It's impossible to think of Steve Gaines without calling to mind the tragic circumstances of his death. Like Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper and their relationship to Buddy Holly, his musical legacy has been eclipsed by the facts of how and with whom he died. In a fairer reality, he'd have been remember for a lot more.
Steve Earl Gaines was born in 1949 in Miami, OK, a small city (population under 20,000) best known historically as the first town to be incorporated out of the Indian Territory in the 1890s. He reached his teens in the early '60s, well into the rock & roll era, but if any of the music caught his ear, it didn't affect him personally, at least in any way that anyone noticed. That all changed in the late summer of 1964. By then, Gaines' family was living in Missouri, and the Beatles were on their first full-blown U.S. tour. Thanks to the last-minute intervention of Kansas City Athletics baseball team owner Charles O. Finley, the Liverpool quartet added a concert to their schedule at the Kansas City Municipal Stadium on September 17. Young Steve Gaines was one of the 20,000 people at that show, the same week he turned 15, and it was then and there that he caught a lifelong case of guitar fever. Soon after, he persuaded his father to buy him a guitar, and it was love at first strum. From that day on, Gaines knew exactly what he was going to be when he grew up.
Gaines' first band was called the Ravens. The group got to record its debut at the Sun Recording Studio in Memphis, TN. After that, Gaines moved on to other bands like RIO Smokehouse and Rusty Day, and intersecting professionally with such luminaries as Mitch Ryder. By 1974, he was good enough to make his debut recordings under his own name with producer John Ryan. By then, he was also a very capable and promising songwriter, and in addition to traditional numbers such as "Blackjack Davy" and standards such as Curtis Mayfield's "It's Alright," those early sessions included a brace of Gaines originals, among them "One in the Sun," "Give It to Get It," and "Talkin' About Love" (the latter two also co-produced by him). A powerful singer in addition to his skills as a guitarist, Gaines may have started out in thrall to the Beatles, but somewhere along the line he'd picked up on the sounds of Steve Cropper and the output of Stax/Volt Records, not to mention Muscle Shoals. In addition to a distinctly hard, Southern-style lead sound, he was a more-than-proficient slide guitarist by then as well. And he was also a white soul singer solidly in the best Gregg Allman manner, except perhaps more obviously appealing; and his overall sound was alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) bold, funky, and slashing, embracing by equal measure '70s Southern rock and hard rock. Somehow, those sides that he cut with Ryan -- which might've made a great album for Capricorn Records -- didn't get released in Gaines' lifetime.
By 1975, he'd recorded in both Memphis and Macon, but with the failure to get those sides of his own released, it seemed like Gaines' career momentum had stalled. He was still mostly an unknown, but events were soon to transpire that would change that situation. His older sister Cassie Gaines had previously joined a gospel-oriented vocal trio called the Honkettes, who were hired by the Lynyrd Skynyrd band to sing backup and add more color to their stage show. When Cassie learned that the group was on the look out for a guitarist to replace departed member Ed King, she spoke to guitarist Allen Collins and got her brother a chance to play with the group at a show, but only for one song. The guys in the band weren't expecting much from the singer's brother and even had things set up so his amplifier could be pulled if he couldn't keep up -- but Gaines could keep up with the best rocking guitar. In less than a month, Steve was a member of Skynyrd.
His recording debut with the group -- following some intense rehearsals -- was on the live double LP One More from the Road. The concert album was a hit and Gaines carved himself out a place in the band with his crisp, forceful playing, and a sound that fit in well alongside fellow guitarists Collins and Gary Rossington. He was proficient at blues, country, and rock & roll, and also always learning and expanding his repertory and range. And he had the positive attitude about life and music that went with someone who got access to his dream career early enough in life to take full advantage of it, and that attribute was also reflected not only in his music, but also the dynamic he brought to the group, in the form of a fresh burst of creative energy. His place in the lineup as King's successor was further solidified when he showed himself to be not only a good songwriter in the group's style, but also proved an effective songwriting partner with lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, who'd previously used King as his principal collaborator.
On their next studio LP, Street Survivors, Gaines' name as composer was on four of the album's eight songs, two by himself and two in collaboration with Van Zant, including "You Got That Right." It was as fine a showcase as a new member could ask of an established group, and the album got an excellent response from critics, and good reviews were already in the pipeline on the release date in October of 1977. It all looked like the beginning of a promising new phase, not only in the history of the band but for Gaines as well. And it all ended barely a week after the album's release. On October 20, 1977, the plane carrying the Lynyrd Skynyrd band crashed into the Mississippi swamp lands, the result of a tragic pilot error. Both Steve and Cassie were killed in the horrific crash, along with Van Zant and manager Dean Kilpatrick.
That was all there was out there on Steve Gaines for a long time after: those four songs, Street Survivors, and One More from the Road. Finally, in 1988, MCA Records took some of the recordings he had made with producer John Ryan and released them on the album One in the Sun. After languishing 14 years in the vaults, the record proved a breath of fresh air, most of it written by Gaines and some of it co-produced by him and all of it a match for any number of Southern rock releases of the early '70s that did make it out from acts such as Cowboy and Wet Willie. There was also one other full-length release, in 2000, Okie Special, that carries some of Steve's earlier work with other bands. "Road Runner," "I Don't Want to Lose," "Bellbottom Blues," and "Fanny Mae" are some of the blues-rock that fans will find on this complication. In 2001, Gaines was further immortalized in music by the Drive-By Truckers on their song "Cassie's Brother." ~ Charlotte Dillon & Bruce Eder, Rovi