Leon Wilkeson, bassist of legendary southern rock act Lynyrd Skynyrd, died in his sleep Friday in his room at the Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Beach Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. He was 49. A St.

Leon Wilkeson, bassist of legendary southern rock act Lynyrd Skynyrd, died in his sleep Friday in his room at the Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Beach Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. He was 49. A St. Johns County medical examiner reported yesterday (July 29) that Wilkeson was apparently suffering from chronic liver and lung disease and likely died of natural causes. Confirmation will come from toxicological tests that are yet to be conducted. Those results are expected within three weeks.

Wilkeson was in Florida to address charges of driving under the influence, for which he was cited earlier this year. The band was due to begin a tour tonight in Chula Vista, Calif., but in the wake of Wilkeson's death, all performances through Aug. 7 have been canceled. Remaining dates begin again Aug. 9 in Mountainview, Calif., and are scheduled through mid-September. It is unknown who will be filling Wilkeson's slot.

Details of funeral arrangements have not been released. A public memorial will be held Wednesday at the Evergreen Cemetery in Jacksonville, Fla. (4535 N. Main St.), beginning at 11 a.m. In lieu of flowers, Wilkeson's family requests that memorial contributions be made to the Musician's Assistance Program (817 Vine St., Suite 219; Hollywood, Ca., 90038).

Formed in 1966 by singer Ronnie Van Zant and guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, Lynyrd Skynyrd is no stranger to tragedy. In 1977, just three days after the release of its fifth album, "Street Survivors," the band's chartered plane crashed outside of Gillsburg, Miss., killing Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and his sister, back-up vocalist Cassie Gaines, and three other associates of the band. The band reunited in 1987 with Van Zant's brother Johnny singing. That year Collins died of complications from pneumonia following a car accident the year prior that left him paralyzed.

Through its career, Skynyrd connected with the mainstream with such songs as "Sweet Home Alabama," a No. 8 hit on The Billboard Hot 100 in 1974, "What's Your Name" (No. 13, 1978), and its signature song, "Free Bird," (No. 19, 1975). A live version of "Free Bird" peaked at No. 38 two years later. Two of the band's albums peaked inside the top-10 on The Billboard 200 -- "Street Survivors" (No. 5, 1977) and the live set "One More From the Road" (No. 9, 1976).

The band's latest release was last year's holiday album "Christmas Time Forever" (CMC), which followed the 1999 studio album "Edge of Forever." Earlier this year the band's 1998 concert set, "Lyve from Steeltown" (CMC) and the compilation "20th Century Masters - The Best of Lynyrd Skynyrd" (MCA) were certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America for U.S. shipments of 500,000 copies.


-- Barry A. Jeckell, N.Y. & AP


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