As a boy, Gary Rossington would grab a broom and mime in front of a mirror whenever an Elvis Presley hit played on TV or the radio, pretending to be the King with his flat-top. Co-founder and last original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rossington died March 5. He was 71, and while no cause of death has been disclosed, Rossington dealt with heart-related health issues since undergoing a multiple bypass in 2003; in ’15, he suffered a serious heart attack after which he received a pacemaker, followed by a valve replacement in ’19 and emergency surgery in ’21.
Twelve when the Beatles first played Ed Sullivan in February of 1964, Rossington and close friends Allen Collins and Ronnie Van Zant immediately became fans of all things British Invasion.
“We wanted to be like them, and I wanted to play guitar!” Rossington told Vintage Guitar in 2003. The ambitious kid took a paper route so he could buy a Silvertone guitar from the Sears catalog – “…an electric with a case and a speaker in it,” and by the end of that summer, the three had recruited Little League buddies to play bass and drums in a band that performed at teen clubs and school dances in their home town of Jacksonville, Florida. As they aged into the city’s sparse club scene, though, the band’s covers – songs by the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, and other British acts – limited their appeal amongst locals, so they moved to Atlanta and adopted the name Lynyrd Skynyrd, an homage to the high-school gym teacher Leonard Skinner, who kicked Rossington out of school for having long hair.
The British influence – specifically, that of Brian Jones – carried over to Rossington’s desire to play a certain guitar.
“I saw him using an old sunburst Les Paul with the Rolling Stones, and I thought that was the coolest-looking guitar that I ever seen, so I wanted one,” he recalled.
The first time the band played Nashville’s Briar Patch club in 1969/’70, a girl in the audience told Rossington that her family had a Les Paul they wanted to sell for $1,000. After he and a roadie went to their home “way out in the country,” he made a full offer but was refused because the family had since been told it was worth more; after playing a few more weekends, he came back with an additional $1,000 and acquired the ’59 he promptly named after his mother, Berneice.
“My father died when I was 10, so my mother raised me,” he said. “She helped us get the band going, and helped me buy guitars. I had a paper route, but she put money in even though we didn’t have much. I just loved her a lot and missed her a lot when I was on the road.”
As a songwriter, Rossington drew inspiration from happenings in his own life and people close to him, and songs he helped create are among the biggest in Skynyrd’s repertoire – “Simple Man,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Don’t Ask Me No Questions,” “Gimme Back My Bullets,” and “What’s Your Name.” For the 1974 Collins/Van Zant song “Free Bird,” Rossington used a ’61 Gibson SG to compose one of the most-recognizable slide-guitar parts in history.
In a 1998 interview with Lisa Sharken (parts of which appeared in Guitar Player), he explained how the part came together.
“When we wrote the song, I had just started playing slide [and] the bottle kept clinking against the frets because the strings were too low. So, I took a screwdriver… and stuck it under the strings up at the nut, so it would raise the strings up. Then I tuned the B string down to G, so the G and the B strings were both tuned to G, and I hit them both together like they’re one string. With the two Gs, it creates a drawling, doubled sound, kind of like a 12-string. I don’t know what inspired [that tuning], I just remember that I wanted to do something different than the same old slide-guitar sound. I thought it was cool.”
For live shows, he lifted the strings with a piece of wire in place of the screwdriver; the setup can be seen on a Youtube video filmed during a July, 1977, concert in Oakland.
“I don’t need that little wire any more, but I use it out of sentimental reasons,” Rossington told Sharken. “I’ve never played that song live without it. It’s like Jimi Hendrix on ‘All Along the Watchtower.’ He played the slide solo with a Zippo lighter. He couldn’t get it to sound right with a steel slide or a bottle, so he used a Zippo. Each guy has his own little tricks.”
The band often dedicated live performances of “Free Bird” to Duane Allman, whose band also formed in Jacksonville and was a mentor who taught the Skynyrd guys licks and offered guidance on gear and life. Per Allman’s advice, Rossington used a Coricidin bottle for a slide.
“He told me that a bottle sounds different than a steel slide, and I think it does, so I copied him,” he said. “I use the slide on my middle finger; I tried it on my baby finger so I could use my other fingers on the neck, but I never had the touch. I’d play sharp or flat because I couldn’t see the frets as well.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s rise to stardom was delayed by a record-label dispute that shelved their initial recordings at Muscle Shoals Studios in 1971-’72. After signing with Al Kooper’s Sounds of the South label in the spring of ’73, the band – by then a seven-piece with Rossington, Collins, and Ed King playing guitar, Van Zant on lead vocals – re-recorded five of the songs at Studio One, in Doraville, Georgia (“Pop ’N Hiss: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s (Pronounced ‘Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd’)”, August ’22). Road-readied, the band breezed through what was essentially a live recording. Released in August of ’73, it peaked at #27 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart in February of ’75. Second Helping, released in April of ’74, reached #12, followed by Nuthin’ Fancy, which peaked at #9 in May ’75.
In ’76, Rossington crashed his car into a tree; in response to the incident, Collins and Van Zant wrote “That Smell,” warning of the perils of drinking and driving.
The band’s highest-charting set of new songs was its fifth studio effort, Street Survivors, which hit #5 in December of ’77, two months after a plane crash that killed Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines, the band’s assistant road manager, and both pilots. Twenty people survived, most with serious injuries; Rossington suffered two broken arms, a broken leg, and punctures in his stomach and liver, while Collins had two cracked vertebrae and a severely cut right arm that nearly had to be amputated.
Except for the survivors making an appearance at Volunteer Jam V in 1979, the crash brought the end of Lynyrd Skynyrd. After two years of physical and psychological recovery, Rossington and Collins returned to making music in 1980 as the Rossington Collins Band, with Skynyrd bassist Leon Wilkeson and keyboardist Billy Powell. Seeking to distinguish their sound, they hired a female leader singer, Dale Krantz, and released two albums then toured briefly before dissolving; prior to the tour, Rossington had Gibson make a replica of Berneice, which he dubbed “Dottie,” his nickname for Krantz (the two married in ’82).
In 1987, Rossington organized The Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Band, a planned one-gig effort that ultimately toured for three years with Van Zant’s brother, Johnny, handling vocals, and Collins – who could not perform due to partial paralysis after a 1986 car crash – serving as musical director (he died in January, 1990, from chronic pneumonia). The group recorded new material for Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991 and continued to tour and release albums using the band’s original name; this fall, it is scheduled to tour with ZZ Top. In recent years, Rossington’s participation was limited by his health and he last appeared onstage with the band in February.
Circa 2002, the Gibson Custom Shop created a signature Les Paul based on Berneice and another based on the “Free Bird” SG. Word of Rossington’s passing brought remembrances from fans worldwide, including guitarists who had worked with and were influenced by Skynyrd.
“I was fortunate to have grown up in Jacksonville, playing music with influences like the Allman Brothers and other local bands,” guitarist Jeff Carlisi, co-founder of 38 Special, told VG. “The One Percent was one such band. I remember going to see them at teen clubs and marveling at how special they were, even in their infancy. They played mostly songs from bands like the Illinois Speed Press and Free. We all thought that they wrote these songs only to find out that they were covers (laughs); those were some influences in their musical DNA. As a result, Gary developed a smooth style of playing with impeccable tone, vibrato, and a broad knowledge of the British sound, as well as Americana.
“Gary was a friend and a mentor to me, and an inspiration to all of us,” Carlisi added. “He could play it ‘pretty’ with understated elegance, and could also rip it raw and bluesy. He was as brilliant a songwriter as he was a guitar player. If someone were to ask me what performances defined Gary, number one would have to be the iconic slide guitar theme to ‘Free Bird.’ Second, his solo in ‘Don’t Ask Me No Questions’ is a classic. His playing on ‘Tuesday’s Gone’ is filled with emotion that still makes me cry. Finally, Gary’s playing on ‘Mr. Banker’ is as good a blues as ever came out of the Delta. His legacy will last forever and is defined by an era of music that was original and unique and truly Southern.”
“Skynyrd’s songs had an honesty about them that connected with people on a basic human level,” Warren Haynes told VG. “Gary’s solos were always unpretentious and memorable. A lot of them became part of the song that you could hum along with. I always dug his tone, as well – usually a Les Paul, fat and warm and never too dirty.”
“Gary’s loss is especially profound for us, as we’ve spent countless hours in his company on tour and all points in-between,” said ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons on social media. “We facilitated getting Lynyrd Skynyrd on the bill with ZZ Top at a South Carolina date way back during the start of the band’s rise in ’73, which started an enduring friendship. Gary’s extraordinary ability as a guitarist was nothing less than inspirational. It’s an old cliché about somebody who has paid their dues to call them a survivor, and in this case it is literally true. Gary was the last of the breed and will be missed.”
“I’m very proud of being a part of Skynyrd, from the old guys to the new,” Rossington said in his ’03 VG interview, reflecting on the band’s stellar run. “I know we’ve had a lot of tragedy and misfortune, but that’s just life. We have fans come every night, and families who love us. What more do you need? We’re lucky to be able to play music and do something we love.”
This article originally appeared in VG’s May 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.