Lone Survivor

A group of school boys in Jacksonville, Florida, got together one day in 1964 to jam, and decided to start a band. Southern rock with a little blues and country mixed in was the style for founding members Ronnie Van Zant, Bob Burns, Gary Rossington, Allen Collins and Larry Junstrom, who initially called themselves My Backyard.

The group gigged around Jacksonville for a few years before gaining an agent and changing the band name to Lynyrd Skynyrd, which was partly a joking reference to their high school P.E. teacher Leonard Skinner, who nagged the guys for their long hair, which was against school policy.

Lynyrd Skynyrd released its first album, “Pronounced ‘Leh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd,” in 1973, and finally received national recognition. The album’s single “Free Bird” reached No. 19 on the Billboard charts.

The band’s signature song, “Sweet Home Alabama,” hit No. 8 on the charts and was featured on their next album, “Second Helping,” in 1974.

The group went through multiple lineup changes as they toured and produced three more studio albums over the next three years.

On Oct. 20, 1977, just three days after their album “Street Survivors” had been released, tragedy struck the group. The band was flying to Baton Rouge, Louisiana after a performance in South Carolina on a chartered plane when it ran out of gas and crash-landed in Mississippi. Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick and the two pilots were killed on impact. The other band members and road crew suffered serious injuries, but survived.

Eerily, the song “That Smell,” which was included on “Street Survivors,” almost foreshadowed the event just three days after its release, with the lyrics “The smell of death surrounds you,” and “tomorrow might not be here for you.” Van Zant had written the song as a warning to his band mates who were heavily using drugs and alcohol, to try and calm the turbulence in the group. Sadly, death did fall upon them, but with a horrible crash.

Following the accident, the group disbanded and broke up into smaller projects for the next 10 years. Crash survivors Gary Rossington, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson and Artimus Pyle, along with guitarist Ed King, who had left the band two years prior to the crash, reunited in 1987 for a Lynyrd Skynyrd reunion tour. Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny, took over as the new lead singer and primary songwriter.

The band got back in the studio in the ‘90s, releasing their first post-reunion album, “Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991,” followed by “The Last Rebel” in 1993. Among several more lineup changes, the band released three more albums that decade, followed by a Christmas album in 2000.

Death continued to plague the group through the 2000s, as several members suffered health issues. They did release three more studio albums — the most recent being 2012’s “Last of a Dyin’ Breed.”

They released a new single last year titled, “Last of the Street Survivors,” penned by Rossington, alongside Johnny Van Zant, guitarist Ricky Medlocke and songwriter Tom Hambridge, as an ode to the band mates they have lost.

Rossington is the only original member left, with Van Zant, Medlocke, Mark “Sparky” Matejka, Michael Cartellone, Keith Christopher, Peter Keys, Dale Krantz Rossington, and Carol Chase rounding out the current lineup.

The band announced a farewell tour in 2018, which was intended to continue through 2019 and spill over into 2020, but fell short of completion when the pandemic hit. Therefore, they announced a new tour this year, which kicked off in June.

“We were two shows into the end of the three-year plan for the farewell tour, when the virus hit and everything was just gone,” Van Zant stated. “Once something is taken away from you  — music and touring in our case — you truly realize how important it is and such a part of your life. Music is a great healer, and that’s what we all turn to when things are good or bad. A Skynyrd show is a family affair, and we want these dates to help heal our fans as much as ourselves.”

Skynyrd’s Big Wheels Keep On Turnin’ Tour comes to Laughlin Saturday, Oct. 2 (7 p.m.) at the Laughlin Event Center.

“Maybe it’s our time to lift people’s spirits and lives and bring back some joy and happiness after so much turmoil this past year,” Rossington stated. “We’re still standing, still keeping the music going.”