Gary Rossington: The last founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd dies at 71

  • By Mark Savage
  • BBC Music Correspondent

source of images, Getty Images


Rossington was the only musician to play on all of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s albums

Guitarist Gary Rossington, the last original member of American rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, has died aged 71.

One of the band’s founding members, he appeared on all of their albums and co-wrote the 1974 hit Sweet Home Alabama.

He was also one of the survivors of a 1977 plane crash that killed several of his bandmates.

Although he suffered from heart problems in recent years, Rossington had played shows as recently as February.

A statement on the band’s Facebook page said: “It is with our deepest sympathy and sadness that we have to inform you that we have lost our brother, friend, family member, songwriter and guitarist, Gary Rossington, Today.

“Gary is now with his Skynyrd brothers and family in heaven and he’s playing great, as he always does.”

No cause of death was given, but Rossington underwent heart surgery in 2021, according to a message from the band at the time.

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Lynyrd Skynyrd in the studio recording her debut album

Rossington was born in 1951 in Florida, founding the first iteration of Lynyrd Skynyrd – called Me, You, and Him – in 1964 with drummer Bob Burns and bassist Larry Junstrom.

They added singer Ronnie Van Zant, who played on a rival baseball team, later that summer after a game turned into a jam session.

They chose the name Lynyrd Skynyrd – a dig at their high school gym teacher, who was known to punish students with long hair.

Free Bird

The band’s rebellious blues-rock has earned them a formidable live reputation in the southern states of the United States. Their debut album, titled Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, included the nine-minute epic Free Bird – which featured Rossington’s distinctive slide guitar work.

“We always said we had a lot of balls back then, or common sense, whatever you call it, for playing such a long song,” the musician said in an interview with Guitar World.

“The singles are only two, three minutes at most, and five is luck. Free Bird was nine minutes. They said, ‘Nobody’s ever gonna play that song. You guys are crazy’.”

But an edited version of the track became a top 20 hit in the US and, after touring with The Who, Skynyrd gained a devoted following.

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Rossington co-wrote several other of Skynyrd’s most beloved songs, including I Ain’t The One, Things Goin’ On, Don’t Ask Me No Questions and Gimme Back My Bullets.

It also inspired Van Zant to write That Smell – a warning about the band’s hedonistic lifestyle, written after Rossington drove his Ford Torino into a tree while drunk and on drugs.

The lyrics warned that “tomorrow might not be here for you” and “the smell of death surrounds you”.

Strangely, three days after its release, a plane carrying the band between gigs crashed in Mississippi, killing Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, and the two pilots.

Twenty people survived, including Rossington, who lost consciousness and woke up with the aircraft door on top of him.

“It was a devastating thing. You can’t just talk about it casually and not have feelings about it.”

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Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t play for 10 years after plane crash that claimed several members’ lives

The surviving members decided not to continue after the tragedy. Rossington, who was seriously injured, had to relearn how to play with steel rods in his arm.

He formed a new band, The Rossington Collins Band, with several former bandmates in the 1980s, before Lynyrd Skynyrd reformed in 1987 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the accident, along with Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny on lead vocals.

The group continued, recording nine studio albums and boasting nearly 25 members, as well as being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2010.

They were also one of the acts that took the stage at the 2016 Republican Convention, where Donald Trump was chosen as the party’s presidential nominee.

‘So much joy’

Fellow musicians paid tribute to the guitarist. Metallica frontman James Hetfield thanked Rossington for “bringing me so much joy with your guitar playing and songwriting in one of my favorite bands of all time”.

Country star Travis Tritt said he was “heartbroken”adding, “Gary was not just a friend, but a collaborator who wrote songs with me and played guitar with me on studio recordings and on stage so many times. RIP.”

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“The last of the original Free Birds has gone home,” The Charlie Daniels Band said on Instagram.

In a Facebook post, former Megadeth bassist David Ellefson detailed his friendship with Rossington, recalling, “It seemed like Gary kept his world small compared to the outside world but he always let me in and let me go. trusted as a music buddy…

“Prayers and condolences to his family, friends and band. He and his legendary guitar work will be missed by all of us.”

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