29.1.14

LYNYRD SKYNYRD 1977, Part 2

Unfortunately all the graft – and, believe me, Skynyrd grafted – came to nought as a result of the events of October 20. I was actually due to fly to Baton Rouge in Louisiana the following morning, pick up the Street Survivors tour which was three days old and co-ordinate various interviews I'd set up for them along the way, mostly at Texas radio stations, and I was looking forward to it as I’d never been to Texas before and a visit to the Lone Star State with Lynyrd Skynrd for company was likely to be an interesting experience. I would, of course, have travelled on the same private plane as the group and had the crash occurred 24 hours later I might not have been here to tell this tale.
My first intimation that anything was amiss came at around 8pm when a girl I knew in St Louis rang me at my flat in New York. She told me she'd just heard on the local news that a private aircraft had come down in Mississippi and that it was 'believed' that the rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd was aboard. Did I know? Of course I didn't. I then called UPI who confirmed that a small plane had indeed come down near a town called McComb. I then tried to call Rudge at home. His wife Frankie answered. Peter had just heard too. He was on his way to the office. I grabbed a cab and went straight there. I was the first to arrive and the phones – all five or six lines – were all ringing at once. It was pointless to try and answer them. I called UPI back and explained who I was and how I would be prepared to help them with regard to accurate information on Lynyrd Skynyrd if they could keep me up to date with developments from McComb. We agreed to help each other and stayed in touch all night.
Then Rudge arrived. He'd been to pick up a carton of cigarettes because he figured it would be a long night. I told him everything I knew and what I'd done. He looked distraught and opened a bottle of red wine but he somehow maintained his composure until, eventually, around 1 am, we heard that Ronnie was dead. Then he went alone into the office kitchen and wept. In the meantime all the office staff had arrived. The girls who worked at Sir manned the phones all night, crying as they did.
The various wives and girlfriends of the guys in the band and the road crew, almost all of whom lived in and around Jacksonville, were on the lines permanently, wanting to know the latest news from McComb. Eventually they all gathered at the home of Ronnie's wife Judy and what dreadful scenes of hysteria and grief that house would have witnessed that night I can barely imagine. It was, after all, full of frantic young women desperately uncertain about the fate of their loved ones. We relayed the news, almost all of it bad, as best we could to the girls in that house, every one of them unsure whether their men were dead or alive. The job of telling Judy that Ronnie was dead fell to Rudge. Radio stations were calling, wanting statements from me; reporters were calling. I believe my choked-up voice was heard on over 30 stations across the USA that night. Friends of Rudge and the band called offering help; private planes were put at our disposal. It went on all night and I got home dazed at around 9 or 10 am the next day. A night like that is not something you forget easily.
Six people died – Ronnie, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister Cassie (who sang back up), their tour manager Dean Kilpatrick, and both pilots. All the band sustained bad injuries, as did some of the roadies and lighting crew. Those at the front of the plane came off worst, those at the back were less badly injured. Inevitably the group and those closest to them were at the front, with the part-timers at the back. The word was that Ronnnie was asleep, lying in the aisle, when the plane went down. No one could move him to a seat, let alone strap him in. He and the rest of the band had been drinking all day in a hotel in Greenville, South Carolina, waiting while the plane was ready. Someone said something about the pilots having been drinking too.
All sorts of stories came out at the inquest: how the band, and Ronnie in particular, had complained to Rudge that the plane was dodgy and he’d complained to Ron Eckermann, their tour manager and told him to get it fixed. Someone said they saw flames coming from the engine on their flight from Miami to South Carolina the previous day. Eckerman was due to get the plane serviced in Baton Rouge. In the event, it seemed that the plane had ran out of fuel – there being no fire when it crashed – but it was obviously burning up fuel faster than it should have done.
Nothing was ever the same again at Sir Productions. The whole company seemed to go into a kind of stupor. All the plans we’d had for Skynyrd and the other bands were dashed. In two weeks’ time they would have headlined Madison Square Garden for the first time. It really did look like they were about to be elevated to the top bracket of touring rock bands, though how they would have dealt with it God only knows as they were such a wild bunch. Skynyrd were bringing in plenty of money and without them the funds dried up, so it was obvious Sir wouldn’t last. Rudge told me I’d have to go just before Christmas, 1977, and gave me a cheque for $2,000 which he didn’t have to do.
Later, after the funeral, the grief turned to anger, and there were terrible recriminations: lawsuits, bad vibes, deep shit. Some of the road crew never really recovered and neither did guitarist Allen Collins who died from pneumonia several years later. In the meantime he’d crashed a car in which his girlfriend was killed. Peter Rudge himself went into a terrible tailspin. When I walked out of Sir Productions I didn’t see him again for 22 years, but now he’s remarried, and healthy after a cancer scare (he’s even given up cigarettes and he was once a 60-a-day man) and happy. His son Joe, whom I remember as a baby, went on to work for MTV. At one time Peter was on the brink of controlling the fortunes of two of the three biggest British rock bands in the world. Ironically, the remains of the third – Led Zeppelin – became partly controlled by Bill Curbishley, who took over The Who from Peter.
 Lynyrd Skynyrd ultimately reformed as a kind of tribute act to themselves with Ronnie’s youngest brother Johnnie on vocals. ‘Freebird’, forever associated with Van Zant, was played as a closing instrumental while a single spotlight picked out Ronnie’s old black cowboy hat sitting atop a central mike stand. ‘If I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me?’ went the words. I do, anyway.

There is postscript to this. In November 2012 I was asked by Classic Rock magazine to present their ‘Comeback’ award to Lynyrd Skynyrd at their annual awards bash at London’s Roundhouse. I took my son Sam, a big Skynyrd fan, and introduced him to the band who were sat at an adjoining table to us. Of the group I knew, only Gary Rossington remained. Later I had to make a speech, some of it adlibbed, some prepared. It went something like this:

The Roundhouse. The first time I came here was December 1970. Pete, Roger, John and Keith were playing and before they launched into ‘Tommy’ Pete dedicated the evening’s performance to the support act, a piano player who wore glasses and began his set with a song that went ‘It’s a little bit funny….’ 
         That’s Classic Rock for you. 
         But I’m not here to talk about the Who and Elton. I’m here to talk about Lynyrd Skynyrd. 
         In 1977 I was working in New York for a company called Sir Productions which managed Lynyrd Skynyrd, the original band fronted by Ronnie Van Zant. 
         On June 11 I saw 100,000 fans rise to them at the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. Madison Square Garden was booked for later in the year. All of us in the office knew they were heading for the top of the Premier League. All of us who worked in that office were smiling. 
         I went to bed early on October 20. I had an early flight next morning to link up with the band in Baton Rouge. I was asleep when the phone rang. A girl I knew in St Louis told me there’d been a plane crash in McCombe, Mississippi. I made my way to the office and every phone line was blinking. We weren’t smiling any more. It was hard to hold back the tears. I stayed up all night manning the phones and never made that morning flight. 
         I’m here tonight to present Lynyrd Skynyrd with the Comeback Award. For just about every other band Comeback means they’ve reformed after splitting up and doing solo albums or simply taking it easy. For Skynyrd it means coming back from one the worst tragedies in the history of rock. Coming back from a situation no other band had ever faced. 
         It’s a different band now, but they’ve stayed true to the principles laid down by their forbears. They're still out there playing to thousands of fans all over the world. That’s some fucking comeback. 
         No band has ever deserved this award more.
         Ladies & gents... Lynyrd Skynyrd.


Later that night the newly constituted Lynyrd Skynyrd took the stage to play ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Freebird’. It was the highlight of the night, just as it had been for me in Philadelphia all those years ago. 

4 comments:

  1. I saw Skynyrd at Finsbury Park Rainbow, two nights on the trot, a few weeks before the crash. They were superb, taking to the stage to the theme from 'The Big Country' and crashing in to 'Working For The MCA'. I had the Freebird refrain ("Play it pretty for Atlanta.") played on a church organ while we signed the register. Great band, great memories and a great read Chris! ;-)

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  2. BTW Chris,
    Your comment "It really did look like they were about to be elevated to the top bracket of touring rock bands, though how they would have dealt with it....."
    I remember thinking at the time when I heard 'Street Survivors' featuring their new acquisition, Steve Gaines, that the song-writing, delivery and production had gone up several notches. No mean feat given their earlier Tom Dowd production. That album, in many ways, was a whole heap better than anything they'd done previously. I was already looking forward to their next offering. They were clearly on the brink of something incredible.

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    1. I agree 100%. Skynyrd was poised to become....to quote Ronnie from Workin For MCA...."gonna make me a superstar"... Indeed,

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  3. Wow. What a bittersweet story. Thank you for sharing it. Ive been a Skynyrd fan since 1974. We can only imagine what could have been.
    I still listen to the music offered by the 73-77 lineups daily....not only because it rocks like a motherfucker, but because it takes me back to the music that was the soundtrack of my late teens and early 20s.
    The 73-77 lineups of Lynyrd Skynyrd was and still is my favorite band. I also give much credit to Gary Rosssington for keeping it going and bringing Skynyrds music to new generations of new fans.....and old ones alike.
    Thanks again Chris.

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