I Must Be Travelling On Now
Gary Rossington, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s final keeper of the flame, left us on March 5.
IN NOVEMBER 1975, when Lynyrd Skynyrd closed their live Old Grey Whistle Test set with epic song of farewell Freebird, Gary Rossington’s slide-guitar lent grace and elegance. He had double-tracked the studio version’s fluid motifs in 1973 aged 21; impressive, given the intonational challenges of bottleneck.
Signed to MCA by Al Kooper after rejections from nine other companies, Skynyrd’s import and legacy was quickly defined. Firstly by 1974 Rossington co-write Sweet Home Alabama – a talismanic, pointed reply to
Neil Young’s accusatory songs Southern Man and Alabama – and secondly by the tragic October 1977 air crash which robbed Rossington of bandmates Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and Cassie
Gaines, and left him, a survivor, with four broken limbs and a mission.
“I like to keep their dream alive,” Rossington told Florida TV station
News 4JAX in 2020, by which time he was Skynyrd’s last surviving original member. “We didn’t realise what we had created back then; they didn’t live long enough to see Freebird go classic.”
Born on December 4, 1951 in Jacksonville, Florida, Rossington was raised by his early-widowed mother Berniece and later named his favourite ’59 Les Paul after her. He met Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant (vocals) and Bob Burns (drums) while playing on a rival baseball team, and cited Van Zant as a father figure who had taught him how to drive, and about girls. They played together from 1964, first as The Noble Five, then as The One Per Cent, and from 1969 as Lynyrd Skynyrd, paying “tongue-in-cheek homage” to Leonard Skinner, high school gym teacher and enforcer of hair-length regulations for male students.
Admired by players as diverse as ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Metallica’s James Hetfield, Rossington’s economical style helped define Skynyrd classics such as Tuesday’s Gone and Gimme Three Steps, while his co-writes included Simple Man and the gnarly, swamp-funk title track of 1976’s Gimme Back My Bullets.
After the ’77 air crash, Rossington had steel rods inserted into his right arm and right leg and became addicted to painkillers, but by 1979 he’d formed The Rossington Collins Band with fellow Skynyrd guitarist Allen Collins.
Active with Skynyrd again from 1987 after Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny stepped up as frontman, Rossington became ever-more valuable to a close-knit Southern rock dynasty adapting to survive. But his heart attack in October 2015 led to two Skynyrd shows being cancelled, and he had further emergency heart surgery in 2021.
When Rossington died at home in Milton, Georgia aged 71, Free’s Paul Rodgers was among the first to pay tribute to “a close friend for over 50 years.” The guitarist is survived by his wife Dale and their two daughters, and would doubtless be pleased to know that Lynyrd Skynyrd have not fallen silent. The group played its first show without him at Florida Strawberry Festival on March 12, paying heartfelt and ever-more poignant tribute on Freebird.
“I like to keep their dream alive.” GARY ROSSINGTON