Gary Rossington, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s last surviving original member who also helped to found the group, died Sunday at the age of 71. No cause of death was given.
“It is with our deepest sympathy and sadness that we have to advise, that we lost our brother, friend, family member, songwriter and guitarist, Gary Rossington, today,” the band wrote on Facebook. “Gary is now with his Skynyrd brothers and family in heaven and playing it pretty, like he always does. Please keep Dale, Mary, Annie and the entire Rossington family in your prayers and respect the family’s privacy at this difficult time.”
Rossington cheated death more than once, Rolling Stone reported. He survived a car accident in 1976 in which he drove his Ford Torino into a tree. A year later, he emerged from the 1977 plane crash that killed singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, with two broken arms, a broken leg, and a punctured stomach and liver.
“It was a devastating thing,” he told Rolling Stone in 2006. “You can’t just talk about it real casual and not have feelings about it.”
In later years, Rossington underwent quintuple bypass surgery in 2003, suffered a heart attack in 2015, and had numerous subsequent heart surgeries, most recently leaving Lynyrd Skynyrd in July 2021 to recover from another procedure. At recent shows, Rossington would perform portions of the concert and sometimes sat out full gigs.
Rossington was born Dec. 4, 1951, in Jacksonville, Fla., and raised by his mother after his father died. Upon meeting drummer Bob Burns, Rossington helped form a band, which they tried to juggle amid their love of baseball.
According to Rolling Stone, during a fateful Little League game, Ronnie Van Zant hit a line drive into the shoulder blades of opposing player Burns and met his future bandmates. Rossington, Burns, Van Zant, and guitarist Allen Collins gathered that afternoon at Burns’ Jacksonville home to jam the The Rolling Stones’ Time Is on My Side.
Commercial success, live reputation
Adopting Lynyrd Skynyrd as the group’s name — inspired in part by gym teacher Leonard Skinner at Rossington’s high school — the band released their debut album in 1973, (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd).
A collection of country-tinged blues-rock and Southern soul featuring the triple guitar attack of Rossington, Gaines and Collins, the album included now-classics like Tuesday’s Gone, Simple Man and Gimme Three Steps, but it was the closing track, the nearly 10-minute Free Bird, that became the group’s calling card, due in no small part to Rossington’s evocative, mournful slide playing on his Gibson SG.
The band’s incendiary live versions of that song sometimes stretched to nearly twice the length of the studio version. Chants of “Freebird!” or “Play Freebird!” over time would become a fixture at rock shows.
The group would find radio play as the decade progressed with songs like Saturday Night Special and Sweet Home Alabama, the latter in part a response to Neil Young’s Southern Man.
The band gained acclaim for their fiery live performances, including a Knebworth Festival appearance in England in 1976 on a bill with The Rolling Stones.
Just three days after releasing the album Street Survivors, on Oct. 20, 1977, the fatal plane crash took place.
The band had played a show in South Carolina and was heading to Louisiana when the plane dove into the ground just northeast of Gillsburg, Miss.
In addition to Van Zant and the Gaines siblings, band crew member Dean Kilpatrick and pilots Walter McCreary and William Gray were also killed. The plane’s engines had burned through more fuel than would be expected, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report, though the specific reasons why could not be firmly established.
‘The good outweighs the bad’
After the plane crash, Rossington and surviving band members Allen Collins, bass player Leon Wilkeson and keyboardist Billy Powell formed the Rossington-Collins band, recording two albums in the 1980s with singer Dale Kratz.
Collins would suffer paralysis as a result of a car accident in 1986, dying four years later.
I just learned that my dear friend, Gary Rossington passed away today. I’m heartbroken! Gary was not only a friend, but a collaborator that wrote songs with me and played guitar with me in studio recordings and onstage so many times. My heart goes out to Dale and the girls. RIP🙏🏼 pic.twitter.com/BuTEIdDaR2
Lynyrd Skynyrd reformed in 1987, with Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny, taking over lead vocals.
Wilkeson died in 2001, followed by Powell in 2009.
Drummer Bob Burns and multi-instrumentalist Ed King, in the band through their first three albums, died in 2015 and 2018, respectively.
Drummer Artimus Pyle, who replaced Burns and survived the plane crash, is the last surviving member from the group that recorded 1977’s Street Survivors.
Our hearts go out tonight to our brothers in @Skynyrd …. Legendary guitarist Garry Rossington has passed … pic.twitter.com/wTJnTdjYmg
Rossington told Rolling Stone that he never considered Skynyrd to be a tragic band, despite all the band’s drama and death.
“I don’t think of it as tragedy — I think of it as life,” he said upon the group’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2006. “I think the good outweighs the bad.”