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Associated Press

On This Day: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Tour Plane Crashes

October 20, 2011 06:00 AM
by Caleb March
On Oct. 20, 1977, legendary Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd’s tour plane crashed in Mississippi, killing six, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines.

Engine Trouble Leads to Crash

Lynyrd Skynyrd was traveling by chartered plane from Greenville, S.C., to a concert at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge as part of an 80-show tour for the release of their sixth album, “Street Survivors.”

The plane, a Convair CV-200, was carrying 26 people, including rock band members and many of their road crew and management staff. It had had engine problems, and was due to be replaced.

“We had decided the night before that we would definitely get rid of the plane in Baton Rouge,” survivor Billy Powell told Rolling Stone magazine. “So we started partying to celebrate the last flight on it.”

In mid-flight, over Mississippi, the right engine “went dead,” and the pilot sent a radio message to McComb Airport advising of engine trouble. Several nearby residents reported having heard the plane’s engines sputtering in the air, and then a loud crash. The plane crashed in a swamp just outside Gillsburg, Miss., at 7:00 p.m.

Three survivors made their way to the nearby farmhouse of Johnny Mote and called for help. The swamp and thick undergrowth slowed rescue operations, and several pickup trucks had to assist in the rescue after ambulances became stuck. There was also a 20-foot wide creek running between the road and the crash site.

Six crash victims died, one suffered minor injuries, and 19 were hospitalized.

Key Players: Lynyrd Skynyrd

The origins of Lynyrd Skynyrd can be traced back to 1965, when high school classmates Ronnie Van Zant, Gary Rossington and Allen Collins started playing music together as My Backyard in Jacksonville, Fla. The three friends soon added bassist Leon Wilkeson, keyboardist Billy Powell and drummer Bob Burns to the lineup and changed their name to Lynyrd Skynyrd, a parody of their gym teacher’s name, Leonard Skinner.

After several years of writing and touring, a break came when Lynyrd Skynyrd was signed to MCA Records; in 1973 they released their debut album, “Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd.” The record included their first, and perhaps most famous, hit, “Free Bird.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd used images of Southern pride to help create a distinct musical style, mixing potent rock music with their country roots. “Lynyrd Skynyrd was the definitive Southern rock band, fusing the overdriven power of blues-rock with a rebellious, Southern image and a hard rock swagger,” says the band’s biography on Memorable TV.

The band flew a huge Confederate flag onstage, and before going on for a show they played “Dixie” through speakers for the audience. Along with artists like the Allman Brothers and the Charlie Daniels Band, they helped to forge Southern rock music into a distinct genre.

Lynyrd Skynyrd first gained attention when touring with The Who on their 1973 “Quadrophenia” Tour. In 1974, Skynyrd released their sophomore album, “Second Helping,” which included, “Sweet Home Alabama.” In 1975, Artemis Pile replaced Bob Burns on drums and Steve Gaines replaced Ed King as the third guitarist of the band. That year the band also released their first Top Ten album, “Nuthin’ Fancy.”

At the time of the 1977 plane crash, Lynyrd Skynyrd was at the height of its fame, having just released its sixth album, “Street Survivors,” only three days earlier. The original album cover featured a picture of the band surrounded by flames; it was changed shortly after the accident.

Lynyrd Skynyrd Today

After a 10-year hiatus, Lynyrd Skynyrd performed in 1987 for a reunion tour, with Ronnie Van Zant’s brother, Johnny Van Zant, on vocals. In 1991, the new lineup released the band’s first studio album in 14 years, “Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991.”

Various forms of the band have remained active since then, with several lineup changes and collaborations with other famous rock bands. In 2006, Lynyrd Skynyrd was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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