
From Weddings to Funerals
Collins and Van Zant never got to see the legacy that is Free Bird and how much people around the world know and love the song. Rossington explained how the song is played at graduations, weddings, and funerals, with many people saying Lynyrd Skynyrd “got them through college with Free Bird.”
The song never got old for the rest of the band. Every night they played the song, they would see people in the audience singing along word for word. Rossington, who still got emotional seeing that, said, “The song lets you think about your love or people you’ve lost.”
He Never Wanted to Be Better Than His Brother
When the band went on their final tour, The Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour, with dates from 2018 to 2021, Johnny found himself reminiscing over the 31 years that he had been with the band. To him, it felt more like “thirty-one seconds gone by.”
He said that over the years, people have told him that he wasn’t as good as his brother. “I never wanted to be as good as my brother,” Johnny insisted. “I just wanted to carry on his music. I’m Johnny, he was Ronnie, and that’s what kept me going. We’ll never forget the ones who started this.”
Back When They Were Called the One Percent
Tom Markham, now in his ‘80s, long ago signed a recording contract with a young Jacksonville band who once called themselves The One Percent. The boys, who later called themselves Lynyrd Skynyrd, recorded six songs with Markham, including Free Bird.
Markham knew that he saw a “good thing” in “the tightest little bar band you ever heard,” which is what the guys in the band liked to call themselves. Markham still has the records and the tapes on which the six songs were recorded – all stored in a properly air-conditioned space in his home.
Like a Family, Trying to Make It
It was in 1968 that Markham and his late business partner Jim Sutton (Shade Tree Records) signed the guys to a five-year contract, after which they promoted them at grocery stores and shopping malls and got them airplay on local TV and radio stations.
The band and the company didn’t have much money, but Markham offered the young rockers time and their expertise in the recording studio, in exchange for publishing rights and royalties to the songs. “We all became sort of a family, trying to make it,” Markham said.
The Undisputed Leader of the Pack
Marham wishes they had taken photos at the time of their early recordings, but they were just too wrapped up in the making of the music. He also remembers Van Zant as the undisputed leader of the band. He may have had a temper at times, but he was always respectful to Markham and Sutton.
At least a decade younger than them, he would always say, “Yes sir, yes sir” to them. Markham remembers one time when the band came into the studio to tell them that they changed their band name to Leonard Skinner (this was before they made it Lynyrd Skynyrd).
The Crowd Got the Inside Joke
When the band told their audience at the Forest Inn in Jacksonville of their name change, most of the crowd – composed of fellow Lee High School students – laughed and cheered at the news. Obviously, they got the inside joke.
Pretty much everyone knew about the time the no-nonsense coach sent Rossington to the principal’s office for his longer-than-approved hair. Interviewed in 2009, former coach Skinner said he was simply following the school’s rules about hair length. It turns out, Skinner was pretty bothered about the story that came to be of him…
Take It From Skinner Himself
According to Skinner, he was never as tough on the bandmembers as they made him out to be – nor did he get them kicked out of school. What he said was, “It was against the school rules. I don’t particularly like long hair on men, but again, it wasn’t my rule.”
Skinner admitted that the boys in Lynyrd Skynyrd were “good, talented, hard-working boys” adding that they boozed as hard as they worked. According to Skinner’s son, his dad “kind of ate it up.” He didn’t like it at first, but Skinner had mixed emotions later, and “kind of liked it eventually.”
The Evolving Relationship With the Coach
Skinner retired from coaching in 1970, the year Free Bird was written. When he turned to real estate during the ‘70s, he even allowed the band to use his “Leonard Skinner Realty” sign photo for the inside of their third album, Nuthin’ Fancy.
Funnily enough, after the album was released, Skinner started getting late-night calls from people across the country. Fans of the band, who saw the sign and phone number, just had to check out if he was the real guy of Lynyrd Skynyrd fame.
RIP, Leonard Skinner
Skinner recalled people calling him at 4 a.m. in the morning, saying things like, “Who’s speaking?” He would say “Leonard Skinner,” and they’d say, “Far out!” In a nice turn of events, Skinner eventually became friends with some members of the band.
The band would play at a bar that Skinner opened in Jacksonville called The Still. Later, Skinner decided to capitalize on his fame and opened a few more bars which he named after himself. Skinner died in 2010 at age 77, having suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for years.
The Saga of Lynyrd Skynyrd Continues
The saga of Lynyrd Skynyrd doesn’t end with the crash, Collins’ death, or even Skinner’s. The tragedies that befell the band just seem to keep coming. In 2015, the band’s original drummer, Robert Lewis Burns (aka Bob Burns), died in a car crash.
Burns was the man behind the band, physically and metaphorically. With his drumsticks and long hair (of course), he was instrumental in creating their signature sound with anthems like Sweet Home Alabama, Simple Man and Free Bird. But years later, he faded out of the limelight.
Bob Burns Marks Death No. 8
“Bob Burns… lives in total obscurity,” Mark Ribowsky, who wrote Whiskey Bottles and Brand-New Cars, said. “He made that sound go and he was discarded like a bucket of garbage.” Burns was 64 when he died in his car after crashing into a mailbox and a tree near his home in Cartersville, Georgia.
It was raining and he wasn’t wearing his seat belt. Burns’ death marks at number eight among Lynyrd Skynyrd members. Of all the bands in rock history, Lynyrd Skynyrd is plagued with what seems to be the worst luck.
A Teenager With Nowhere to Go
Burns had a rough go from the get-go. In 1969, Burns had to leave the scene for a while when his parents moved away. “I had no place to stay. I was 15 and 16 years old. I was crashing in people’s bushes. I was crashing wherever I could,” he later admitted.
“I was borrowing clothes from the roadies to play shows with. I didn’t even have any shoes and it just got to me.” Years later, he took another hiatus for a couple of years, during which he was hospitalized for serious mood swings.
The Time He Refused to Play a Song
Turns out, he was bipolar. “They gave me medication, and I’ve been a free man ever since.” He may have felt free, but the guys of Lynyrd Skynyrd were dealing with all kinds of sh*t. In the book Freebirds: The Lynyrd Skynyrd Story, Marley Brant writes about how there was one time when Burns refused to play a particular song.
That’s when Ronnie Van Zant stuck his gun up to Burns’ head and said, “You play the mother***ing song or I’m gonna blow your brains all over this room.” By 1975, Burns walked away from the band.
Walking Away and Never Looking Back
Reportedly, Burns stepped down after having a “disabling” reaction to a drug he took in Europe, according to his own father, Robert Burns Sr. With Burns gone, drummer Artimus Pyle stepped into the role, and rather quickly too.
Burns’ father said his son was hospitalized, got clean and looked back. When Rossington heard of Burns’ death, he stated he was “at a loss for words.” He wrote on Facebook, “I just remember Bob being a funny guy… he used to do skits for us and make us laugh all the time, he was hilarious!”
The Last Living Member
Then there was Leon Wilkeson, a Lynyrd Skynyrd bassist who joined in the early ‘70s and also survived the plane crash. In 2001, he died from emphysema and liver disease. As for his replacement, Ean Evans, he died from lung cancer in 2009.
Guitarist Hughie Thomasson passed away in 2007 from a heart attack. Two years later, keyboardist Billy Powell died from reported heart problems. Larry Junstrom, the bassist, died in 2019 at the age of 70. At the moment, of the original Skynyrd bandmembers, Gary Rossington is the only one living. He’s now 70 years old.