A really great article to read. Credits to Mr. McConnell for this one – well written! McConnell may be better known these days as an expert on glass on BBC`s “Antiques Roadshow”. A man of many talents then!
Ronnie Van Zant kicked his Scotch habit: it`s wine now…
Life at the top is tough when you`re Lynyrd Skynyrd, as Andy McConnell found out
It`s 4 P.M. at the Santa Monica Holiday Inn, five hours before the first of two sell-out Lynyrd Skynyrd shows at the Civic Auditorium, a mile down the Pacific promenade. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant lies head on pillow and guitarist Allen Collins sits talking to Al Kooper. He`s the New York slicker who discovered the Jacksonville, Florida, band in an Atlanta bar in 1972, and has gone on to produce all three of their gold albums and their Top Ten singles – `Sweet Home Alabama` and `Free Bird`.
Van Zant lifts his head. “Kooper,” he declares, “I just gotta Mercedes and I ain`t even seen it yet. Ah jus` can`t wait to get back home an` see it.” Kooper grins back at the gruff little singer whose cowboy hat wearing habit has left a permanent ridge pressed around his blond scraggly hair, like an invisible fallen halo.
“I just got an Excaliber,” replies the producer. “It`s called Lynyrd Skynyrd after the person that paid for it.” The room dissolves into a sea of laughter.
In contrast to their raucus high-decibel music, the Skynyrds are a quiet, unassuming bunch. Despite years of solid gigging, one feels they remain uncomfortable in many on-the-road situations; slightly out of sync with the rock and roll business in overdrive around them.
After all, it`s only three years since guitarist Gary Rossington had to jive neighbourhood blacks into street running races and place bets with the band`s last half-dollar to feed seven hungry mouths and pay for gas to get to gigs.
Their new-found affluence has caused problems, however, especially to Ronnie. “I was drinkin` a lotta Scotch,” admits the man credited with `vocals, lyrics and J&B` on the band`s first two album sleeves. “It was gettin` so I couldn`t feel it any more, I was pretty burnt out on it. The doc said I was doin` myself in so I quit.”
So confident was he of his ability to kick the demon alcohol that Ronnie took on a total of $4,000 in bets to that effect. It was no time at all before he was off the wagon. “It`s wine now,” he laughs in a mellow drawl taking a broken-ended knife to his fingernails. And the bets? “Oh, I ain`t gonna pay them mutherfuckers,” he declares.
Van Zant and Collins each proudly lift the right sleeve of their T-shirts to reveal Technicolor tatoos acquired the previous day in a moment of drunken madness. “Allen and I went stumblin` into this place in the boondocks and said `We want some tatoos`. The guy asked us which ones we wanted, we pointed up to designs on the wall and he was stickin` needles into us straight away,” giggles the singer.
“Your mama`s gonna whoop your hides when you get home,” says Kooper, narrowing his eyes behind dark shades. Ronnie simply holds his self-satisfied smile.
Skynyrd make no secret of their admiration and respect for Kooper. Chances are that without him they could still be playing tin-pot Southern bars and clubs like the one he found them in three years ago.
Of the original five-piece Skynyrd, Van Zant, Collins and guitarist Gary Rossington remain. They named the outfit after their high school gym teacher Leonard Skinner, invariably the figure of authority who`d catch his pupils with hair reaching their ears and order a shearing. “He owns a real estate company now,” laughs Allen. “He did an interview in a Jacksonville newspaper and said he was expecting a royalty cheque from us for using his name.”
The current Skynyrd line-up is completed by Ed King as the third guitarist, Billy Powell on keyboards, bass player Leon Wilkeson and Artimus Pyle who recently replaced Bob Burns on drums.
Kooper found the penniless outfit whilst recording in Atlanta. “I was going out every night to the clubs, checking out local bands,” he recalls. “I`d had the idea of forming a label as an alternative to Capricorn after seeing so many great unknown bands in the South. Just imagine how I felt when I walked into this club one night and saw the guys playing songs like `Free Bird` with nobody paying them the slightest attention.”
“The bars were really tough. One night we saw a guy get his head blown off,” grimaces Rossington. “But we didn`t mind playing them `cause we didn`t know nuthin` different. Hell, if three people clapped you`d feel so great you`d tear the place down.”
Kooper duly formed his Sound Of The South Records and signed Skynyrd as the first act. They had already recorded enough material for two albums at Muscle Shoals under Jimmy Johnson but nothing had seen the light of day. “We bought them tapes from Jimmy,” reveals Ronnie. “We`re gonna re-do the vocals, add some back-up vocals, touch them up a bit, sit on them for a while, then release them as an `Early Lynyrd Skynyrd` album.”
Their first album for Kooper, `Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd`, was a collection of songs Van Zant had written with assistance from the guitar players over a four-year period. Recorded in Doraville, Georgia, the sound was a raw blend of blues, hillbilly country and British boogie packed with typically Southern flavour; moaning slide guitar, country pickin` mandolin, aggressive guitars, driving rhythm section in straight 4/4 and dry, thirst-parched vocals. Van Zant`s lyrics completed the geographical picture with tales of disapproving daddies, guns, train rides, ghettos, the Lord and getting high on dope and booze.
“Ronnie stands in the shower singin` to himself and the songs just come out,” explains Allen scratching his meagre three-day growth. “Ma shower`s got the best acoustics in the world,” laughs Ronnie. “Ah always look for the melody first, then think up the words as ah go along. Ah memorise them, then take `em to one of the guitar players and we arrange everythin`.”
The debut album hovered in the lower regions of the chart for five months; creeping into the sixties, dropping back into the eighties, back again into the fifties. By the time they went on the road for their first tour, supporting the Who on their 1973 tour, they had over 100,000 sales under their belts.
“The tour opened in San Francisco at the Cow Palace in front of 18,600. We walked out on stage and went `eeerrrc, God, what am I goin` t`do?` Everything was played ten times too fast. We were awful, but by the time we got to the third night everythin` was jus` fine,” says Gary.
Massive success finally arrived with `Second Helping` and its single `Sweet Home Alabama`, the South`s indignant reply to Neil Young`s `Southern Man`:
“I heard Mr Young sing about it / I heard ol` Neil put it down / Well, I hope Neil Young will remember / Southern man don`t need him around.”
The Los Angeles Record Plant-produced album was considerably more slick than its predecessor. With Leon Wilkeson returned to the band after a short leave, Ed King could concentrate fully on augmenting Rossington and Collins` guitars, instead of having to double on bass as he had done on the first. Skynyrd`s fortè became the ability to balance the guitarists; two holding back for up to ten bars, then sweeping in at the perfect moment.
Both album and single turned gold. With `Free Bird` released as a follow-up single, Skynyrd rapidly emerged as an important headline attraction across the United States.
November and December found them outside their homeland for the first time; England, Scotland, Belgium, France, Germany and Holland. “It was real fine,” smiles Allen at the memory. “It`s very much like the South over there; the people seem much closer together, care for each other much more than they do on the West Coast or in New York.”
“It`s a much more sophisticated audience over there too,” adds Ronnie untangling his stained red T-shirt from underneath his back. “They don`t raise hell right when you go on stage like they do here. They make the band prove its worth.”
Skynyrd returned to the studio after Christmas, this time at Webb IV in Atlanta. Previously Van Zant and the guitarists had all their material written and rehearsed prior to recording sessions. This was not the case for `Nuthin` Fancy`; though `Saturday Night Special` had already been recorded for the soundtrack to `The Longest Yard`, starring Burt Reynolds. Nothing else was prepared.
“It was the best time I ever had in a studio,” raves Allen.
“It was awful,” groans Kooper who resumed smoking cigarettes during the recording after having given up for a year. “I nearly had a nervous breakdown and ended up in the looney bin. We`d get up at noon, have some breakfast, head into the studio and record straight through until six or seven the next morning. Then the same the next day… every day for three weeks.”
Kooper says the album is an attempt to recapture some of the rawness of the first effort, yet is only partially successful. The country-flavoured `Made In The Shade` and `I`m A Country Boy` certainly hark back to first album numbers like `Mississippi Kid`, but the rockers are far more lithe. From the outset there was no way Skynyrd could return to the Southern punk arrogance of earlier days, simply because the quality of their musicianship and professionalism has improved so dramatically.
Unfortunately Kooper`s firm-set ideas and the band`s natural development have unintentionally set themselves up in opposition, with Kooper wanting a sound that Skynyrd really cannot provide today. The result is that the album occasionally feels stretched, lacking in the hotter-than-hell feel that hallmarked the debut albums. “The sessions were a battle between myself and the band,” admits Kooper. But he insists: “That`s the way it should be – it creates the best music.”
That aside, with manager Peter Rudge now in control of their affairs, a very healthy track record and healthy European experience behind them, Skynyrd seem set.
As Ronnie so delightfully put it: “I think we could record `Mary Had A Little Dick` and it`d sell.”